A battle is raging on Scotland’s seas. Outsourcing giants Serco are on a mission to take over the remainder of Scotland’s lifeline ferry services (they already have Orkney and Shetland) and money appears to be of no object in their efforts. Serco’s bid team have recently been hopping their way around Scotland’s remote communities, schmoozing the islands’ still widely-read newspapers and holding “consultation” meetings in village halls. It comes at the same time as transport unions step up their campaign to keep ferries in public hands, last week proposing a legal loophole that would exempt the services from having to be tendered in EU law.
A Thousand Flowers can now reveal that Serco’s lobbyists of choice are Weber Shandwick, who have been overseeing the firm’s communications work in their push to privatise Scotland’s ferries – not that there is any mention of this on either company’s website. Earlier this year, Weber Shandwick unveiled their latest high profile signing in Luke Skipper, straight friom spending eight years as chief of staff for the SNP at Westminster. He’s “the SNP’s Lynton Crosby”, Weber Shandwick boasted, adding that they now have “senior consultants with backgrounds from all four of the major Scottish parties.”
Skipper himself added, in a fit of boak-inducing sycophancy, that he’s “hugely excited about working with Weber Shandwick, an agency that I have long admired from my role in Parliament.”
Whether the “Skipper” is a member of the crew preparing to steer Scotland’s ferry services over the side of a private sector cliff is not something we have been able to verify. But it raises further questions about the cosy relationship between the lucrative private lobbying sector and the Scottish Government. Vested interests are paying heavily – often hundreds of pounds per hour – to engage lobbyists with strong relationships at the heart of government, by-passing normal procedures. The only difference between this and cash-for-access scandals in the past is that the lobbyists concerned are no longer, per se, civil servants or party staffers.
“As the post-referendum settlement pans out, there are going to be winners and losers across all sectors,” a Weber Shandwick executive pontificated last year. “It’s a lobbyist’s dream.”
The “lobbyist’s dream” has become glaringly apparent since then. As the SNP get bedded in as Scotland’s party of government – with little chance of anyone else being in Bute House for the forseeable future – there’s been an increasing focus on their relationship with lobbyists, not least the recent furore over T in the Park receiving £150k of “state aid”. As well as that debacle, the party’s chief spin doctor, Kevin Pringle, left in the summer to join chummy jobs-for-the-boys cesspit Charlotte Street Partners, who it seems have been successful in lobbying on behalf of university principals to roll back the bits of the current Higher Education Bill they didn’t like.
Weber Shandwick’s other interests in Scotland include two fracking firms, Tamboran Resources and Rathlin Energy, as well as the developer behind the controversial ‘Caltongate’ plans in Edinburgh’s Old Town.
Having already delayed the CalMac tendering process twice in response to pressure from the RMT union, the winning bid will now be known in May 2016. Conveniently, this will fall after the Holyrood elections, negating any electoral fallout if Serco prove triumphant. Serco are, in all probability, unlikely to win the Clyde and Hebrides contract this time round, with comment site For Argyll reckoning that their efforts may be more about boosting their chances of securing the Orkney and Shetland contract when that comes around again soon. But with an army of well-connected lobbyists on their side and a six-year tendering cycle, it would foolish to write off an eventual victory for Serco.
Despite haveing been banned from public contacts by both the UK and Norweigan governments in the past, Serco have been handed numerous public service contracts by the Scottish Government in recent years, notably the Caledonian Sleeper and the Northern Isles ferries. In both instances, they immediately set out on a collision course with the workforce. Rail workers on the Caledonian Sleeper look set to strike this Christmas over safety concerns, while when Serco took over the Northern Isles routes, it was a matter of days before they ripped up the collective bargaining agreement, announced 36 job cuts, cut sailings and hiked fares. Only the threat of industrial action forced them to back down. Six months later, when one of their ferries broke down, they were unable to find a replacement and the service went four weeks without a ferry. That is, presumably, the level of public service excellence that could soon be coming to the islands off Scotland’s west coast. While islanders may suffer, it’ll be trebles all round in the plush offices of Edinburgh’s revolving-door lobbyists!
Spinwatch recently released Holyrood Exposed: a Guide to Lobbying in Scotland, which can be downloaded here.