First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Tory leader Douglas Ross and Jim McColl – “she’s lying,” he said.

By Bill Heaney

Another day at Holyrood – another ferry story from the SNP.
A story in which feisty First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was accused  of using “weasel words” by the Conservative leader Douglas Ross.
He said: “A quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money has been spent and not a single ferry has been built, and the crucial document detailing why this awful decision was made has disappeared.
“However, all we hear from Nicola Sturgeon is that the situation is ‘regrettable’.
“When the First Minister suggested chopping off the bottom of classroom doors, that was regrettable; wasting a quarter of a billion pounds is much, much worse.
“Does the First Minister understand how angry it makes the public to hear her use weasel words such as ‘regrettable’ rather than giving them the apology that they deserve?”
And so it was that we were set up for the usual stairheed row that passes for First Minister’s Questions in the Scottish Parliament.
Nicola Sturgeon said: “I know that there is a lot of anger right across Scotland right now, although I am not sure that it is for the reason that Douglas Ross has raised today, and I suspect that he is going to feel the full force of it tomorrow [the council election results].

“On the issue of ferries, I have made it very clear that the delays and cost overruns are deeply regrettable. I believe that, when things do not go right in Government, it is important that leaders say so. If only other Governments followed the same principle, perhaps things might be a bit different.

“However, I will not—I am afraid that I am not going to be moved from this—apologise for decisions that allowed the last commercial shipbuilder on the Clyde to continue in business and that have allowed 400 workers to be employed there today, earning a wage and supporting their families.

“I also will not apologise for investment in new ferries. The yard and the Government are focused on ensuring that the ferries are completed as part of our overall investment in Scotland’s ferry network.

“I will always take responsibility when things do not go right, and I will continue to act in a way that is in the interests of the country overall. Of course, tomorrow [Thursday], people have the opportunity to cast their verdict on all of that.”

But Mr Ross would not be put off. He told MSPs: “Nicola Sturgeon says that she is taking responsibility. Those are weasel words to the island communities that are still without these vital ferries.

“Although Nicola Sturgeon will not tell it straight, Jim McColl [the former owner of Ferguson Marine] did not mince his words on the radio yesterday. He called the First Minister out for lying. He said that ‘there was no danger of the yard going under at that time’.

“The man who the Scottish National Party Government trusted to save the yard and who Nicola Sturgeon stood next to and said, ‘This is the man to turn it round’, says that the jobs at Ferguson Marine were safe no matter what because the yard had other strong contracts.

“The First Minister’s only justification for charging ahead against expert advice has been grandstanding in saying that she saved the jobs. Now it has emerged that she did not—the jobs were never at risk. Has the First Minister’s main excuse not just been shredded, perhaps like that vital missing document?”

Ms Sturgeon was up for the fight. She hit back: “Let me say categorically that I stand by what I said on the radio the other morning 100 per cent. Jim McColl is many things, but he is not a disinterested and objective observer on these matters. Perhaps that is something that we should bear in mind.”

Mr McColl is in fact the man who used to operate a kitchen manufacturing business at Broadmeadow in Dumbarton and who has taken over important businesses in West Dunbartonshire such as Clyde Blowers and Weir Pumps.

She told parliament: “Let us look at the two key points that Jim McColl was taking issue with. First, he seemed to claim that I said that there were 400 people employed in the yard back in 2015. I did not say that, as the transcript will show.

“I said that 400 people are currently employed there, earning a wage and supporting their families, who would not be in employment today had the contract not been awarded. That is just a matter of fact.

“Secondly, Jim McColl said that the yard would not have been in jeopardy and would not have potentially closed had the contract not been awarded. That was not tested, of course, so that can only be a matter of opinion.

“However, I tell members this: if Jim McColl is seriously arguing that he would have continued to invest his money in a yard that had no major contracts, all I can say is that that is not the Jim McColl I know.

“People can make up their own minds, but what I know is that the decisions that the Government took have ensured that the shipyard is still open and operating today, focusing on delivering the ferries, and that, today, there are 400 people working in the yard, earning a wage and supporting their families, as I said.

“For all that the delays and overruns with the ferries are deeply regrettable, I do not regret the fact that there are 400 people employed in the shipyard today.”

Secret Scotland reared its head yet again. Mr Ross said: “Of course, the ferries scandal is just one example of the secrecy and incompetence that the Government is famous for.

“Just look at Nicola Sturgeon’s rap sheet of damning failures: £250 million lost on ferries; £50 million lost on Burntisland Fabrications [in Fife]; £40 million lost on the Rangers scandal; the worst ever accident and emergency waiting times on record; violent crime at record highs since she came to power; the widest ever attainment gap in our schools, with the lowest results in international school rankings; and the highest number of drug deaths in Europe. Surely that is a record that the First Minister is ashamed of.”

Ms Surgeon countered: “BiFab is also still open and employing people.  There are challenges with A and E services across the whole of the United Kingdom, Europe and the rest of the world, but A and E services in Scotland have been the best performing of all four nations in the UK for six years.

“Recorded crime is at one of the lowest levels since 1974 and is down 41 per cent since the Government took office. Over the long term, we have seen a 36 per cent reduction in police-recorded non-sexual violent crime since the Government took office. Homicide cases are at their lowest level since comparable records began back in 1976. The numbers of those who experience crime are down and are lower than the numbers in other parts of the UK.

“On education, 1,000 school building projects have been completed since the Government took office. When we took office, only 61 per cent of schools were in a good or satisfactory condition, but that figure is over 90 per cent today.

“Council tax is lower for people in Scotland than it is for people in other parts of the UK, and we have lower income tax for the majority.

“We have free prescriptions. Free personal and nursing care has been extended. We have the Scottish child payment and other new benefits including the carers allowance supplement and the young carer grant. We have the baby box. The amount of early years education and childcare has trebled since the Government took office and has doubled in my time as First Minister. More staff are working in our national health service than in any other part of the UK, and we have more general practitioners per head of population.

“I can go on, if Douglas Ross wants me to. One hundred thousand affordable homes have been built, and yes, crime rates are down. What have we had in 12 years of Tory Government at Westminster? We have had Brexit and austerity, and poverty has increased; we have seen pension cuts, tax increases and—worst of all—we have had Boris Johnson.”

Mr Ross was not finished however. He said: “That is shameful, First Minister. It is shameful that the 1,319 individuals who died as a result of drugs in the past year did not even merit a mention in the First Minister’s response.

“That is 1,319 lives lost and families destroyed, and Nicola Sturgeon—yet again—ignored them to get cheap applause from her SNP back benchers. We know that when Nicola Sturgeon takes her eye off the ball, Scotland suffers.

“At a local level, the SNP’s record is just as bad. It has cut hundreds of millions from council budgets, overturned hundreds of local planning decisions, brought in controversial sex surveys in schools, hit drivers with new taxes and let Scotland’s biggest city be overrun by rubbish and rats. The SNP has let people down, and Labour has helped it—they share power in councils across Scotland.

“This election is a chance to get the focus back on things that really matter to people: improving local services, rebuilding roads, investing in schools and cleaning up our streets. Scottish Conservative councillors will focus on local priorities and stand up to this SNP Government when it wastes a fortune on ferries, slashes council budgets and cuts vital services.”

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