CalMac ferries scandal: Scottish Government's 'missing paperwork' suggests its problems are far worse than simple corruption – Murdo Fraser MP

The US President Harry Truman famously had a sign on his desk saying “the buck stops here”.

Work continues on a partially completed ferry at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow earlier this month (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

It is a slogan that our own First Minister should be encouraged to adopt as the scandal over delayed ferries for Scotland’s islands continues to unfold before our eyes.

I have written in the past about the growing ferries scandal and make no apology for writing about the topic again. This issue must be pursued relentlessly as public money was apparently wasted casually.

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Last week Scotland’s Auditor General told a Holyrood Committee he could not locate a key document explaining why the controversial decision to award the contract for two new ferries to Ferguson’s shipyard was taken. The Scottish Government, astonishingly, said that despite “a thorough search” it could not be found.

For the sake of the Scottish Government’s good name, I hope that the missing paperwork that could explain why Scottish ministers squandered millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money on ferries that have not been built leads to evidence of a scandal. For Scotland’s good name, I hope it is the start of a trail which will end when people of bad faith are exposed, sacked, and perhaps even jailed.

For the sake of the public good, I hope that it leads to a tale which lives in folklore because of its intricacy, audacity and badness. Because if it is not, if it turns out that this behaviour is normal, then Scotland is in a much worse place than if any of the above comes to light.

While civil servants look for the missing paperwork, let me tell them of contracts that exist and have for centuries, although never written down. That when those of us who live in fragile island communities strive to keep alive a historic way of life, those of us on the mainland rally round and help. That is a national contract. That those of means at any level, pool together our taxes to pay for services to maintain the fabric of our communities.

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The contracts of public service which go much further than salaries and benefits and pensions, and that say some of the best of us will dedicate themselves to the public good in our civil service, and cherish each penny raised and spent in our name as though it was their own. These are the contracts that build a civilised society and there is evidence of them going back centuries in every public building, public service, school, university, and hospital in the land.

The idea that our public servants simply lost vital paperwork, relating to millions of pounds to provide vital services to fragile communities, is so much darker and more foul than the idea of deliberate wrongdoing that it is difficult to bear. Saying that literally “there is nothing to see here” does not mean there is nothing for us to see.

Keeping records like this is not merely the pedantry of the penpusher. It is the duty of the public servant. It tells of how much they appreciate their own community and realm.

The UK civil service, despite all its critics, is rightly renowned throughout the world for the highest of international standards. In pre-devolution days, the Scottish arm of it was seen as one of the best and most powerful in these islands. The reason was simple. Unusually their ministers were rarely in St Andrews House in Edinburgh, and spent more time at Westminster. That meant that civil servants in Scotland’s capital exercised a deal more power and trust than their watched-over counterparts in Whitehall.

Now, we are asked by our own First Minister in situ in Edinburgh to believe that standards are so lax under her eyes that hundreds of millions of pounds can be misspent without as much as the back of a ferry ticket to record how the decisions were made. Please, for Scotland’s sake, let that not be the case.

That the leadership of this nation has such little regard for the nation’s resources is worse than any malfeasance. It is contempt for the people who trust them to govern.

The idea that we will be consoled by the First Minister gracing a Scottish parliamentary committee with her presence wreaks of fetid contempt.

We have, of course, been here before. It was just last year that the parliamentary committee investigating the handling by this Scottish Government of harassment complaints against the former First Minister, Alex Salmond, was told by John Swinney, the Deputy First Minister, that no notes existed of meetings where government lawyers instructed counsel to appear in the Court of Session. At best this was professional negligence; at worst it was something much more sinister: a deliberate cover-up of government failures.

Few who witnessed it will ever forget the arrogant contempt for the public Nicola Sturgeon showed when she pitched up at that same committee to tell us how little she knew, how much she had forgotten, about the circumstances of her predecessor, mentor and close friend, Alex Salmond, being charged with attempted rape.

A re-run of a performance like that on missing paperwork accounting for millions of pounds of public money will do nothing to restore public faith, but rather sap it further. An indignant look is no longer a token of trust taken in exchange for missing evidence.

The SNP may think the public will wear it when they see infestation, shrug and say, “all cities have rats”, but multi-million-pound deals don’t happen without paperwork.

Corruption is the sign of better government than one that claims to have squandered millions for reasons they cannot recall because they cannot find the piece of paper where they wrote the reasons down.

It is a fairy tale that Jack exchanged the family cow for some magic beans. But it is more plausible than Jack saying he didn’t know what happened to the cow, it must have been misfiled.

Murdo Fraser is Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife


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