A long-sought document published by the Scottish Government has shown a disgraced minister approved the contract for two delayed and over-budget ferries despite concerns.
The Glen Sannox and the as-yet-unnamed hull 802 were commissioned in 2015 and due to be completed in 2018, but they have since been delayed until at least next year.
Costs have also soared at Government-owned Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow, with the vessels expected to cost at least £250 million, according to Audit Scotland.
Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (Cmal) – the Scottish Government’s ferry procurer – had raised issues with the contract before it was approved after Ferguson Marine said it could not offer a full refund guarantee, but the decision was taken to move ahead with the deal regardless.
A key document proving which minister approved the deal and the reason why the concerns were ignored could not be found – leading Auditor General Stephen Boyle to say there was insufficient “documentary evidence”.
But on Wednesday, transport minister Jenny Gilruth told MSPs the document – an email response to Cmal approving the contract – had been located.
It shows Derek Mackay made the final decision when he was transport minister in 2015.
An Audit Scotland spokesman said the email “confirms that ministers approved the award” of the contract.
“But there remains insufficient documentary evidence to explain why the decision was made to proceed with the contract, given the significant risks and concerns raised by Cmal,” the spokesman added.
A single sentence response from the office of Mr Mackay – who quit as finance secretary after suggestive messages he sent to a 16-year-old boy were made public – said: “The minister is content with the proposals and would like (them) to be moved on as quickly as possible please.”
Ms Gilruth told the chamber the email had been found in a chain that was sent to Deputy First Minister John Swinney’s office when he was finance secretary.
“The email makes clear who approved the decision to award the contract to build vessels 801 and 802 to Ferguson’s shipyard,” Ms Gilruth told MSPs.
“I hold in my hand that irrefutable documentary evidence that this decision was made rightly and properly by then transport minister Derek Mackay.
“We said we would continue to look in good faith, and we have – that is exactly what we have done.
“It was found because a copy of an email chain had been retained by someone in the Scottish Government finance department because the then finance secretary was briefed on the decision.
“By chance, a copy of that email chain – between two officials who left Government some years ago – includes the email from the transport minister’s private office and was buried in someone’s electronic files.”
Mr Mackay was responding to a note from the Cmal board which laid out the new contract arrangement, featuring a refund guarantee of just 25% – with the board saying it felt it was its “absolute duty” to alert ministers to the risks associated with awarding the contract.
Also on the same email chain, an official for Mr Swinney, who was then also serving as finance secretary, asked for communication of the final decision to be delayed until Mr Swinney could be briefed.
“Might it be sensible to wait until he and DFM have spoken (5pm) to ensure there are no financial/procurement issues that he might want further reassurance on?” the email said.
“Unless there is a critical deadline, my sense is that it we should hold fire for a few hours.”
Once the Deputy First Minister had been briefed, the official added: “He now understands the background and that Mr MacKay has cleared the proposal. So the way is clear to award.”
An attempt by Scottish Tory chief whip Stephen Kerr to force a ministerial statement by Mr Swinney on Thursday failed.
Scottish Conservative transport spokesman, Graham Simpson, said the document does not make clear why the concerns of Cmal went unheeded.
“What the email just read out does not say is why the decision was taken, why the advice not to award that contract was ignored,” he said.
“Nor does it say whether there were discussions between Mr Mackay and (then transport secretary Keith Brown) and Mr Swinney and (First Minister Nicola Sturgeon), does it?”
In response, Ms Gilruth said: “The decision to award the contract – information that pertains to this that Mr Simpson is searching for – has already been published, he has had answers to numerous topical questions, the First Minister has answered numerous questions on this issue.
“The opposition need to give up, they have an answer here today.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP, Willie Rennie, said he found it “very difficult to believe” that the email was found on Wednesday, adding: “She’s expecting us to believe that a multimillion- dollar contract was given the go-ahead on the basis of a one-line email.
“For me, that doesn’t fill me with confidence. Certainly, it doesn’t explain why the central advice was ignored by the minister,” he said.
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