Ferguson Marine CalMac ferries fiasco a complete mess but beware the political fallout – Alastair Dalton
I was approached by opposition politicians four years ago who had heard things were seriously wrong at the Port Glasgow shipyard, the situation being predictably played down by those in charge.
A few months later, the yard boasted: “The vessels, which will be delivered to the highest standard of quality, will become the jewels in the CalMac fleet.”
Maybe they yet will – but it was soon apparent that things were out of control, with the firm going bust and being taken over by the Scottish Government in 2019.
A Holyrood committee inquiry concluded in 2020 the saga had been a “catastrophic failure”, but the ripples its report caused were nothing compared to the storm that blew up last week after the public spending watchdogs’ verdict on the affair.
No one has come out of this well – the yard for apparently biting off more than it could chew in bidding for the contract, Scottish Government ferry-buying firm Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited for failing to properly oversee it, or perhaps most damning of all, ministers for approving the deal in the face of officials’ warnings about the lack of key financial guarantees.
It resulted in what reads like utter shambles, with the problems far from being solved – Audit Scotland warned it will take up to another six months to check unknown others are not lurking.
Meantime, we can be no surer the two ferries will be delivered to CalMac by the latest completion date of next year, or how much they will end up costing, than we have been since the contract was awarded in 2015.
However, the situation has not been helped by the inevitable political shenanigans since Audit Scotland’s report was published.
One of the most bizarre was at First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood last Thursday when Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross asked which minister approved the contract.
Nicola Sturgeon told him Derek Mackay was transport minister at the time, but added: “… our government… operates under collective responsibility. Ultimately, as with any decisions, whether I am personally involved in them or not, responsibility stops with me.”
Mr Ross responded: “The First Minister is now trying to blame Derek Mackay.”
Later in the exchanges, he claimed, in a much-reported phrase: “The First Minister says that she takes ultimate responsibility, then throws an ex-minister, a disgraced SNP ex-minister, under the bus!”
Mr Mackay being dragged into the row by both sides later turned out to be a red herring as it appeared the decision was approved by the Scottish Cabinet, in which Keith Brown represented transport issues as the then Infrastructure Secretary.
Opposition politicians, while rightly wanting to get to the truth, might also want to reflect on the wisdom of calling for a public inquiry into the debacle.
With the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry still to conclude, eight years after being announced and despite the tram line extension now just months from completion, it begs the question as to whether a similar inquiry into the ferries contract would be that useful, since, if anything, there's likely to be an acceleration of future orders.
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