Ferry fiasco is a microcosm of what is wrong in Scottish politics
Two ferries, yet to sail, over five years late and nearly £300m over budget. A multitude of questions still unanswered. And a committee asking why it has not been given access to the people and information it needs to scrutinise what went wrong.
It’s hardly a ringing endorsement of Scottish politics, and yet the entire ferries fiasco seems to be just a microcosm of the way the Scottish Government is approaching everything these days.
The Scottish Parliament’s diligent Public Audit Committee has, for the last 12 months, been investigating the debacle which has left taxpayers out of pocket and islanders without two lifelines. Its report, published last week, was damning.
There were “significant failings throughout the lifetime of the project”, it said, and there was a “significant lack of transparency and accountability”. The committee has had to combat “contradictory views”, a “lack of cooperation” from ministers, and a “lack of engagement” from other key players. “We question the level of respect and regard shown for accountability and parliamentary scrutiny,” it said.
This is of course not the only time concerns about government transparency have been raised, nor is it the first time MSPs have been exasperated by decision-makers refusing to be held to account. We should all be concerned by this.
The errors surrounding the late and over-budget ferries may just be that, errors. But putting up barriers to MSPs doing their jobs is worrying. That way corruption lies. It speaks to an attitude of ‘we can do no wrong’ and it suggests a level of arrogance from ministers that should be unacceptable.
For all the talk from the SNP of not taking votes for granted and not being complacent, this inquiry has proven that to be little more than warm words. We have a government that has now become so distant from the people it is meant to serve that it thinks it can – to borrow a phrase – ride roughshod over parliament.
Not documenting decisions that should have been documented, not having senior civil servants present at meetings when they should have been, and failing to flag warnings to those in charge (and those in charge not, apparently, asking the right questions) are all indicative of a government and democracy in decline. And it’s been happening over many years and in many situations.
The committee’s convener, Richard Leonard, ended his remarks on the report by saying it was “vital that lessons are learned”. There needs to be, he said, reforms to governance arrangements and a change in culture and attitude around how government treats parliament. “That is a challenge for the permanent secretary and the new first minister,” he said.
I fear it is already too late and that this government, so mired in scandal and desperate to cover any misstep (no matter how minor) that it inevitably leads to more mistruths and mishandling, has already reached the point of no return.
I hope that I’m wrong. That the new first minister gets to grips with this issue and a myriad of others. That they acknowledge the Scottish Government has got things wrong and will work, day and night, to turn things around and regain the trust of the public. But I’m skeptical. And if the recent SNP leadership race has proven anything, it’s that that culture runs deep – and the only way for that to change, for party and for government, is a fresh start.
Holyrood provides comprehensive coverage of Scottish politics, offering award-winning reporting and analysis: Subscribe