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by Louise Wilson
04 November 2022
Scottish Government should have taken different decision on ferries, says Nicola Sturgeon

Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence to the Public Audit Committee on Friday morning

Scottish Government should have taken different decision on ferries, says Nicola Sturgeon

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she would have taken a different path on the decision to award Ferguson Marine the contract to build two new ferries.

Asked by Tory MSP Graham Simpson at the parliament’s Public Audit Committee, Sturgeon said she “of course” wishes she could “turn the clock back” based on what is known now.

But she also insisted the decision was the right one at the time.

She said: “If we had known probably a fraction of what we know now, clearly you would wish you’d taken a different decision, but we didn’t know that at the time… Based on what was known at the time, that was a reasonable decision.”

The First Minister said the final decision, taken by then transport minister Derek Mackay, was based on a balance of risks and the minister had been content with the mitigations put in place.

She also said that retendering the contract may not have “resulted in a situation where we didn’t have any problems”.

The First Minister was appearing before the committee to answer questions over the delayed and overbudget ferries for the Clyde and Hebrides ferry route.

An Audit Scotland report earlier this year pointed to “multiple failings” which led to the delays and cost overruns.

Another Tory MSP, Craig Hoy, asked: “You’ve said repeatedly in TV studios and in parliament that the buck stops with you. But what does this actually mean in your government? What are the consequences of a quarter of a billion pounds being spent on two ferries that are five years late?”

Sturgeon said the government would “properly learn the lessons that need to be learned and I am very serious about that responsibility”.

The First Minister said she had been unaware of concerns about the contract at the time she announced Ferguson Marine was the preferred bidder in August 2015.

And she said she was not copied into later correspondence sent to Mackay in October of that year.

But she said the mitigations put in place at the time meant the contract was “broadly in line” with tender requirements.

The First Minister was also questioned on the decision to nationalise the shipyard in December 2019. She insisted it was “the only viable option that was available” at the time, otherwise “the yard would have closed” and “there would have been no route to completing the vessels”.

Former owner of the shipyard, Jim McColl, has previously rejected this suggestion.

Regarding the future of the yard, Sturgeon said the government “haven’t reached the point of decision” on whether it will remain in public ownership.

Speaking after the session, committee convener Richard Leonard said: "This morning’s evidence to the committee confirmed that there are still gaps in the information available to the public - information about the key decisions made which are pertinent to our scrutiny.

"The first minister made a commitment to seek to provide this additional information and we look forward to receiving this in the hope that it will improve transparency and understanding."

The committee will write and publish its report on its inquiry in the coming months.

Sharon Dowey, another Conservative MSP on the committee, said Sturgeon was "at her evasive worst" during the session.

She added: "It appears the First Minister’s usually meticulous memory fails her when it comes to crucial meetings. Nonetheless, it looks increasingly clear that the catastrophic and illogical decision to award the contract to long-time independence supporter Jim McColl was a case of ‘jobs for the boys’.

“This whole affair has been a catalogue of failures from the start, and it is now clearer than ever that we need a full public inquiry to get to the bottom of it.”

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