Scotland ferries scandal: Decisions made under Jim McColl's ownership of Ferguson Marine 'destroyed our shipyard', say workers

Ferguson Marine shipyard was “destroyed” by Jim McColl’s leadership with the decision to bid for two ferries directly leading to its demise, workers at the yard have said.

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Workers accused senior staff of prioritising work at the yard to receive financial bonuses, the minutes from a key meeting reveal, with claims that events since the contract award led to the spirit of the yard being “broken”. The employees added that choices made under Mr McColl’s leadership made it “impossible” to meet the original timescales for the construction of the two vessels.

Staff also explained the absence of an in-house design team at Ferguson’s meant it would be unable to build the two new ferries announced by transport minister Jenny Gilruth last month in what will be a political embarrassment for the Scottish Government.

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The comments, made at a meeting with MSPs from Holyrood’s public audit committee at the shipyard on October 31, come after Nicola Sturgeon told the same committee she did not believe the yard’s former owners had yet to take their share of the blame around the fiasco.

Jim McColl's ownership of Ferguson Marine has been criticised by workers.Jim McColl's ownership of Ferguson Marine has been criticised by workers.
Jim McColl's ownership of Ferguson Marine has been criticised by workers.

Ferguson Marine was saved from closure by Mr McColl during the independence referendum campaign in 2014 after former first minister Alex Salmond contacted him about a possible takeover. The yard won the contract to build two new vessels for the Clyde and Hebrides network a year later, but fell into administration in 2019, resulting in its nationalisation.

The two ferries, hulls 801 and 802, are now more than £200 million over budget and at least six years’ late. Ministers have faced accusations the contract was “rigged” in favour of Fergusons and of political interference in the procurement process.

However, workers at the yard said the decision made by managers under Mr McColl’s leadership to bid for the yard directly “destroyed our shipyard”. They claimed it was “impossible” for the yard to have built the two ferries concurrently, as the yard was never “able to accommodate” both ships.

Staff said the reconfiguration of the shipyard under Mr McColl’s ownership led to lorries taking eight hours to unload, rather than the 20 minutes prior to the remodelling, with the “knock everything down” approach having a “negative impact” on the operation of the yard.

They also criticised the approach of managers, whom they claimed did not listen to worker concerns, with the former director of FMEL’s ambition for the yard “not informed by the people who had the experience”. This included the purchase of a £380,000 machine that was “not fit-for-purpose” and had no service contract, resulting in production levels dropping when it had to be repaired.

Workers also accused management of finishing work on the vessels to receive financial and personal bonuses. Staff said senior employees were “motivated by bonus payments”, with work at the yard “prioritised to secure these payments”. This, the workers said, included a funnel constructed without any pipes, which allowed “some managers to receive a bonus” despite the work having to be redone.

Staff also said they could “see the money getting wasted”, with one item of scrap worth £5,000 belonging to CMAL made use of after it had been identified for the scrapheap. Workers were also told not to speak to CMAL inspectors during the construction of the ferries and faced agency staff taking over duties from existing workers, leaving them needing to “invent a job for ourselves”.

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The appointment of the 'Turnaround Director’, Tim Hair, by the Government was also criticised, with workers stating they regretted not submitting a no-confidence vote sooner.

The leadership of the current chief executive, David Tydeman, was praised, however. He was described as having “parked his ego at the gate” and being someone who “talks sense”. Workers said hull 801 remains a “constant source of embarrassment” and led to staff refusing to tell people they work at the shipyard.

Hull 801, the Glen Sannox, is due to be finished between March and May next year, with the as-yet unnamed hull 802 further delayed until the first quarter of 2024, an additional delay of a further six months.

In October, the transport minister Jenny Gilruth announced the opening of the procurement for two additional vessels for the same routes as hulls 801 and 802, set to cost £115m. These ferries will serve the Skye triangle, suggesting the two vessels being constructed by Ferguson Marine may not sail on the routes they were designed for.

The contract for those two ships is highly likely to go abroad given the nationalised yard’s lack of expertise as detailed by the workers.

Mr McColl was contacted for comment.

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