Political row breaks out over lower cost ferry fares
A row has broken out over the year's extension to the Scottish government's lower cost ferry fares scheme pilot.
Road equivalent tariff (RET) covers routes to the Western Isles and Coll and Tiree.
Liberal Democrats have accused the SNP government of favouritism and ignoring the needs of the Northern Isles.
The government said a decision on the scheme's long-term future has still to be taken, adding that investment on Northern Isles routes was significant.
Liberal Democrat Argyll and Bute MP Alan Reid said the government was showing favouritism towards the Western Isles.
The party's Orkney MSP Liam McArthur claimed the year's extension was an "electoral bribe" and called for Transport Minister Stewart Steven to resign.
RET will continue for at least another year, it was announced on Tuesday.
It bases the cost of travelling on the equivalent distance by road and VisitScotland has credited RET with boosting tourist visits to the Western Isles.
The Scottish government had not been expected to make a decision on the scheme until after next April when the three-year pilot project ended.
Mr Reid accused the SNP government of protecting votes on the Western Isles ahead of next year's Scottish elections.
He said: "I think it is undoubtedly favouritism because the Western Isles was the first seat that the SNP ever won at a general election.
"I think they have always had a soft spot for the Western Isles and they are obviously very worried that if they were to cancel the scheme to save money then they would lose the Western Isles seat."
Mr Reid said RET should be extended to help other fragile island economies.
But the Western Isles' SNP MSP Alasdair Allan denied favouritism and said two isles in the Argyll MP's area benefited from the scheme.
He said of Mr Reid's claims: "I don't think that makes much sense because Argyll in Holyrood is an SNP seat as well.
"I don't think it makes much sense for another reason which is that there are at least two Argyll islands that currently benefit from the scheme."
Scottish government agency Transport Scotland said it was committed to supporting lifeline ferry services across Scotland.
A spokesman said: "Shetland and Orkney residents already receive a significant Scottish government discount in fares through subsidy, and routes to Shetland already have a lower fare per mile than other islands.
"The Scottish government's support to the Northern Isles ferry services has increased year on year, from £29m in 2007/08 to £36.2m in the current financial year - an increase of some 25%."
He added: "We are piloting the road equivalent tariff approach to setting fares in Scotland as we believe that is the best way to deliver cheaper fares for islanders, tourists and businesses.
"While we have focused the RET pilot on the Western Isles, we want this test case to pave the way for cheaper fares for all our remote and island communities."
Subsidy support for services to Orkney and Shetland was expected to run to £98.4m in the current financial year, Transport Scotland said.