THE awarding of a ferry contract has been suspended due to a legal challenge from a Scottish Government part-owned competitor.

In a letter to transport spokespeople in the Scottish Parliament, Islands Minister Paul Wheelhouse said CalMac had raised legal proceedings after its bid for the Northern Isles service was unsuccessful.

The winning bid for the £345 million deal was from Serco, which was already the route's operator after being awarded the contract in 2012.

In the letter, Wheelhouse said: "CalMac Ferries Limited have raised legal proceedings on the Scottish ministers' decision that CalMac's tender to operate the Northern Isles ferry services was unsuccessful.

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"As is required in such circumstances, the initiation of formal proceedings have resulted in the automatic suspension of the award of the contract to Serco Limited."

The minister said talks were ongoing to extend the current contract "to maintain continuity of service and full connectivity to and from the Northern Isles".

The National: CalMac ferries lost the contract to Serco LimitedCalMac ferries lost the contract to Serco Limited

He added: "This will ensure that the local communities, passengers and businesses who rely on the services, and the staff who work on them, can be assured that services will be run as normal throughout these proceedings.

"It should also be noted that the proceedings do not affect our recent commitment to fare reductions on the Shetland routes for islanders, which will proceed from January 1 2020 as promised."

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Scottish Conservative transport spokesman Jamie Greene criticised the Scottish Government. He said: "It's quite incredible that the SNP is being sued by one of its own quangos.

"It tells you everything you need to know about the mess the SNP Government has made of ferry services that a publicly owned company wants to take it to court, leading to more uncertainty and delay for travellers.

"When factored in with the completely unacceptable delays with the two new ferries being built, the delays on reducing fares to Orkney and Shetland and its refusal to meet its pledge on fair funding for inter-island ferries, this really is turning into a fiasco.

"People in the islands want assurances that these vital links will be secure and that improvements to the service will start to get underway."

Labour transport spokesman Colin Smyth described the challenge as a "fiasco", saying it exposes the SNP's "mishandling of this lifeline ferry services contract".

He added: "Their incompetence and opposition to public ownership has led to the extraordinary situation we now have of a Government being taken to court by its own company.

"This chaos could have been avoided if the SNP had followed through on their commitment to scrap the wasteful and confusing tendering process and directly awarded lifeline ferry services to public sector operators."