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Kate Forbes: Ex-yard owner Jim McColl is trying to shift blame for ferry delays

Kate Forbes answered questions from opposition MSPs on the ferry scandal (Fraser Bremner)
Kate Forbes answered questions from opposition MSPs on the ferry scandal (Fraser Bremner)

The Finance Secretary has accused former Ferguson Marine owner Jim McColl of “shifting the blame” for construction problems at the shipyard during his tenure.

Kate Forbes hit back after Mr McColl told the BBC that the Scottish Government was conducting a “fabulous propaganda exercise”.

The dispute was aired in the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday as opposition MSPs asked her to respond to the businessman’s claims that procurement of two long-overdue ferries was rushed “for political purposes”.

Last week, it emerged that the two CalMac vessels would not be completed until 2023 and would cost about £240 million, more than twice their original price tag.

Ferguson shipyard preferred bidder for ferry contract
Jim McColl accused the Government of a ‘fabulous propaganda exercise’ (Andrew Milligan/PA)

An Audit Scotland report highlighted a “multitude of failings” and said Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (Cmal), the Government-owned company which owns ferries and ports, had concerns about the lack of a refund guarantee.

Ms Forbes said it was “entirely wrong” to suggest the contract award for the ferries was rushed for political purposes.

She told MSPs: “Contrary to what Jim McColl said this morning on the BBC, it was the chief executive of Cmal and Jim McColl himself who signed the contract.

“This is a man with a clear interest in shifting the blame on others when the root cause ultimately to the delays of these important vessels was the construction under FMEL (Ferguson Marine Engineering Limited).”

Mr McColl bought the shipyard out of administration in 2014, though it was nationalised at the end of 2018.

Ms Forbes said the procurement process was undertaken “in good faith following appropriate due diligence”.

She continued: “When concerns were raised, mitigations were put in place, that is all very well documented in the Audit Scotland report.”

However, opposition MSPs said Ms Forbes had failed to provide clarity on exactly which ministers took the relevant decisions.

MV Glen Sannox launch
The price tag for the two ferries has more than doubled (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Scottish Labour MSP, Neil Bibby, said: “I think it’s evident that only the First Minister can clear up the questions about what went wrong here and who was involved and when.

“We need honesty and openness about this.”

Tory MSP, Graham Simpson, asked: “We need some straight answers to straight questions here, was it Keith Brown who approved the contracts for the ferries?

“Why was the advice from Cmal not to go ahead ignored?”

Ms Forbes said ministers abided by collective responsibility.

She said no concerns were raised when FMEL was announced as the preferred bidder for the ferries in August 2015, but concerns around the lack of a refund guarantee emerged later.

The Finance Secretary said: “Audit Scotland have covered in detail the mitigations that were pursued as a result, including around the schedule of payments.”

MV Glen Sannox launch
The two ships will not be delivered until next year (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Earlier on Tuesday, Mr McColl spoke to the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme.

He said the shipyard in Port Glasgow would not have taken on the work if it knew of the objections from Cmal.

The businessman said: “There’s been a fabulous propaganda exercise carried out by the Government to try and put the blame of this on to the previous management at Ferguson’s.

“Ferguson’s had absolutely top class management that did a great job, and that’s why I’m speaking out to support them because they are being, I think, unfairly criticised.

“And again, I think this is clearly for political purposes – to put the blame on to them rather than the Government accepting responsibility.”

Mr McColl, owner of Clyde Blowers Capital, sat on the SNP Scottish Government’s Council of Economic Advisers until the body was replaced in July 2021.

Meanwhile, attempts by opposition MSPs to force the First Minister to make a statement on the ferries scandal this week failed.

An amendment to Thursday’s parliamentary business by Tory MSP Stephen Kerr failed by 52 votes to 63, while another attempted change by Labour MSP Neil Bibby fell by 51 votes to 63.

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