Scotland ferries scandal: Nicola Sturgeon accused of breaching ministerial code over Jim McColl meeting as ministers bring in financial advisers

Nicola Sturgeon has been urged to refer herself to the independent advisers on the ministerial code over accusations she breached the rulebook for ministers around a meeting with the former owner of the Ferguson Marine shipyard.

It comes as ministers confirmed they had brought in consultancy giants Teneo to interrogate the shipyard’s latest demand for more taxpayer cash.

The two ferries being built at the shipyard, the Glen Sannox and hull 802, are more than six years late and likely to cost more than £300 million. However, the Scottish Government has yet to agree to the latest request for additional funding at the shipyard from chief executive David Tydeman.

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In September, he requested an additional £80m from the Government – an increase that would bring the total cost to the taxpayer since nationalisation up to £202.6m.

Ahead of the budget, due to be set out in less than a fortnight, ministers have brought in Teneo, which have advised officials on controversial industrial interventions such as the Lochaber guarantee, to help scrutinise the request and undertake due diligence. A Government spokesperson said this would “ensure a rigorous approach is taken to scrutinising the request for additional funding”, but did not set out when the final decision would be made.

The political row around the ferries continues apace, with the Scottish Conservatives accusing the First Minister of breaching two sections of the ministerial code around a meeting held with tycoon and former Ferguson’s owner Jim McColl in 2017.

The meeting, which took place with only a special adviser present, is contentious due to the apparent lack of formal minutes. Ministers are required under the ministerial code to ensure the “basic facts” of any meeting with an external individual is appropriately recorded.

In this case, all that appears to have been noted is an email discussing follow-up requests for more information for Ms Sturgeon. This, and the lack of a private secretary or senior civil servant, is the basis for the Tory claim the ministerial code has been breached.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon with Jim McColl at a launch ceremony for the liquefied natural gas passenger ferry MV Glen Sannox, the UK's first LNG ferry, at Ferguson Marine Engineering in Port Glasgow in 2017

Craig Hoy, the party chairman, has written to the First Minister demanding she refers herself to the independent adviser on the ministerial code for a formal ruling on whether it was breached.

He said: “The email evidence which the First Minister presents as the supposed minute of a meeting with Jim McColl is nothing of the sort because it reveals very little about what was actually discussed. This is made more worrying by the fact that Mr McColl has given a very different account of the discussion.

Nicola Sturgeon also appears to have forgotten the clear distinction between special advisers and civil service officials. It’s clear that no officials were present at this meeting and no facts were passed on afterwards. Under the code, this must happen if no official is in attendance when Government business is being discussed.

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“Her evasiveness under questioning from the committee last month set alarm bells ringing, and the lack of detail in her subsequent correspondence adds to the suspicion that she has something to hide.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The First Minister has complied in full with the obligations of the ministerial code in respect of this meeting, and there is nothing in Mr Hoy’s latest letter to indicate otherwise.

“As the First Minister set out in her response to Mr Hoy on November 10, this meeting was arranged through the civil service and so, by definition, officials were aware of the details. The meeting was recorded in the official record of ministerial engagements published by the government. An official – a special advisor – was present and a brief note of the outcome recorded. To claim otherwise is factually wrong.

“In evidence to the committee, the First Minister gave a commitment to see whether information relating to actions resulting from the meeting could be made available. This has been done.”

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