The Scottish Liberal Democrats have said the Scottish Government is “washing its hands” of its commitment to a subsidy for ferry fares.
Transport Minister Fiona Hyslop wrote to Orkney MSP Liam McArthur after he asked about the status of plans for a Road Equivalent Tariff (RET) for the ferry routes.
This kind of subsidy is in place for Western Isles routes but not on the privately-run Orkney ferries.
The minister said that RET would fall foul of the Subsidy Control Act introduced last year.
She said: “It would therefore, in the same way as under EU State aid rules, be seen as distorting the market if Scottish Government introduced RET on ferry routes where there are private operators.”
Hyslop said a wider review of island ferry fares is ongoing.
McArthur disputed the Government’s reasoning on RET.
He said: “Despite repeated promises from a succession of SNP first and transport ministers, however, all that has changed over the years has been the excuses.
“Now even the pretence of a commitment appears to have been chucked overboard.
“First we were told that the courts and European Commission stood in the way of introduction.
“After both made clear they had no objection to RET being introduced as proposed, it is now the turn of the UK Government to take the blame.
“It seems equally unlikely that UK competition rules would prevent the SNP Government fulfilling its promises on RET, given that the transport minister accepts they are not materially different from the old EU regime.”
He added: “Having made the promise to people in Orkney, however, SNP Ministers are dutybound to find a way of delivering.
“They have no-one else to blame but themselves and they cannot be allowed just to wash their hands of their responsibilities.”
A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “Transport Scotland will consider fares issues as part of the Islands Connectivity Plan alongside our wider Fair Fares Review, which will report by the end of 2023 and recommend a package of measures which can be considered for implementation from 2024-25 and onwards to address the wider issues of cost and availability across all modes of public transport.
“Meantime, we are continuing to take action on ferry fares, with fares on the Northern Isles and Clyde & Hebrides ferry networks to remain frozen until the end of March 2024.
“We are acutely aware of the particular challenges faced by our island communities, where the ongoing cost-of-living impacts are arguably more challenging than in any other part of the country.”