Calls for shamed former SNP minister to answer to MSPs over ferries fiasco

25 March 2022, 17:16

Derek Mackay and Nicola Sturgeon in 2016, the year after the ferries contract was signed.
Derek Mackay and Nicola Sturgeon in 2016, the year after the ferries contract was signed. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

A disgraced former SNP minister could be hauled back into Holyrood to answer questions about Scotland's long running ferries scandal.

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Derek Mackay, who quit as Economy Secretary the night before he was due to deliver his February 2020 budget after it was revealed he had been sending inappropriate messages to a teenage boy, could be forced to attend a parliamentary committee inquiry.

The convener of Holyrood's public audit committee is also being urged to put Nicola Sturgeon under the spotlight over the fiasco which has seen a four-year delay on the ferries so far - and costs rising from £97m to £240m and predicted to go higher.

Opposition MSPs' demands come just days after an Audit Scotland report said there had been a "multitude of failings" in the delivery of two ferries for Scotland's island routes.

The report uncovered that during talks to agree the shipbuilding contract, senior figures in Nicola Sturgeon’s cabinet were said to have ignored warnings about possible financial risks associated with Ferguson shipyard, their preferred bidder.

At the time it was owned by Jim McColl, an engineering tycoon who had supported independence at the 2014 referendum - and whom, it is alleged, stepped in to buy the then failing shipyard at the behest of then First Minister Alex Salmond.

The following year, Derek Mackay announced that Ferguson's had won the contract to build the two vessels to the SNP party conference.

The scathing Audit Scotland report concluded there was no "documented evidence" around why ministers were happy to accept the risks associated with handing the contract to Ferguson Marine, despite serious concerns - concerns which later led to Mr Mackay nationalising the shipyard after it was heading for administration for the second time with the loss of 300 jobs.

The report was raised at yesterday's First Minister's Questions and while Nicola Sturgeon said the "buck stops with me" she also admitted that it was Derek Mackay's name on the contract.

Now Labour, LibDem and Tory MSPs want both Mr Mackay and the First Minister in front of the public audit committee - with the Conservatives also calling for a full public inquiry.

Scottish Labour's transport spokesman, Neil Bibby MSP said: “After years of delays and millions of pounds of overruns, the public deserve answers about what went so catastrophically wrong here.

"Nicola Sturgeon pointed the finger at her former Transport Secretary before accepting that the buck stops with her – but both dodged scrutiny last term by refusing to appear before a Parliamentary inquiry.

"We cannot keep getting useless answers from clueless Ministers who take no responsibility for this mess. Nicola Sturgeon and Derek Mackay must come before the Public Audit Committee to explain their roles in this sorry affair and shed some much needed light on how we got here.

"We need to get to the bottom of this scandal, which has wasted millions of pounds of taxpayer money, deprived island communities of desperately needed ferries, and done lasting damage to Scotland’s shipbuilding industry."

Scottish Conservative Shadow Transport Minister Graham Simpson MSP added: "It’s high time that Derek Mackay came to Parliament and explained his key role in the ferry fiasco after more than two years of silence.

"Astonishing amounts of public money have been squandered by the SNP on this, and Scotland's island communities deserve an explanation for the interminable delay in the completion of these two lifeline ferries.

"But despite the First Minister’s efforts to conveniently throw Derek Mackay under a bus, this is not all his doing – the First Minister and the rest of her cabinet at the time can't escape accountability either. Huge questions remain unanswered and that's why we need a full, independent public inquiry into this ever-growing scandal."

And former Scottish LibDem leader Willie Rennie MSP, said: "If we are to take the First Minister at her word, it was Derek Mackay and Derek Mackay alone who signed off on deals which are set to cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions more than originally scheduled. 

"It is awfully convenient for Nicola Sturgeon that the latest scandal threatening to beset her government can be neatly blamed on someone who has since departed politics. 

"Derek Mackay should appear before parliament to give his side of the story and confirm whether it is true that the First Minister and the rest of her cabinet had no input into the decision to take over Ferguson Marine. Island communities have been let down and deserve answers."

The convener of the public audit committee Richard Leonard, the former leader of Scottish Labour, said: "The Committee will take evidence from the Auditor General on his report at its meeting on Thursday 21 April after the Easter recess. Following this session, we will consider the next steps in our scrutiny of the report."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: "Invites to parliamentary committees are entirely a matter for individual committees – not for the Government."

However yesterday Nicola Sturgeon said collective cabinet responsibility meant the "buck stops with me".

Scottish Parliament committees have the power to compel a witness to attend an evidence session under Section 23 of the Scotland Act.

It was used for the first time when MSPs on the Alex Salmond Inquiry used the power to gain access to Crown Office documents.