By Bill Heaney
It used to happen at primary school all the time. When the class teacher who was off sick, she was replaced by a colleague who wasn’t as stern or threatening as the one she replaced.
That happened in the Scottish Parliament today when Wee Nippy was off with Covid and mild-mannered, self effacing gentleman John Swinney bravely turned up in her place.
Predictably, we were only minutes in to a debate about ferries – who intent on making mischief could have asked for more? – when the Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone had to intervene
There is no tawse these days, but the look on Ms Johnstone’s face said it all.
Tory leader Douglas Ross asked: “The Scottish Conservatives have repeatedly called for John Swinney to come to Parliament and face scrutiny on the crucial role that he has played in the shambolic ferry contracts.
“Every time that we have requested—[Interruption.] Scottish National Party back-benchers do not seem to like this, but just imagine—[Interruption.]”
Ms Johnstone scolded the class of 2022: “Members! We are just beginning this session of First Minister’s question time, and I would be very grateful if we could hear the question.”
Mr Ross, who has to suffer a high degree of backchat in his secondary role as a football referee, went on: “Every time that we have asked for a statement, every SNP back-bencher and John Swinney have voted against him coming to the Parliament. However, today, he cannot avoid the questions to which islanders and Scottish taxpayers need answers.
“John Swinney signed off the ferry contracts that have, so far, cost £250 million and denied islanders the ferries that they need. Will the Deputy First Minister finally tell the Scottish public why he signed off the deals?
Mr Swinney, the Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Covid Recovery, said: “I do not think that Douglas Ross is in the strongest position to question my engagement with the Parliament on key issues, because I gave a statement earlier this week, I answered questions last week and I handled a bill the week before. Unlike some Tory MSPs, you will not find me skiving off to the football for a few days when the Parliament is sitting.”
John Swinney, Douglas Ross and Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone.
He added: “As a minister, I carry collective responsibilities for the actions of the Scottish Government. The responsibility for agreeing contracts lies with individual portfolios—in this scenario, with transport. My role was to provide the necessary budget for building the ferries. After the final decision was taken, officials briefed me about the contract being awarded and assured me, on the basis of the contract, that the budget that I had approved in August 2015 did not require to be changed.”
Douglas Ross told MSPs: “I know that the Deputy First Minister does not do this very often, but he spoke about a statement that he gave to Parliament and a bill that he took through Parliament, and neither of those has anything to do with ferries, which is what this Parliament has asked to hear from him about. On every occasion, John Swinney has not just refused to speak but voted against himself giving a statement to Parliament.
“John Swinney’s fingerprints are all over the deal. Emails show that the Deputy First Minister confirmed that there were ‘no banana skins’. He was on calls with finance officials, who said that Mr Swinney ‘now understands the background’. His approval was essential. The contract was only ‘clear to award’ after he signed it off, according to Scottish Government emails.
“John Swinney charged ahead despite ferry experts warning against the contract, and despite legal advice that the SNP originally tried to cover up but could not redact properly, warning of the high risk of the contract being challenged and ruled ineffective.
“The SNP charged ahead despite the contract missing a key safeguard that is an industry standard, and despite the fact that the jobs at Ferguson were already safe and the yard had other options for work. [Interruption.]”
The class of 2022 erupted and the Presiding Officer: told them: “Members! We simply are not going to shout from a sedentary position.”
Mr Ross added: “That just shows how SNP members want to push this under the carpet and for it all to go away. They do not want scrutiny over the quarter of a billion pounds that has been spent without a single ferry that the islanders were promised being produced.
“The Government charged ahead, despite there being no agreed design for the ferries, and despite the fact that the Ferguson bid was the most expensive of them all. Can the Deputy First Minister explain to people across Scotland why he approved those deals despite all the evidence that suggested he should not?”
John Swinney pressed on: “I made it clear in my first answer that I carry collective responsibility for the actions of the Government. I therefore accept that those decisions were taken by the Government, but they were taken individually by the transport minister.
“I will give Douglas Ross the benefit of the note that he has quoted from, which was from a senior finance official. It said: ‘Just finished my call with DFM. He now understands the background and that Mr [Derek]McKay has cleared the proposal’.
“That is the complete sentence that Douglas Ross is missing. The decision had been taken, and I was being briefed that there was no change to the budget that I had already sanctioned. Why is that answer not good enough for Douglas Ross? He has been given that answer on countless occasions.
“As for his points about the Government not wishing to undergo scrutiny on this issue, it was looked at by a parliamentary committee, by Audit Scotland and by another parliamentary committee, and it has been the subject of a range of questions at question time.
“When Douglas Ross looks at all the papers, he will see that the contract arrangement demonstrates that the Government was taking action to deliver ferries for the island communities that require them, and we were taking decisions to protect employment on the lower Clyde. That is a record that this Government is determined to defend.”
Douglas Ross refused to finish with engines: ” The Government would have to be pretty determined to defend a record that has not built any ferries and that has left islanders without ferries. Honest John has missed the second sentence—”
The Presiding Officer’s voice became more threatening: “Mr Ross, we will desist from using nicknames in the chamber. We will call people by their first names and surnames.”
Douglas Ross apologised, but we still felt he might get the belt when he persisted: “John Swinney read out a sentence from an email, but he refused to read the second sentence, and I wonder why. The second sentence says: ‘So the way is clear to award’.
“That is the conclusion of the email that reveals the Deputy First Minister’s involvement. It was escalated to the Deputy First Minister on 9 October 2015 at 17:15—[Interruption.]
“SNP members do not want to hear this, but the email saying that the way to award was clear was sent only after the matter had gone to John Swinney.
“Why did the SNP really sign off on this deal? It was not to save jobs, because we know that the jobs were safe. It was not the cheapest deal for taxpayers; it was actually the most expensive. It was not the most secure contract; it was the most risky.
“It was not backed by experts; they warned the Deputy First Minister and others against it. However, against overwhelming evidence, John Swinney signed off the deal anyway.
It seems obvious to everyone what happened here. The Scottish National Party wanted the political praise for keeping the yard open ahead of an election, so it ignored all the alarm bells. It looks an awful lot like the SNP made a dodgy deal, and now it is trying to cover that up. Can the Deputy First Minister—[Interruption.]”
John Swinney said: “There was no political motive behind the contract. The objective of the Government was to ensure that the ferries that were required would be built, and that is what we are concentrating on achieving.
“We were also determined to ensure that employment on the lower Clyde was supported with contracts from the CalMac Ferries network. For Mr Ross to say that, somehow, the yard could stay open without any contracts is for him is to deny the physical reality of the way in which a yard would be run.”
But Mr Ross had the red card out of his pocket. He said: “It seems that the ferry deal was the best deal for the SNP, not the best deal for Scotland, and that ScotRail is going the same way for commuters as the ferry deal has gone for islanders. Just a month after the Deputy First Minister’s SNP Government took control of our railways, one in three train services has been cut.
“Earlier this week, in a rare move, business groups, including the Scottish Tourism Alliance, Scottish Financial Enterprise, the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, the Scottish Retail Consortium and the Institute of Directors, united to warn of the harsh impact that their members face as a result of the ScotRail cuts. Delays, last-minute cancellations and service reductions are causing real problems for passengers across the country.
“Next week, our national men’s team will play its biggest match for more than two decades. The tartan army will need to get to and from Hampden on ScotRail. Will the Deputy First Minister’s Government have got a grip of the situation by then? If not, when can people expect to have the rail service that they need?”
John Swinney replied: “Mr Ross knows full well that negotiations are under way between the employer—ScotRail—and the trade unions to resolve the industrial dispute that is limiting services. That dialogue is under way, as it should be.
“He asks about the Ukraine match. We obviously want more services to be in place to deal with the Ukraine match. I am confident that ScotRail will have additional services in place to ensure that the specific requirements of access to Hampden will be addressed. Announcements will be made about that in due course.”