Highlands & Islands

SNP, Labour and Tories clash over low cost ferry fares

The SNP has clashed with rival parties over ferry fares paid by haulage firms.

A discount scheme called road equivalent tariff is to be removed from all commercial vehicles that are longer than six metres in length from April.

Following a meeting with hauliers, the Scottish government announced measures to limit fare increases.

In a Labour-led debate, Labour and Tory MSPs said capped rises would still be economically damaging. The SNP accused the parties of inconsistency on RET.

Dumfriesshire Labour MSP Elaine Murray called for the withdrawal of the discount scheme for large freight to be delayed.

She said the government's transitional measures would still see significant cost increases on routes between the Western Isles and Inner Hebrides.

Her motion for a moratorium had support from Shetland Liberal Democrat MSP Tavish Scott, provided the delay led to an assessment of how RET or an alternative fare reduction mechanism could be applied to all Scottish ferry routes.

During the debate, Conservative Highlands and Islands MSP Mary Scanlon said the government blamed hauliers for not passing on fare reductions to customers.

Haulage firms have said they do pass on the reductions.

The SNP's Alex Neil responded to Ms Scanlon's comment by attacking the Conservative-Liberal Democrat UK government for the level of fuel duty it charged hauliers.

RET sets fares to the equivalent cost for travelling the distance by road.

A pilot project has been running in the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree since October 2008 and is due to end in spring 2012.

The Scottish government plans to continue the scheme and roll it out to other routes.

RET, however, will be withdrawn from large freight.

The Scottish government said last week that new transitional arrangements would mean no haulier would see fare rises of more than 50% in any one year.

These arrangements will apply to all commercial vehicles, regardless of size, using routes to the Western Isles, Coll and Tiree.

Earlier this month, campaigners from the Outer Hebrides Transport Group met Transport Minister Keith Brown to raise their concerns about the end of RET for large freight.

The group said it would lead to a 172% increase in travel costs.

'SNP tax'

Labour MSPs have called for a moratorium on fare increases until a full socio-economic study has been carried out to assess the impact that increased transportation costs will have on households, local employers and island hauliers.

The party said its manifesto had a clear commitment to maintaining RET.

Labour Highlands and Islands MSP, Rhoda Grant, said: "Islanders already pay well above the odds for food and fuel.

"And at a time when petrol prices and household bills continue to soar and hundreds of Scots are losing their jobs every day, the last thing islanders need is to be punished with this SNP tax.

"It doesn't matter how the SNP government try and spin it, they are actively making a choice to scrap RET and islanders know it will only lead to increased bills for them."

'Crocodile tears'

Dave Thompson, SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said Labour was "all over the place" on the scheme.

He added: "They consistently attacked it throughout the last parliament and wanted to block the pilot scheme from having time to play out properly.

"Now they have the cheek to cry crocodile tears over the withdrawal of RET from large commercial vehicles.

"The fact is that the evaluation of the RET pilot clearly showed that the vast majority of haulage firms were not passing the savings they made from RET on to consumers, and the Scottish Government is investing £2.5m in transitional support for these hauliers."

The Labour motion describing the planned withdrawal from large vehicles as "detrimental" was amended by the government to one that stated that only 7% of hauliers had passed on the full benefit to customers. This was passed by 64 votes to 54.

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