The First Minister met with Jim McColl, whose company Clyde Blowers owned Ferguson Marine at the time, on May 31, 2017. However, during the SNP leader’s appearance at the public audit committee last week, Ms Sturgeon was unable to confirm if minutes were taken at the meeting. She also confirmed the meeting was attended by her, Mr McColl and a special adviser.
The meeting in question took place as issues with the construction of two new ferries for the Clyde and Hebrides network, being constructed at Ferguson’s, began to hit the rocks. The two vessels are now six years late and will cost the taxpayer at least £300 million, more than three times their original budget. Ferguson Marine was also nationalised in 2019 after it collapsed under the ownership of Mr McColl.
Craig Hoy, a Scottish Conservative MSP on the public audit committee, said it would be a “clear breach” of the ministerial code if no minutes of the meeting had been taken and challenged the First Minister to produce them. This, he said, would help the committee in “getting to the bottom of the ferries fiasco”. In a letter, Mr Hoy asked Ms Sturgeon to clarify whether minutes exist and who was in attendance at the meeting.
The ministerial code states “a private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to Government business”, with Mr Hoy questioning whether the attendance of a special adviser fit that criteria. The code also specifies the “basic facts of formal meetings” between ministers and outside groups should be recorded.
Mr Hoy said: “It would be a clear breach of the ministerial code for minutes of such an important meeting not to have been recorded, so I can’t imagine those present would have allowed that to happen. So, it’s incumbent on the First Minister and her staff to locate the minutes, so that we know the reason for the meeting, what was discussed and who was present at it.
“I’m also seeking clarity from Ms Sturgeon about why she believes her special advisor’s attendance fulfilled the requirement for a permanent secretary or official to be present at the meeting. It’s clear to me that special advisors are political appointees and, therefore, don’t constitute independent civil servants.
“Ms Sturgeon has claimed throughout the ferries fiasco that she has nothing to hide and is eager to be as transparent as possible. Now is her chance to prove that.”
Asked about the meeting at her appearance at the committee, Ms Sturgeon said she would be “happy to go and look at what came out of that meeting”. She said: “I have seen the outcome of what I asked officials to do. I will certainly look to see whether that can be provided to the committee. I do not see why it could not.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said special advisers constitute an “official” in terms of the ministerial code.
They added: “The First Minister gave a commitment to see whether information relating to the meeting with Mr McColl on 31st May, 2017 – and the actions she asked officials to take forward as a result of the meeting – can be made available to the committee if members have not already seen that, and will respond to Mr Hoy and the committee in due course.”