Our £300m ferry debacle demands a full inquiry - Brian Wilson

There are three reasons why the Ferguson Marine scandal is not going away any time soon – and must eventually be answered for.

The MV Glen Sannox remains under construction. PIC: Gibson Digital.

The first is these two hulks lying at Port Glasgow with vague dates for completion and costs rising towards £300 million – enough to keep every Scottish foodbank in groceries for decades to come.

Second, the consequences are directly impacting upon most communities served by the ageing Caledonian MacBrayne fleet and will continue to do so for years.

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Perhaps most dangerously, the third is that Jim McColl and his team – whose yard was effectively expropriated by the Scottish Government – have no intention of forgiving and forgetting, as confirmed by the indictment published this week.

To date, the Scottish Government’s line has been that they gave the yard the contract with best intentions, to save shipbuilding on the Lower Clyde and, ok, things went wrong but intentions were of the best and it will all be sorted eventually. To the casual observer, that sounds plausible.

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However, this document is not about whether the contract should have gone to Ferguson’s but what happened next – and the astonishing failure of Ministers to intervene at various points when damage limitation could have been achieved and the ferries completed.

Its opening complaint is that the Holyrood Committee which tried to investigate the debacle failed to call three essential witnesses. These were Ms Sturgeon the former Finance Secretary Derek Mackay and the Director General of the Economy, Liz Ditchburn.

I’m sure wild horses would not have persuaded Ms Sturgeon to put in an appearance while Mr MacKay was in hiding. So limited are the powers of Holyrood committees that they probably assumed these barriers to be insurmountable. But how could the Director General of the Economy, no less, avoid being called to account for the biggest economic fiasco in the history of devolution?

The report states: “The Ministers who were called to give evidence were at no time involved during the period of the dispute between FMEL and CMAL and were not competent to contribute to this crucial aspect of the inquiry”. That sums up how seriously these committees are taken.

Then there was the inexplicable failure of the Scottish Government to knock heads together when relationships broke down between CMAL, a wholly-owned quango, and Ferguson’s. We are told Mr McColl met Ms Sturgeon at Bute House as early as May 2017 to plead for that intervention.

When CMAL refused to become involved in a mediation process, the report states:

“It was to our complete astonishment that the Scottish Government did not take a stronger line with CMAL and insist they take part in mediation, expert determination or arbitration. They had the authority to do this, and a duty to intervene, given the potential catastrophic consequences, which had been clearly highlighted to the First Minister … why were they afraid to challenge CMAL?”.

An answer is then suggested: “Our chairman was shocked and dismayed when Derek Mackay told him he could not do this because Ministers had received a legal letter from the CMAL board, threatening to resign en masse if the Government interfered …. Mackay said this could be politically very damaging for the Government, and he could not intervene”.

The former Ferguson management call for a judge-led inquiry into the whole affair. If £300 million and – in the opinion of this report – the death rather than rescue of shipbuilding on the Lower Clyde does not merit an inquiry, one wonders what does.

My own preference would be for a wider remit. So many questions have been raised by recent events, as well as the Ferguson impasse, that there needs to be a full appraisal of why things have gone so catastrophically wrong with ferries.

These questions involve the profligate waste of public money, the security of every business and job dependent on reliable services, the future of Scottish shipbuilding and its supply chain … the list goes on. As Mr McColl’s team suggest, it will be essential for all witnesses to turn up - under oath.

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