Willie Rennie: SNP's claim it would save BiFab looks like empty rhetoric

In early April, amid a flurry of high and mighty words about growth and opportunity, and a photo call to match, the Scottish Government announced itself the saviour of the BiFab yards.

BiFab has played an important support role for the offshore oil and gas industry since the 90s. It produces large-scale equipment for tidal generators and offshore turbines. In November last year, starved of cash, it hit problems. But in April the Scottish Government announced its sale to Canadian firm DF Barnes, and with that it seemed the clouds were starting to clear.

What hasn’t received as much attention since is the disintegrating stability for staff – the drip-fed resignation news, the failure to secure more contracts. Last week the GMB union said the BiFab yards in Fife and Lewis were effectively closed. More redundancies have been confirmed and what’s left is a hollow team of seven being offered part-time posts to keep an eye on maintenance and security. Twelve senior managers are also expected to be retained.

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BiFab workers are right to feel betrayed. The SNP has been front and centre stage on the company’s recovery when it’s useful but uncomfortably out of sight when the chips are down. This is crunch time for the yard, for the future of its workers and the strength of the industry in Fife. The Scottish Government committed to this challenge and now is the time to ramp up their efforts.

BiFab workers are right to feel betrayed by the Scottish Government

The union talks of anger and resentment on the ground. Anger from workers who have toiled to complete the Beatrice windfarm order for new turbines in the Moray Firth and have been rewarded with luke-warm words and redundancy.

The 400-strong workforce, bolstered by 1,000 contractors, has been eroded and eroded since DF Barnes took ownership in April. The rhetoric spouted by the SNP was that this move would see the vast bulk of those jobs saved. Stringing people along with hopeful comments is not a good enough strategy.

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GMB Scotland’s organiser, Alan Ritchie, said the yard had been “promised a bright future”. Well that’s just the crux of the problem. The Scottish Government is starting to establish a pattern of making big promises, lauding big saviours and then letting the veneer crack. Its commitment to the businesses it claims to rescue needs to go further than a press release. What is crystal clear is the SNP has shied away from its responsibility to see BiFab out the other side of its troubles.

The betrayal has been gradual with a few redundancies here and there. Nicola Sturgeon turned up beaming at the yard in April heralding a new future amid valiant efforts to secure new contracts and save jobs to the gathered employees. She said this was a massive step forward in the restoration of the yard and prophesised a future “at the centre of Scotland’s marine energy industry”. I was chided in parliament by the Enterprise Minister for suggesting that this was anything other than excellent news. I was informed that it was not the intention of DF Barnes to make redundancies.

And look at Prestwick Airport, another shining example of the SNP claiming the glory and then presuming that’s the job done. Prestwick was bought for a pound in 2013 and it’s stagnated since. It has been saved in principle but it’s not on the up, it’s not attracting new flights, it’s not secured the space port. Sturgeon said then she would set about “turning Prestwick around and making it a viable enterprise” and yet five years on we’re in a situation where the tax-payer is unlikely to ever get its money back. The SNP’s approach is uninspiring and lay-about.

Take Amazon Dunfermline, opened by the then First Minister to great fanfare. But when questions about pay and conditions were subsequently raised a junior minister was eventually sent to see what could be done. Nothing came the reply from the company, which the government meekly accepted.

Let’s also talk about scrutiny on Bifab. When the redundancies were unveiled, the government didn’t have the good grace to make a statement to the Parliament. It shuffled the matter through in a quiet topical question in which the then Minister for the Economy, Jobs & Fair Work Keith Brown’s strongest answer was an assurance that discussions had taken place. He said his focus was on securing more contracts and he acknowledged, in his own words, the “big job of work to be done”, but here we are three months down the line and none have materialised. It’s all show and no substance. As we have seen time and time before.

There are ongoing questions about the Scottish Government’s liabilities on this and the commitments given by DF Barnes. We need answers but, more importantly, the workers need answers.

What also sits ill at ease here is the Scottish Government’s renewable ambitions. They once proclaimed Scotland as the Saudi Arabia of the renewables industry. BiFab represents a manufacturing facility that’s key to the Scottish Government’s flagship energy policy on offshore wind. How now does it propose to have the base we need to boost the sector in the future?

If manufacturing capacity evaporates in this country, we’ll be outsourcing everything we install. And installing other people’s equipment, foundations and structures means we’ll be giving up on all the benefits of renewables other than the zero-carbon energy, squandering away those jobs and investment to elsewhere round the world.

BiFab’s order book has unfortunately dried up as fast as the Scottish Government’s efforts and, at the end of the day, it’s loyal workers who suffer. The Scottish Government made the decision to support BiFab, it now has a duty to protect its workers and its business.

Surely, given the SNP’s affinity for the Proclaimers, they don’t want to be the people saying “Methil no more”.

Willie Rennie MSP is leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats