Sturgeons deputy gave green light to doomed ferries contract in shock Holyrood reveal

Sturgeon’s ferries yard comment ‘a lie’ says McColl

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The First Minister has previously laid the blame for approving the contract at ex-transport minister, Derek Mackay’s door, but did tell MSPs in March: “The buck stops with me.” Estimates for the massively delayed ships predicted that they will cost over two and a half times the original budget for their construction, totalling £250m, rather than £97m.

But now, a previously unseen email chain claims the Deputy First Minister John Swinney, as well as Mr Mackay, was approached for the green light before the contract was signed.

The former transport minister had already given his consent, but in the series of emails, it was reportedly made clear that Mr Swinney’s approval was needed before completing the contract.

Officials said the “way is clear to award” the contract after a telephone conversation with Mr Swinney on October 9, 2015.

One official asked to record the “absence of banana skins after your call with DFM [Deputy First Minister]”.

Unveiled by current SNP transport minister, Jenny Gilruth, mid-session in Holyrood, she claimed Mr Mackay had “rightly and properly taken” the decision to award the contract.

But Ms Gilruth was quiet on the role of Mr Swinney, and the documents did not explain ignored advice over contract protections.

Referring to Mr Mackay, she told Holyrood: “This email destroys the opposition’s ridiculous conspiracy theories that another minister made this decision and it destroys the unfounded speculation that there was a ministerial direction given.”

Ferguson’s went into administration in August 2014, but was saved by former First Minister Alex Salmond through the backing of one of his economic advisors, Jim McColl.

Just a year later, the rebranded Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd became the preferred builder for two new vessels for CalMac, the Scottish state-owned ferry network.

Although the most expensive, Ferguson’s bid was accepted because it outscored the other five competitor yards for “quality”.

But by 2019, the £45m in Scottish government loans could not cover the costs of the overbudget and delayed project, meaning the company went back into administration.

The shipyard was then nationalised, and estimates of up to £114m of public money were put forward to save the yard and its associated jobs.

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But in March 2022, public spending watchdog Audit Scotland said the Ferguson shipyard was awarded the contract against expert advice and without a guarantee of expected financial safety nets.

It emerged that advice from a government agency was discounted when the Ferguson yard was awarded the contract.

Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd (FMEL) had said would not be able to provide a full refund to the Scottish Government, should anything go wrong when building the ferries.

This is a standard guarantee often built into government contracts.

Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), the Government’s ferry procurement body, petitioned to restart the procurement process.

But Audit Scotland said it was unclear why the Scottish Government had not reconsidered the decision, adding there was “no documented evidence to confirm why Scottish ministers were willing to accept the risks of awarding the contract to FMEL, despite CMAL’s concerns”.

Ms Sturgeon, facing irate MSPs at First Minister’s Questions in March, said the findings in Audit Scotland’s report were “entirely fair and justified”, and the Scottish government needed to “seriously” reflect on record-keeping around the choice to continue the contract with Ferguson.

The SNP has been contacted for comment.

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