The Scottish Government’s ferry-owning company did not want to publicly announce Ferguson Marine as the preferred bidder to build two ferries at an event in 2015, MSPs have been told.
Nicola Sturgeon ultimately attended the event at the Port Glasgow shipyard on August 31 2015 where Jim McColl’s company was declared the preferred bidder.
However, Cmal (Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd) had advised against making a public announcement, saying discussions about the contract were ongoing and they did not want to present Ferguson Marine as a “fait accompli”.
They had expressed concern about the lack of a refund guarantee from the shipbuilder.
Current and former officials from Cmal, the Government-owned company which owns ferries and ports, spoke to Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee on Thursday.
The officials also disputed claims from Mr McColl that they “meddled” in the construction of the ferries, with one saying the businessman had “no shipbuilding pedigree whatsoever”.
The two vessels, Glen Sannox and Hull 802, remain uncompleted and costs have more than doubled from the original price of £97 million.
Morag McNeill, interim chair of Cmal, said: “We were concerned it was going to be seen as a fait accompli with the public when we still had significant miles to go on the contract.”
Kevin Hobbs, chief executive officer, was asked to justify a statement in Cmal’s written submission, which claim the cause of the cost overrun was “catastrophic contractor failure”.
He said the problems were not the fault of the workforce but rather the management at the shipyard.
Units for the vessels were constructed and assembled together which were “riddled with errors which that to be undone and then redone again”, he said.
He said he rejected any claims of “meddling or interfering” in the construction, adding: “I think there was complete confusion by the shipyard.
“And let’s be honest about it, Mr McColl has no shipbuilding pedigree whatsoever.”
He said a recently-identified problem of cables being too short on Glen Sannox was an issue for the shipyard to resolve, rather than Cmal.
Mr Hobbs was also asked if he thought the Glen Sannox was launched too early in November 2017 and if this caused additional costs as it is more difficult to rectify mistakes once the vessel is afloat.
This took place at another event attended by the First Minister.
Mr Hobbs replied: “Yes, absolutely.”
Conservative MSP Craig Hoy then asked: “Could it potentially be that another great fanfare photoshoot with the First Minister might have ended up costing millions to the taxpayer?”
Ms McNeill responded, saying: “At that point there were two versions of the truth about whether these vessels were delayed or not.
“We were saying, ‘there are real issues here, we don’t believe they’re going to meet the deadline date’.
“(Ferguson Marine) were saying ‘that’s nonsense, Cmal aren’t telling the truth here, there’s not a problem’.
“So there was a drive to launch to show actually that there wasn’t a problem and they were right and we were wrong.”
She said she could not comment on whether there was a “political imperative” behind the event.
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