Scotland's ferries fiasco: What are the key questions Nicola Sturgeon must answer?

The ferries fiasco has dogged Nicola Sturgeon’s Government for years, with islanders fed up with an unreliable lifeline service while the taxpayer faces escalating costs for vessels that still do not sail.

Today, the First Minister will answer questions from the public audit committee. It will likely be the toughest examination of her role in the scandal since the release of a damning report that made clear there was not sufficient evidence to explain why ministers decided to award the contract for two ferries to the Inverclyde shipyard Ferguson Marine.

Since that decision in 2015, the shipyard has been nationalised, the vessels are six years late and more than three times overbudget. Costs are almost guaranteed to rise well above £300 million and the Government has already begun the procurement process for two new ferries for the same part of the network, potentially redeploying the existing ships elsewhere.

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It is one of the defining scandals of her time as First Minister, and one the Government has failed to grasp and turn around. These are some of the key questions that should be put to Ms Sturgeon.

Ferguson Marine shipyard with Glen Sannox docked.

The First Minister’s own involvement

Ms Sturgeon is regarded as someone with an exceptional eye for detail at all levels of Government operation. Not much gets done within the Government without her knowledge. One question she and her ministers have failed to outline in detail is what the First Minister knew about the deal and when she was informed of key moments. That extends to her knowledge of the initial rescue deal by Jim McColl of the shipyard, the decision to name Ferguson’s preferred bidder, and the contractual concerns raised by CMAL.

Government accountability

Central to this fiasco has been a failure of Government accountability. There is no-one within Government willing to accept responsibility beyond warm words and apologies for disruption and delays. The truth of this scandal is the ferries fiasco is a damning indictment of someone’s judgement if, as it appears, politics got in the way of economic and taxpayer value. Some names involved, such as Keith Brown, remain in senior positions. What does this fiasco say of their judgement? If this scandal is not a resigning matter due to its monumental failures, what is?

Government culture

Ms Sturgeon will face extensive questions about the culture of her Government, what its priorities were and are, and whether it takes recording decision-making properly. Does she insist on ministers comprehending fully the submissions by civil servants, or are submissions accepted blindly? Do ministers truly understand the risks placed in front of them, are they willing to challenge recommendations, or do they let political strategy blind them to difficult decisions?

Was the contract rigged?

The BBC Disclosure documentary, which alleged aspects of the procurement process suggested the system was rigged to favour Ferguson Marine, will require a response from the First Minister. Will she commit to a full investigation into what took place? Did she know of any allegations that Ferguson Marine was given preferential treatment? The likelihood of any substantive answers are slim, but the political benefits of the deal were, at the time, significant. It is therefore imperative for the SNP leader to demonstrate there was no political interference.

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