In the four years that I was convener of the Scottish Parliament Audit Committee I cannot recall a report laid before Parliament by the Auditor General that was so damning of Government ministers as that reporting on the failure of the Scottish Government to procure two ferries for the Clyde and Hebrides.
The cost for the two ships has ballooned from a fixed price of £97m to £240m. Already approaching four years overdue there is no idea when they will come into service. My expectation is they never shall, but will eventually be written off and cancelled. One lies rusting waiting on further significant and costly changes and construction of the second is non-existent, effectively in abeyance – which is possibly a blessing.
I do not demur from criticism of the Scottish Parliament’s performance which, on balance, I believe has made the governance and delivery of public services considerably worse than had it never happened. That is not to say it does not have some achievements to its name but the test for the merit of devolution is whether or not such achievements as are claimed of it could and would have been delivered had there been no parliament and policy decisions and accountability for them had been left to the former Scottish Office and its ministers.
It is my contention that practically all the Scottish Parliament has achieved could have been delivered without the huge cost, burden to economic growth and social disharmony that has come from an additional and highly partisan layer of government that has politicised and weaponised Scottish society beyond all recognition. There is a great deal I could lay down as evidence for this but that is for another day rather than now.
I shall content myself to admit the exception to my judgement of under-achievement if not damage from devolution is the establishment of the office of Auditor General and Audit Scotland, reporting to the Scottish Parliament through its Public Audit Committee.
Before devolution public auditing was managed through the UK’s National Audit Office and the Comptroller General reporting to Westminster through the Public Accounts Committee. The weakness was the committee did not have enough time available to publicly scrutinise Scottish institutional failures. The existence of the Scottish Parliament changed the capacity for scrutiny tenfold overnight.
I state all of this because I think it important, nay vital, to understand that when a report regarding the performance of a Scottish Government department, or a state financed college, or a gallery or a quango – all of which spend public funds, your taxes – is presented to parliament it has gravity. It is not tainted with political bias, it is about the numbers and the process by which those numbers were committed and who was responsible for them. The accountable officers – the officials who oversee the dispensing of funds – bear a heavy responsibility to which they face potential public shaming. I witnessed officials resign or take leave of absence before giving evidence to the Parliament’s Audit Committee such was their sense of guilt in failing in their public duty. When Officials are told by their political masters to take actions against their better judgement – as is the case in the Fergusons ferry contract – it is the politicians who must walk the proverbial plank.
We now know, thanks to the work of Audit Scotland, that the decision to press ahead with the calamitous contract procuring two ferries from Fergusons was a political decision. It is the politicians who therefore must pay a political price.
If the buck stops with the first Minster, and she herself says it does, irrespective of who signed-off what, then there must be consequences for her in that role. She owns the contract. She took the glory for it. She must take the fall for the failure.
Taking the responsibility, as she says she does, must therefore come with a penalty. What, pray does she think it should be?
She cannot be made personally liable for the £240 million, she cannot be made bankrupt as used to be the practice for councillors who misspent public funds; there is only one logical and appropriate measure, she should remove herself from the position that enables her to take such decisions ever again – she must resign her post.
If the First Minister thinks that unfair then she should submit herself to a vote of confidence and ask her peers to support her. It is probable she would win – but some of those MSPs representing island communities would then have to face their electorates and justify their actions in supporting her.
The Green MSPs supporting her government, themselves not culpable in this instance as it predated their coalition, would have to decide what mattered more – being in office – or, by disavowing public accountability, putting our public finances and the reputation of Holyrood (and indeed themselves) on the line.
That is the stuff of politics. By their fruits you shall know them.
In the procurement, in the management and in the delivery of the ferries the Scottish Government has failed – and failed repeatedly. Now the question is if the Ministers responsible are allowed to carry on as if there is no political cost to their own failings and they can continue to not just draw their salaries and pensions as members of the parliament – but draw the tens of thousands extra they receive annually as Ministers – and the additional pension benefits they will indulge themselves in for the rest of their lives.
That sounds like cronyism and a corruption of democracy. If the First Minister accepts no guilt by wilfully refusing to accept any penalty for her personal misjudgement then she herself shames the parliament and shames Scotland.
Brian Monteith is a former member of the Scottish and European Parliaments and Convener of the Scottish Parliament Audit Committee 2003-2007
A message from the Editor
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers. If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription. Click on this link for more information.