Ferries fiasco: Nicola Sturgeon says she will answer "all and any questions"

28 March 2022, 14:31

Nicola Sturgeon with shipyard workers in 2015 when the yard won the ferries contract.
Nicola Sturgeon with shipyard workers in 2015 when the yard won the ferries contract. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

Nicola Sturgeon has said she will appear in front of a Holyrood committee and is prepared to answer "all and any questions" about Scotland's ferries scandal.

The First Minister rejected a claim the contract to build the vessels was rushed to ensure it could be announced at an SNP party conference.

Ms Sturgeon said it was "flatly not the case" that the deal was rushed through for political gain - an allegation made by former owner of Ferguson Marine shipyard, Jim McColl.

At the weekend the billionaire businessman - who saved the Port Glasgow yard from administration in 2014 at the behest of Alex Salmond, the then First Minister - claimed SNP ministers acted in haste and against the advice of ferry company CMAL who will ultimately run the ferries.

He said the contracts were given “for political purposes” and “everything was about the optics and timing the announcements for political gain.”

However when asked directly about his claim, Nicola Sturgeon today said: "It's absolutely flatly not the case. The procurement of the ferries, the awarding of that contract, was done in line with normal procurement processes with proper due diligence and Jim McColl signed that contract and it was his company that then became responsible for constructing the vessels."

She added: "Clearly the situation with the delays to the ferries and the over run in terms of the cost is highly unsatisfactory, and I would certainly not suggest otherwise. And there's a lot of lessons being learned.

"There is a focus now that the yard is in public ownership on getting those ferries completed as quickly as possible"

The shipyard has been at the centre of the SNP's industrial strategy since the contract was awarded in 2015.

However it has since again had to saved from administration - the second time being nationalised by the Scottish Government in 2019 - and the two ferries which are due to serve Scotland's islands communities, are already four years late and costs have spiralled from £97m to £240m.

A damning report by Audit Scotland last week revealed that there was no evidence to explain who signed off the contract or the justification for it being awarded to Ferguson's as the yard's bid was the most expensive - though it scored highest on quality.

There had been concerns raised by CMAL the contract did not include full refund guarantees.

The announcement of the contract being awarded to Ferguson's was made at the 2016 SNP party conference by Derek Mackay the then transport minister and shortly before the deal was publicly confirmed, Nicola Sturgeon visited the yard. She said that Fergusons becoming the preferred bidder for the vessels “proves that Scottish shipbuilding can succeed in a competitive market”.

On the issue of just who signed the contract, MSPs were told by Nicola Sturgeon last week that it had been Mr Mackay - though the buck stopped with her as the government operated collective responsibility.

It also emerged over the weekend that Mr Mackay had been on holiday at a key moment - with his boss the Cabinet Secretary for Infrastructure Keith Brown, signing the contract.

Former first minister Alex Salmond also told LBC that such a contract would need the approval of both the finance secretary - at the time John Swinney - and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.

Asked today if she maintained it was Mr Mackay who had signed the contract, she said: "What I maintain is what I said in parliament that we are a government that operates by collective responsibility and ultimately, I'm responsible for all of the decisions that the government takes.

"But you know, the key documentation here has been in the public domain for a long, long time. And that very clearly shows the decisions or the submissions around the decisions both in August of 2015, which I think is the one that refers to Derek Mackay being on holiday and then again in October 2015, when that submission went principally to the transport minister at the time, these are statements of fact and in putting that information into the public domain last week, I was simply answering questions."

Asked if she would appear in front of Holyrood's public audit committee, she added: "I don't consider I have any choice in these matters.

"It's up to parliamentary committees who they invite and I think anybody who looks at my time as First Minister they will have seen that I've appeared at parliamentary committees on many previous occasions.

"I answer questions at First Minister's Questions... I've never shied away from being accountable to Parliament and answering questions and on this, and I have no hesitation in answering any and all questions.

"The government has taken decisions that at all times were about protecting jobs in shipbuilding and protecting the future of commercial shipbuilding on the Clyde.

"The issues around the construction of the ferries has not been satisfactory and I don't shy away from saying that but it's, I think the Audit Scotland report itself says, that there's been nothing untowards in the procurement of the ferries.

"We are focused on learning lessons from what has gone wrong. But I will not apologise for being part of a government leading a government that takes action will be can to protect jobs and to protect manufacturing facilities."

However Graham Simpson, the Scottish Conservative transport spokesman, said "it's not normal practice to ignore the experts, as the SNP did when they discarded CMAL’s advice.

"It’s not normal practice that Audit Scotland can’t find a shred of evidence to support a government decision. It’s not normal practice to start building ferries without agreeing a design for them.

And it’s definitely not normal practice to get rid of the usual safeguards that protect Scottish taxpayers.

"The only thing that’s normal practice about this scandal is the SNP Government have once again made a complete mess of it and cost Scottish taxpayers a fortune.

"Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP are tying themselves in knots trying to explain away a disastrous decision that Jim McColl claims they made for political purposes."

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