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Ferries fiasco inquiry blames Nicola Sturgeon and transport chiefs

The MSPs investigated the ongoing ferries fiasco. Image: DC Thomson

Nicola Sturgeon has been heavily criticised for her role in Scotland’s ferries fiasco after a Holyrood inquiry found “significant failings”.

A “bombshell” report by a powerful group of MSPs has made a raft of recommendations to improve transparency and accountability in the wake of the Ferguson Marine debacle.

Transport Scotland is condemned by the public audit committee, while criticism is also levelled at Ferguson Marine Engineering Limited, as well as some of the key SNP ministers involved, such as Derek Mackay and Keith Brown.

Ms Sturgeon’s decision to announce Ferguson Marine – at that time owned by businessman Jim McColl – as preferred bidder in 2015 was called into question.

The committee said “considerable negotiations were still required” at that stage, and the first minister’s move “almost certainly” weakened the negotiating position of the ferry-owning body CMAL when problems later emerged.

The two CalMac ferries being built at Ferguson Marine, in Port Glasgow. Image: Andrew Cawley

The probe focussed on the early stages of the procurement process launched in October 2014 to deliver two new ferries for CalMac’s west coast network, specifically to provide a fully flexible year-round service for the Arran and the Uig triangle.

The contracts were awarded to Ferguson Marine in 2015, each for a fixed price of £48.5 million.

A dispute soon erupted over the deals and Ferguson Marine entered administration in August 2019, followed by a government decision to bring it into public ownership.

Both vessels are now expected to be delivered more than five years late, at triple the total cost.

The failure to deliver the vessels has exacerbated service problems faced by islanders who rely on the lifeline CalMac network.

‘Collective failures’

Public audit committee convener Richard Leonard said: “The people of Scotland have been badly let down by this project. There have been collective failures at government and agency level from the start.

“It has been dogged by a lack of transparency; by ineffective governance arrangements; by poor record keeping within the government; and by baffling communication failures.”

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. Image: PA

Mr Leonard added that it was vital that lessons are learned, including by the next first minister.

He said: “That means much needed reform of governance arrangements for future vessel projects.

“But it also means a change in the way the government and its agencies conduct themselves and are accountable to parliament and the people.

“That is a challenge for the permanent secretary and the new first minister.”

The committee’s report said Ferguson Marine had acted in a “wholly inappropriate” way by not being open about its inability to provide a full builder’s refund guarantee.

The role of Transport Scotland, meanwhile, was described as a “matter of serious concern”, with the agency having “consistently failed to accurately and timeously reflect” the significant concerns of CMAL to ministers.

Derek Mackay.
Derek Mackay. Image: John Devlin.

On the role of Mr Mackay, who was transport minister at the time, the committee said  he showed “poor judgement” by responding to a local MSP about the contract while the procurement process was live.

It previously emerged that he was on holiday when the deal was signed.

The report questioned Mr Mackay’s account of events, saying: “It remains unclear why he told us he had no knowledge of the preferred bidder before going on annual leave when evidence suggests he was aware of the outcome.”

Meanwhile, the MSPs expressed “serious concern” about the “lack of cooperation” the committee received from Mr Brown, who was infrastructure secretary at the time.

‘Unprecedented failures’

Conservative transport spokesman Graham Simpson said: “A scathing committee verdict on the SNP’s long-running ferries fiasco was inevitable, but this bombshell report shows up a series of failures on an unprecedented scale.

“Worse, it suggests the SNP Government has learnt nothing from them, and is still trying to dodge the consequences.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at Ferguson Marine, Port Glasgow, in 2016. Image: SWNS

He added: “This sorry business is one of the most disastrous and shameful legacies of Nicola Sturgeon’s period as first minister.

“She should take the publication of this damning report as a final opportunity to apologise to the Scottish taxpayer for the reckless waste and secrecy that has surrounded this fiasco, and most importantly to islanders, who have been betrayed at every turn by her SNP government, and deprived of a lifeline service.”

What did the government say?

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said the government would study the findings of the carefully before issuing a full response to the committee.

“Changes have already been put in place to address many of the issues raised,” she said.

“This includes working with the shipyard’s senior management team to improve governance and accountability and revising processes for vessel procurement.

“The Scottish Government is committed to transparency and has proactively published more than 200 documents on its website.

“Ministers have apologised for the delay to the ferries and the distress and difficulty caused.

“We are committed to their completion, securing a sustainable future for the yard and supporting our island communities that rely on this type of vessel on a daily basis.”