SNP under fire over £126m of taxpayer cash to prop up private firms

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The Scottish Government has come under fire from the public spending watchdog over its approach to handing out more than £120 million of taxpayers cash in recent years to prop up private firms.

Ministers must be more “transparent” in their reasons for stepping in to provide loan guarantees and other support so that the risk and opportunities can be properly weighed up in such deals, according to Auditor General Caroline Gardner.

Ministers recently faced criticism after it emerged the billionaire SNP adviser Jim McColl had received a “confidential” £15m loan for his firm shipbuilding firm Ferguson Marine, on top of a subsequent £30m.

Loss making Prestwick Airport got £38m, wind turbine maker Bi-Fab received £25m and £18.7m went to the Lochaber aluminium smelter in recent years.

The figures emerged in yesterday’s Consolidated Accounts for 2017-18.

Ms Gardner said that the Scottish Government “needs to be more transparent about its overall approach to providing loans to private companies”.

She added: “The Scottish Government should develop a framework that clearly outlines its role in financial interventions in private companies to support decision making over where, when and at what level to invest.

“Such a framework should provide clear information on financial capacity, risk tolerance and expected outcomes.

“In doing so, the Scottish Government will provide the Parliament with greater assurance and better information over its strategic objectives in entering these agreements and allow for greater scrutiny of the risks and opportunities that exist, including the opportunity costs involved.”

The accounts also show that £339m of the Scottish Government’s annual £34 billion budget went unspent – up from a figure of £85m the previous year.

Tory finance spokesman Murdo Fraser said: “The SNP government must listen to the criticisms of Audit Scotland and provide detailed information to the Scottish Parliament regarding the increasing financial risks they are taking with taxpayers money.”

Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie added: “There may be occasions when it is right for the government to step in but we have to guard against support being available only to those who have the ears of ministers.”

But Scottish Government public finance minister Kate Forbes said it has a “firm grip” on public finances.