Special report by Bill Heaney
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she “completely and utterly” refutes suggestions of political interference in the award of a notorious ferry contract for the Scottish Government.
She was asked if the award to Jim McColl, who used to run a kitchen fitting factory in Dumbarton’s Broadmeadow industrial estate, and a person with a known relationship with the government was “jobs for the boys”.
The first minister insisted there was “absolutely, categorically” nothing untoward in the procurement process.
MSPs are investigating delays and overspends over the two CalMac ferries.
The construction project at Ferguson shipyard in Port Glasgow is five years behind schedule and could end up costing public taxpayers more than three times the original £97 million “fixed price contract” price.
Ms Sturgeon was giving evidence before the public audit committee following a damning report from Audit Scotland which listed “multiple failings” in the process.
The contract was awarded in 2015 to the Ferguson Marine Engineering Ltd (FMEL) shipyard in Port Glasgow, a year after it had been rescued from administration by Jim McColl, a pro-independence businessman who sat on the first minister’s council of economic advisers.
Mr McColl, one of Scotland’s richest men who was once tipped to buy Rangers Football Club, had owned Clyde Blowers and Weir Pumps in Clydebank and Yoker.
Ms Sturgeon responded: “If you are saying was there anything untoward in this procurement process in order to somehow inappropriately steer this contract towards FMEL, then absolutely, categorically not.”
She said she naturally was happy for work to go to a Scottish company which would secure Scottish jobs – but it was important that this was done “by the book”.
And she insisted the award was made solely on the assessment of the bids by government owned ferry agency CMAL.
Asked later if she was content with the First Minister’s response, Ms Dowey said: “This was Nicola Sturgeon at her evasive worst.
“Despite repeatedly saying that the ‘buck stops with her’, she dodged and blustered her way through the questioning and shamefully couldn’t even bring herself to say the word ‘sorry’.
“She couldn’t tell us how much this shambles has cost the taxpayer, or promise that the already colossal figure would not continue to rise.
“She deflected when asked if the bidding process was rigged in Ferguson’s favour – as the recent BBC exposé suggests – instead passing the buck to Audit Scotland to discover if there had been corruption in her own government.
“And she was unable confirm whether minutes were recorded at a key meeting with Jim McColl, a meeting which took place without a government official present, and which – if no minutes exist – could break ministerial code.
“As we saw in the Salmond inquiry, it appears the First Minister’s usually meticulous memory fails her when it comes to crucial meetings.
“Nonetheless, it looks increasingly clear that the catastrophic and illogical decision to award the contract to long-time independence supporter Jim McColl was a case of ‘jobs for the boys’.
“This whole affair has been a catalogue of failures from the start, and it is now clearer than ever that we need a full public inquiry to get to the bottom of it.”
Ms Sturgeon accepted that a recent BBC documentary which presented evidence that FMEL was given preferential treatment in the procurement process had raised “serious issues” that should be investigated further.
However, she said she was personally not aware of any impropriety.
The BBC Scotland Disclosure programme fronted by reporter Mark Daly found that FMEL was allowed to substantially alter its design and price after the tender deadline, and had access to a key CalMac specification “wish list” that was not available to rival bidders.
Ms Sturgeon was asked why then transport minister Derek Mackay approved the final award of the contract to FMEL in October 2015 despite serious misgivings by the CMAL board about the level of financial guarantees being offered.
She said: “To be fair to Derek Mackay, had that 8 October [documentation] been brought to my attention, based on everything that was in that, I am not saying I would have reached a different decision – I don’t think I would have done – but perhaps with hindsight it should have been brought to my attention.”
Mr Mackay, who left government in disgrace in 2020 over messages he sent to a 16-year-old boy on social media, appeared before the public audit committee in September.
At the start of the hearing, committee convener Richard Leonard questioned the government’s commitment to transparency over the ferry fiasco.
He pointed out that a letter from Mr Mackay, submitted to the hearing by Transport Scotland appeared to have been “edited” to remove two key paragraphs relating to financial guarantees.
The first minister insisted her government was committee to openness, and that she believed the issue of the letter was imply a “formatting” error.
She pointed out that a full version of the same letter had been submitted by SNP MSP Stuart McMillan, who was its recipient.
The first minister said she would look into publishing more documentation including a record of a meeting with Jim McColl in May 2017 at which he raised concerns about the way the project was progressing and the role of the government ferries agency CMAL.
BBC Scotland business reporter David Henderson commented that the “one word which notably has not crossed the first minister’s lips today is ‘sorry’.
He added: “While Nicola Sturgeon accepts responsibility for what went wrong on her watch, she denies she’s to blame. That’s a hard balance to strike.
“Especially since this ferry crisis has happened on her watch as first minister – all the way back to late 2014, when she took on the top job.
“Within a year, the contract to build two ferries had been awarded to Ferguson shipyard. By November 2017, the first minister herself was launching the first of the vessels, MV Glen Sannox.
“Few [people] there on the day – myself included – knew that ferry was largely unfinished and the engines didn’t work.
“No-one – including Nicola Sturgeon – knew that five years later, the ferries would still not be ready. She’s said repeatedly the buck stops with her. She is accountable, she insists.
“But she clearly sees this as a collective, systemic failure, and not one for which she is personally to blame.”
Meanwhile, responding to Nicola Sturgeon’s appearance at the Public Audit Committee crisis, Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton MSP, left, said: “Nicola Sturgeon launched a vessel with painted windows. Five years on, the First Minister’s ‘regret’ that those ferries still haven’t actually arrived won’t cut it for island communities.
“They have had to navigate well over 7,000 cancelled sailings this year. It’s become so bad that islanders are even considering setting up their own ferry company.
“Islanders might have more hope of getting from A to B if Nicola Sturgeon hadn’t launched more independence campaigns than ferries.
“I think ministers should be out of office already for the delays, the secrecy and the cost but the First Minister thinks it’s not enough.”