"Dramatic escalation" forces intervention
The stakes were raised dramatically last Friday when Loganair announced that they would withdraw services between Inverness and the islands for at least six weeks unless industrial action is called off, forcing the Scottish Transport Minister into a weekend meeting with HIAL.
Suddenly, there was the prospect of money being available for an improved pay offer and HIAL were told by the Minister, Jenny Gilruth, to prepare a fresh “business case”. The dispute has escalated over the past five months because HIAL said their hands were tied by the Scottish Government not allowing them to go beyond a five per cent offer.
At Holyrood on Tuesday, Labour transport spokesman Neil Bibby said it was the “inescapable and scandalous fact” that it had taken the Loganair threat to prompt Ms Gilruth’s intervention.
Meanwhile, industrial action continued with strikes by Prospect members closing Stornoway airport on Wednesday and Thursday with Barra and Benbecula due to follow on Friday.
In another significant escalation which played a part in forcing the Scottish Government’s hand, strike action is expected to close Inverness airport on Monday and Friday of next week, affecting a far larger number of passengers and routes. This is the first time Inverness airport has been hit.
Jane Rose, negotiator for Prospect union, told the Gazette on Wednesday that they have heard nothing from HIAL following the hastily-arranged weekend meeting which involved Ms Gilruth, the Edinburgh-based chair of HIAL, Lorna Jack, and managing director Inglis Lyon from which the “business case” request emerged.
Ms Rose said: “We are waiting to hear from HIAL on an improved offer. My understanding is that they are working on the business case which will then require approval from Transport Scotland.”
For Loganair, the decision to up the stakes was prompted by Prospect’s backing for a work to rule from 18th March. Loganair said it was “simply not realistic to continue our efforts to provide services between HIAL airports when the action short of a strike is intended to disrupt and counter those efforts at every turn”.
Ms Rose said that the impact of working to rule “demonstrates how much HIAL rely on goodwill and overtime to keep these airports operating”. The other union involved, Unite, is expected to announce a further round of similar industrial action unless a settlement is achieved.
The HIAL dispute and suspension of Loganair flights was raised at Holyrood on Tuesday by Neil Bibby who said: “The inescapable and scandalous fact is that the Scottish Government would still be sitting on its hands, ignoring the damage to the islands, if it had not been for the dramatic escalation that was threatened by Loganair.
“That is not how things should work. Cancer patients should not have to be subjected to fear in order to get a response from the Government, and the islands should not be out of sight and out of mind until there is the risk of political embarrassment.”
In response, Ms Gilruth accused him of “mischaracterising” the situation. She said: “I share Mr Bibby’s concerns, which is exactly why, when the decision was communicated to me on Friday, I sought the first available opportunity to speak directly to HIAL, which was on Saturday morning.”
Mr Bibby asked: “If extra money can be found now, why could it not have been found last week, or last month, to avoid the massive disruption that has taken place and the cancellation already of hundreds of hospital appointments?”.
Western Isles MSP Alasdair Allan restricted his criticisms to Loganair saying: “Directly and indirectly, Loganair has received substantial funding through the public purse, and it has now placed NHS Western Isles in an atrocious position.
"Did Loganair give the Government or island health boards any indication that such a disproportionate and draconian move was even being considered?”.
Ms Gilruth replied: “The answer is probably no…. Those services operate on a commercial basis, so Government ministers cannot become involved.”
In a statement on Tuesday, HIAL managing director Inglis Lyon said: “Having previously exhausted our options in terms of the existing parameters of public sector pay flexibility, we have been advised that there may now be further options which could help pursue an agreement which works for all parties involved”.
The chair of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s sustainable development committee, Donald Crichton, called for “maximum urgency” in resolving the dispute.
“As well as the very worrying implications for health care, the economic implications of this dispute are catastrophic,” he said.
"The Scottish Government should have been at the table long ago since it was they who were dictating HIAL’s inability to negotiate”.