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John Swinney: Ferguson document reports raise ‘fundamental questions’

The ferries are due to be completed next year (PA)
The ferries are due to be completed next year (PA)

Deputy First Minister John Swinney said he has “concerns” over possible preferential treatment in the awarding of a contract for two over-budget and late ferries.

The BBC reported Ferguson Marine, the Port Glasgow shipyard that won the contract to build the ferries for the CalMac fleet, was given sight of a more than 400-page document setting out the technical requirements for the vessels.

The reports say a design consultant passed the document to the yard.

The shipyard was also allowed to change its design during the tendering process, making its pitch almost £10 million cheaper.

John Swinney in Holyrood
The Deputy First Minister said he has ‘concerns’ about the revelations (Jeff J Mitchell/PA)

There was also a confidential meeting between the yard and the Scottish Government’s ferry procurement body Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL) – a courtesy not extended to other bidders in the process.

The body said the change to design was based on a clarification in the size of a gas tank.

CMAL said in a statement that the “technical clarification meeting” is “an ordinary and iterative question-and-answer process where ambiguities within lengthy and complex documents are resolved” and was only done in person because of the proximity of Ferguson Marine in comparison to other yards bidding for the contract – which took part in digital meetings.

In an interview with the BBC for a documentary set to air on Tuesday, Mr Swinney said: “These issues have got to be looked into further as a result of what you’ve put to me today.

“I listen to this material in good faith – it’s not been put to me in the past but I do assure you that it is material that I take seriously, about which I have concerns which raises fundamental issues for me about the fairness and the appropriateness of the tendering process and I have to be satisfied that those issues are properly looked at.”

Also speaking to the BBC documentary, Jim McColl, the former owner of the yard, said the document put Ferguson Marine in a “very strong position” to win the tender.

The procurement and building of the vessels has been an ongoing issue in recent years and the subject of two parliamentary inquiries, one of which is ongoing, and a report by the Auditor General.

The yard was pulled out of administration by the Scottish Government and nationalised in 2019, but a series of issues with the building of the vessels were soon identified that resulted in delays and overspends.

The Glen Sannox and the as-yet-unnamed hull 802 are expected to be completed next year, with the cost some two-and-a-half times the initial £97 million.

Particular focus has fallen on the failure of Ferguson Marine to offer a builder’s refund guarantee, which would have protected public money once construction ran into problems.

It was not until after the yard had been made the preferred bidder in the tendering process that its inability to offer the guarantee came to light.

A spokesman for Audit Scotland said they would look at the substance of the allegations, adding that auditor general Stephen Boyle has the “full support” of the permanent secretary, John Paul Marks.

“The BBC Disclosure investigation raises serious questions about the use of public money,” the spokesman said.

“We will be looking at the substance of the allegations raised around procurement by the programme before deciding if further audit work is required.

“The auditor general informed the permanent secretary of his intentions earlier today, who offered his full support in accessing any materials we need, should any further audit work be required.”

A Scottish Parliament spokeswoman has also said the Public Audit Committee will consider the report “at an early opportunity” and “respond accordingly”.

The revelations prompted an urgent question in Holyrood, tabled by the Tory transport spokesman, Graham Simpson.

The MSP called on the Deputy First Minister to call in the police over the “preferential treatment” it appeared was shown to Ferguson Marine.

“If the Government accepts this is wrong – they appear to do that – they don’t know how it’s happened, or who is responsible, then surely they must now call in the police to investigate,” he said.

“Because if Ferguson received special treatment for whatever reason, it’s beyond a scandal – it’s a crime, in my view.”

The Deputy First Minister did not directly address the calls to bring in the police, but said the work of Audit Scotland would “establish any further inquiry that is required to be undertaken”.