Nicola Sturgeon gets that sinking feeling as she’s grilled on the ferries fiasco

Douglas Ross told Nicola Sturgeon it was “a scandal” bonuses were being paid when the ferries were six years late and £350 million over budget.

Special report by BILL HEANEY

The SNP were shipping water today and Nicola Sturgeon’s face carried an expression which looked well able to sink a thousand ships. Plus two ferries, of course.

The First Minister has refused to say what the final bill will be for the SNP’s ferries scandal or when the two Ferguson Marine vessels will finally be completed across the Clyde in Port Glasgow.

At First Minister’s Questions, Tory leader Douglas Ross probed her on the damning Audit Scotland report, which earlier this week highlighted that bonuses are being awarded to Ferguson Marine bosses.

This was despite the costs of the project continuing to rise, and the ferries remaining under construction.

Right now looked like the appropriate moment for the  Scottish National Party to fly the skull and crossbones instead of the Saltire.

And to send out a Mayday message to a bank, which might just have recruited someone like Fred the Shred to take charge of it, to bale them out of the biggest financial fiasco since devolution.

Douglas Ross said it was “scandalous” that any bonuses were being paid when the ferries were six years late and, so far, three-and-a-half times over the original budget figure.

He told MSPs: “The total cost to taxpayers because of SNP incompetence is now £338 million, which is three and a half times more than the original contract of £97 million, and there is still no completion date for the ferries.

The Scottish National Party ferries scandal has damaged our nation’s reputation for shipbuilding excellence and has left islanders without the vital transport links they need for their everyday lives.

“This week, Audit Scotland said: ‘The costs to complete these ferries have continued to escalate’.

“However, Ferguson Marine, which is fully owned by the SNP Government, has paid out bonuses of £87,000 to highly paid chiefs. Very simply, First Minister, what were the bonuses for?”

The First Minister’s eyes glazed over – “Before I answer the question, I remind members that, this afternoon, the Deputy First Minister will make a statement to the Parliament on these issues and provide updates in respect of some of them.”

She then passed the ship’s wheel to her first mate, John Swinney – “There are two issues to address in response to Douglas Ross’s question. First, we welcome the Audit Scotland section 22 report, and we certainly acknowledge the legitimate issues that were raised in it.

“The report is critical of the payment of bonuses to senior staff at the yard in financial year 2021-22 and of the process by which the payments were arrived at.

“We accept the criticism and can assure the parliament that, at the Deputy First Minister’s request, new arrangements have been put in place to ensure that the situation does not arise again in the future.

“My second point is in relation to the construction of the ferries. I have said many times, and I say again, that we deeply regret the delays to the completion of the ferries and the cost overruns.

“The management at the yard has, of course, made assessments of the cost of completing the ferries, and Scottish Government officials are applying robust scrutiny to that. Again, the Deputy First Minister will be able to give a further update to the Parliament this afternoon.”

When it might have been expected that Mr Swinney, pictured right, would be passed a lifebelt, it was an albatross Ms Sturgeon was placing around his neck.

This was the second week in a row that Douglas Ross had been given the nautical equivalent of an open goal.

Sturgeon’s ferry was Rothesay bound while Ross’s looked destined for Monte Carlo.

He told her: “I am sorry, but the standing orders of this Parliament are clear: if a minister is aware of information that they can provide to the Parliament, they should do so. It is not acceptable for the First Minister to say, ‘Tune in in a couple of hours’ time’.

“This is First Minister’s question time and, as the leader of the Opposition in Holyrood, I am asking about an issue that she must be aware of.  I ask again, what were the bonuses for? It was £87,000 of taxpayers’ money.

“The Auditor General is clear that the bonuses were ‘unacceptable’—that was his word. We think that they are downright scandalous. It is indefensible.

“It is a bonus for failure, and the failure is all on the SNP Government. It is a company that is owned by the Scottish ministers; ultimately, they are in charge of it.

“Will the SNP Government and the First Minister intervene now and demand that those bogus bonuses are returned to the taxpayer?”

The First Minister then admitted: “The Auditor General makes it clear that the governance involved in the process that led to those payments was deficient. In other words, it is not possible to be clear about the basis of the performance payments. That is why  … “

But she was interrupted by howls of derision, which caused the Presiding Officer to intervene.

The First Minister continued: “That is why changes have been put in place. New arrangements have been put in place to ensure that such a situation does not arise again. Of course, there have been changes in the management at the shipyard since the financial year in which the bonuses in question were paid. We take seriously, and will respond in full to, the views the Auditor General has published.

“More generally, the focus continues to be on ensuring that the ferries are completed and that the Scottish Government applies robust scrutiny to all cost assessments that are issued by the shipyard.”

So, the money had gone and the ferries were still in the shipyard.

Douglas Ross was like the cat that got the cream. He replied: “Really? Does the Scottish Government really ensure that it looks at all the costs that are paid by the shipyard?

“If that is the case, why can the First Minister not just tell me, in response to my question, people in the chamber and people across Scotland, what was done by the fat cats to deserve £87,000 of bonuses? It is a very simple question.”

This week, Audit Scotland said:  “It is not clear how their performance was assessed, nor were appropriate frameworks and governance in place.”

“Those bonuses for failure should not have been allowed, and the First Minister should be able to tell the people of Scotland what they were paid for.

“The First Minister went on to say that changes have been made to ensure that the situation does not arise again, but today there are reports that the current chief executive of Ferguson Marine can get an £82,000 bonus every year and his contract has no criteria for measuring performance.

“Once again, Nicola Sturgeon and her Government are putting eye-watering sums of public money, which are to be paid to ferry bosses for failure, in jeopardy.

“Why are fat-cat bosses getting a single penny before a ferry has been finished?”

The First Minister replied: “The issue identified by Audit Scotland is that the process involved in the payment of the bonuses was deficient. Therefore, there is not sufficient clarity on the basis on which they were paid.

“That is the issue that was identified, which we are seeking to address so that such a situation cannot arise in future. That is the position that I have set out.

“We remain focused on supporting the shipyard to complete the ferries as quickly as possible. The delays and the cost over-runs are deeply regrettable.

“We have always been determined to secure the future of the shipyard in order that it can deliver the ferries and have a future that allows the people who are employed there to continue to be employed there.

“Yes, there have been regrettable failings here, which, of course, the Government is accountable for, but we remain focused on addressing those, and we will continue to do that with determination.”

Douglas Ross  wasn’t finished. He said: “I think that it is incredible that the First Minister just expects us all to be happy that a mistake has happened and that we do not know why the money has been paid out. However, we are talking about £87,000 of taxpayers’ money going into a project that is already three and a half times over budget.”

He added: “I am not sure what John Swinney is going to pull out of the hat this afternoon, but if he gives the same answers, the people of Scotland will demand more, because it is our taxpayers’ money that is being wasted, with no accountability from Nicola Sturgeon or the Scottish National Party.

“On top of £87,000 of bonuses for failure, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd, the ferry agency, has spent almost £100,000 on a public relations firm. What a waste of money. No one can put positive spin on this disaster.

There is still no certainty over how much the ferries will cost, when they will be ready or whether the shipyard has a viable future.

“As Nicola Sturgeon prepares to sail off into retirement and considers her legacy, she should reflect on the fact that those ferries, which have been in construction throughout her time in office, remain rusting hulks, and the islanders who rely on them remain without those vital links.

“Can the people of Scotland for once get a straight, honest answer from the First Minister? When will the ferries be ready and how much will the total cost be?”

The First Minister summed up her plea in mitigation: “I am of the view that the failures are unacceptable and I deeply regret them. However, that is why it is important that we continue to focus on delivering the ferries and securing a long-term future for the shipyard.

“The yard is working to secure commercial opportunities and has already been successful in securing some.

“That is part of our priority: we want the ferries to be completed, but we then want to ensure that Ferguson’s shipyard has a long and secure future and continues to employ those whose jobs depend on it.”

But Nicola Sturgeon, who is forever telling the world that she is responsible for every decision made by the SNP government – and there are many – offered no explanation or justification for the bonuses.

She was also unable to put a figure on the final bill the taxpayer will foot, or when hulls 801 and 802 will finally begin serving Scotland’s islands.

See also in The Democrat tonight’s report and reaction to John Swinney’s statement this afternoon

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