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John Swinney: Ferry contract was not signed for political motive

John Swinney said the deal was signed to ensure ferries were built and secure employment at the Ferguson Marine shipyard (Fraser Bremner/Daily Mail/PA)
John Swinney said the deal was signed to ensure ferries were built and secure employment at the Ferguson Marine shipyard (Fraser Bremner/Daily Mail/PA)

A contract for two late and over-budget ferries was not signed for political gain, Deputy First Minister John Swinney said.

In a heated First Minister’s Questions session, which saw Mr Swinney stand in for Nicola Sturgeon who is sick with Covid-19, the Deputy First Minister said the contract was signed to ensure the ferries were built and to secure employment at the Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow.

The Glen Sannox and as-yet-unnamed hull 802 are set to be completed five years later than planned and at least two-and-a-half-times over budget.

The signing of the deal was announced at the SNP conference in 2015 by transport minister Derek Mackay – more than four years before he told MSPs the beleaguered yard was being brought into public ownership to save it from administration.

“There was no political motive behind this contract,” Mr Swinney said.

“The objective of this Government was to ensure that ferries were built and that’s what we’re concentrated on achieving and we are also determined to ensure that the employment in the lower Clyde was supported with contracts coming from the CalMac network.”

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said the yard would have survived without the contract, but Mr Swinney said believing that would be to “deny physical reality”.

Opposition MSPs have called on the Deputy First Minister to appear before Parliament to ask questions on the contract since an email trail was released showing he was briefed on the deal ahead of its final sign-off to ensure there were no “banana skins”.

Douglas Ross
Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said the yard would have survived without the contract (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Mr Swinney said his role was to “provide the necessary budget for the ferries”.

He added: “After the final decision was taken, officials briefed me about the contract being awarded and assured me, on the basis of the contract, the budget I had approved in August of 2015 did not require to be changed.”

Mr Swinney’s comments came just hours after Roy Brannen, the interim Director General of Net Zero in the Scottish Government, told the Public Audit Committee it was “right” that a “final check” was done in case there were any more finances that needed to be signed off.

Mr Brannen also defended the Scottish Government’s record-keeping on the issue, which has been criticised after it took weeks for an email from Derek Mackay, which showed he was the minister to sign off the deal, to be released after it could not be found.

He said: “I accept that on this occasion, this one bit of paper was not easy to find, but we did find it.

“Our focus is on record-keeping generally going forward and I know that (Permanent Secretary John Paul Marks) has written recently to the Finance and Public Administration on the new strategy that we have in place to improve our records management.”

The document showing Mr Mackay giving the contract the green light was not enough to satisfy Audit Scotland, who said there was a lack of “documentary evidence” over why the deal had gone ahead despite concerns from ferry procurement body Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (Cmal).

“I don’t accept that,” Mr Brennan said under questioning from committee convener Richard Leonard.

“I think the information that was put forward by Transport Scotland, as referenced by the auditor general in the report, that we put forward the entire case of what the risks were associated with this contract award.

“The consideration of that is for the minister – how he chooses to respond to that is entirely up to the minister.”

He added: “He had in front of him, everything he needed to make that decision.”

On Thursday, the Public Audit Committee released three requests for evidence sent to Mr Mackay; former Transport Scotland chief executive, David Middleto; and former Director General of Enterprise, Environment and Innovation at the Scottish Government, Graeme Dickson.

The letters contained a number of questions the committee would like to clear up, as well as a deadline to reply of June 24.