The ScotRail franchise is back in focus after a viral video shared by grassroots Labour group Momentum caused controversy.
The video, produced by the Transport and Salaried Staffs Association (TSSA) and viewed nearly 60,000 times on YouTube, criticises the Scottish Government’s role in awarding the franchise to Dutch company Abellio.
Momentum and the TSSA are campaigning for Scotland’s railways to be brought into public ownership, and the video strongly suggests the SNP chose to award the Scotrail franchise to Abellio instead of awarding the franchise to a public sector body.
A press release accompanying the video included a statement from TSSA General Secretary, Manuel Cortes. It said: “If the SNP are complaining about our campaign it’s because they’re feeling on this issue because they continue to collaborate with the privateers.”
Ferret Fact Service assessed this claim and found it to be False.
The claim that the SNP are responsible for the continued operation of the ScotRail franchise by a private firm has been repeated numerous times by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, activist group Momentum and other senior Labour figures.
To understand the current controversy, we must assess the circumstances around the franchising of Scotland’s railways to Abellio.
The company won the contract, worth £6bn, in 2014. It put them in charge of Scotland’s rail services for up to a decade, taking effect from 1 April, 2015. Abellio replaced the previous franchise holder First ScotRail.
When the ScotRail operation was put up for tender in 2013, there were five bids, all from private companies. Abellio was alongside First ScotRail, Arriva, MTR and National Express.
However, the video produced by TSSA implies that the SNP decided not to include a public sector bid for the service.
The Scottish Government did not have the power to make such a decision when the 2013 draft franchise was tendered. Bids were invited from November 2013 onward and the five bids were shortlisted in April 2014, with Abellio announced as the winner on 8 October.
So what powers did the Scottish Government have when the draft invitation to tender was released?
The act handed control of the rail infrastructure to Railtrack, and 25 train operating companies were given franchises to provide rail services.
After Scottish devolution in 1999, the Scottish Government was handed a measure of power over transport, however railways remained largely under UK government control until the Railways Act 2005. This gave Scotland power to “manage and monitor the performance of ScotRail services” and the “sole responsibility for securing future ScotRail franchises”.
Crucially, the 2005 act did not give Scottish ministers the power to include a public sector bid for the ScotRail franchise. This ability was only devolved in the Scotland Act 2016, which handed Scotland a host of new powers in response to the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014.
This process amended the Railways Act 1993 so that it “does not prevent a public sector operator from being a franchisee in relation to a Scottish franchise agreement.”
This power came into force on 23 May 2016, more than two years after the franchise came up for tender. The tender now cannot be renegotiated until 2021.
There is also evidence that senior SNP politicians opposed restrictions preventing public sector bids for the Scotrail franchise. The party’s 2015 general election manifesto stated: “We believe that public sector organisations should be able to bid to operate rail services, as allowed in EU law but currently prevented by UK legislation.”
A pledge to “ensure a public sector bid for future rail franchises,” featured in the party’s 2016 Scottish Parliament manifesto.
Opposition MSPs and unions argued the government should delay the award until new powers were delivered to allow a public sector bid for ScotRail. But there was no clear indication that the ability to allow public sector bids would be included in the Scotland Act.
The Smith Commission, which oversaw the further devolution agreement which became the 2016 Scotland Act, did not produce its initial report until 27 November 2014, after the tendering process had been completed.
Ferret Fact Service verdict: False
The claim that the SNP acted against Scotland’s interests by awarding the rail franchise to Dutch-owned Abellio is misleading.
Legislation set out in the 1993 Railways Act forbids public sector bids for rail franchises, and this was only superceded when full rail franchise powers were devolved to the Scottish Government in the Scotland Act 2016.
The ScotRail franchise invitation for tender was announced in 2013, before this power was granted, so the SNP had no power to allow a Scottish public sector bid.
Ferret Fact Service (FFS) is a non-partisan fact checker, working to the International Fact-Checking Network fact-checkers’ code of principles. All the sources used in our checks are publicly available and the FFS fact-checking methodology can be viewed here. Any questions or want to get involved? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or join our community forum.
TSSA did not respond to a Ferret Fact Service request for evidence.
Photo thanks to Smiley.toerist, CC BY-SA 4.0