'Were you signing Lionel Messi?': Nicola Sturgeon quizzed over ferries fiasco costs

31 March 2022, 20:55

Nicola Sturgeon at the under-fire Ferguson Marine shipyard
Nicola Sturgeon at the under-fire Ferguson Marine shipyard. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

Nicola Sturgeon has come under fire for the massive cost over-runs of two ferries which are still not seaworthy - refusing to rule out if the price of the vessels could reach as much as £400m, almost as much as the Scottish Parliament cost to build.

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In a First Minister's Questions (FMQ) in Holyrood, which saw her attacked for the contract with Ferguson Marine shipyard to build the ferries, Ms Sturgeon also attempted to defend the hiring of a trouble-shooter on a £2850 a day deal.

The temporary contract with "turnaround director" Tim Hair - hired when the yard was nationalised by the Scottish Government - ultimately cost taxpayers £2m.

Nicola Sturgeon said he was paid the "market rate" - with Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar retorting "market rate - £3000 a day? Were you signing Lionel Messi?"

Ms Sturgeon repeatedly defended her government's decision to award a deal for two CalMac ferries to Ferguson Marine in 2015, saying it saved the yard and jobs.

And although she did not apologise, she expressed "deep regret" that the contract had gone disastrously wrong, with the vessels five years late and currently two-and-a-half times the original budget of £97m.

Ministers had agreed the contract with Ferguson Marine - despite it lacking a standard refund guarantee from the yard which would have protected taxpayers money - going ahead against the advice of its own experts at Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL).

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The latest official estimate for the ferries is £240m but Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross raised figures from former Scottish Government shipbuilding adviser, Luke van Beek, that the cost could hit £350m to £400m. He asked Nicola Sturgeon for a guarantee that costs would not reach that level.

She said: "I simply don't recognise those numbers. 

"The cost estimates are set out by the Finance Secretary and those are the cost estimates that we stand behind and I've been very clear about that.

"Our focus now is on ensuring these ferries are completed in the interest of our island communities and also on ensuring that Ferguson shipyard, and all those who work in it, have a bright future.

"We will learn lessons from this - I've said several times today I deeply regret the experience of this."

Asked if she now considered it had been a "bad deal", Ms Sturgeon said: "Obviously, we would not repeat what has happened - I think that is self-evident."

She added: "I still believe the Scottish Government was right to do everything to save Ferguson's shipyard.

"But for those decisions, Ferguson's shipyard would not still be employing significant numbers of people as it is today."

The Glen Sannox ferry is late and over budget.
The Glen Sannox ferry is late and over budget. Picture: Alamy

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar raised emails, released under freedom of information, about the appointment of Tim Hair as "turnaround director" on the eve of Ferguson Marine being nationalised in August 2019, after problems with the ferry contract led to it going bust.

Mr Hair was selected from a shortlist of only three people, all recommended by corporate advisers PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Mr Sarwar said the emails showed that the appointment was "rushed through without the usual competition in just a few days.

"In the process of negotiating his salary, he started by offering a rate of £2,000 a day but ended up being paid just under £3,000 and expenses per day.

"And that the First Minister was informed about all of this, and didn't raise a single objection."

Nicola Sturgeon said decision were "taken at the time in line with proper processes and procedures and people paying the market rates.

"I don't set the market rates for what people are paid."

Mr Sarwar replied: "Market rate, £3,000 a day? Were you signing Lionel Messi?"

Reading from the emails he also said that government advisers "actually suggested Tim Hair needed a decent pay package so that life wasn't and I quote, 'unnecessarily painful' for him while he swapped Hampshire for Port Glasgow. Shocking and out of touch."

He said families struggling with the cost of living crisis were paying the price for the Scottish Government's mismanagement.

The First Minister said she didn't think the experience of the ferries contract was "acceptable in any way, shape or form."

She continued: "We should not lose sight of the fact that, but for government intervention, this shipyard would no longer be operational, it would no longer be open and there would be nobody employed.

"Right now we have more than 400 people employed in that shipyard and we intend to do everything we can to ensure that it has a bright future, which I think is what people in Port Glasgow and across Scotland will want to see."

After FMQs, Douglas Ross continued to lambast the government.

"The Deputy First Minister John Swinney said in 2014 that the SNP would replace 12 ferries for £250 million. They haven't even built one for that," he said.

"The deal that the First Minister is so proud of has become a disaster and a sign of this government's incompetence.

"The only lesson this government seems to have learned is how to send ferry contracts abroad to Turkey and Romania."