Compensation payments to islanders on South Uist enduring ferry cancellations are “not off the table”, Humza Yousaf has said.
The First Minister told MSPs he will “keep an open mind” on making payments, as Conservative leader Douglas Ross insisted there is an “urgent and critical” need for help.
Ross raised the issue after a third of the population of South Uist turned out for a protest after CalMac bosses cancelled sailings to the island for the remainder of June.
During First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Ross said: “The SNP failures risk driving people away from island communities.
“Does the First Minister recognise it is not only businesses that need compensation, but everyone who has had their lives turned upside down by these cancellations?
“The failure of Humza Yousaf’s party to build a working ferry network is causing chaos.
“The SNP’s failure to deliver a working ferry network is ruining lives, damaging businesses, costing jobs and driving islanders to despair.
“Why shouldn’t everyone affected be compensated for the SNP’s mistakes?”
Yousaf said ministers are aware of the “degree of disruption that has taken place to the community” following the cancellation of the Lochboisdale route.
“We will look at what we can do to support business,” the SNP leader added.
While he said compensation had been considered in the past, the First Minister said payments had not been made because penalties paid by CalMac for disruption are currently used to try to boost the “resilience” of the ferry network.
Some of the £9m spent chartering the MV Alfred as a relief vessel came from these “performance deductions,” Yousaf said.
But regarding compensation, he added: “I will continue to listen to the calls for how we can support business.
“It is not off the table because we know the community in South Uist do often get affected when there is ferry disruption.
“I will continue to keep an open mind on that question.”
While Yousaf insisted he is happy to “re-examine the issue”, he stressed later that “any such scheme would need to be carefully considered because it would then require a very stark choice to be made about those funding priorities”.
CalMac’s ageing fleet of ferries have seen services impacted by breakdowns, with this sometimes resulting in vessels being taken off one route to serve another.
Yousaf said the system used by CalMac to determine which ferries are taken off to serve other communities has often impacted South Uist.
He confirmed this “route prioritisation matrix” will “absolutely be reviewed”.
Yousaf said this means when there are those “unfortunate occasions where there is a breakdown of a ferry”, in future it will not always be South Uist that loses out.
His comments came as Ross told him: “There are so many cases of so many businesses and so many individuals affected by this throughout our island communities and the blame lies squarely at the door of the SNP.”
The First Minister responded: “I completely understand the impact and affect this disruption is having on the community of South Uist.
“We will continue to engage with the communities of South Uist on where we can support businesses and livelihoods and will absolutely explore what more can be done.”