THE Scottish Government has announced it is to ‘explore’ directly awarding the next Clyde and Hebridean ferry contract to Gourock-based operator CalMac.

A due diligence process has been launched to establish the feasibility of a direct award to CalMac – which employs 200 people at its headquarters in Inverclyde.

This will consider the financial, operational and legal aspects of the award, with a final decision to be made next summer.

In a statement given to the Scottish Parliament today, minister for transport Fiona Hyslop said this would be the ‘preferred route’ for the next contract.

Ms Hyslop said: “A direct award to CalMac would help change the ethos of the service by shifting the focus from a commercial arrangement to a model more focused on the delivery of a public service.

“This would help drive service improvements, deliver better communications with communities and introduce meaningful performance indicators that better reflect the experience of passengers using the services.

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“This contract award will sit alongside important policy measures to improve our ferry services, such as the Island Connectivity Plan and Fair Fares Review, as well as our significant investment in new vessels and infrastructure."

The minister stressed that the contract award would ‘sit alongside’ policy measures to improve services and ‘significant investment’ in ferry infrastructure.

She added: “I want to be very clear that this will not be an extension of the status quo.

“I expect a direct award to be a catalyst for positive change on the Clyde and Hebrides network, based on a more efficient, flexible model in the delivery of this important public service.”

The update was welcomed by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT), with general secretary Mick Lynch hailing it ‘a step in the right direction’.

Mr Lynch said: “A long-term direct award would bring much-needed stability and certainty to workers and passengers on CalMac operated routes and protect public investment.

"We will be meeting the transport minister, Fiona Hyslop to argue that the next step should be a coherent and sustainable ferry plan underpinned by a permanently publicly owned people’s CalMac which has the confidence of ferry passengers, workers and communities alike.

"We will also express our strong opposition to any steps which would see the introduction of new privately operated ferry routes or services outside the operational control of CalMac.”