The SNP’s islands minister has been accused of arrogance and complacency after he rejected the findings of a major investigation which branded the building of two new super-ferries a “catastrophic failure”.
Opposition MSPs said that ministers “had their hands over their eyes and their fingers in their ears” and branded Paul Wheelhouse’s response to a Holyrood rural affairs committee report, unanimously agreed by its members, “appalling”.
In damning findings published last month, a catalogue of failures was highlighted in the process for building two new CalMac ferries, which are to serve Arran and the Hebrides on Scotland's publicly-owned ferry network. The ferries are four years late and will cost twice the original price of £97m.
However, in his response to the probe, the findings of which were agreed by the committee's SNP members, Mr Wheelhouse insisted a procurement process found to be "not fit for purpose" was in fact completed “fastidiously, in good faith and following appropriate due diligence.”
SNP ferry fiasco:
🚢First due to sail 2018, still incomplete
🚢Island communities failed
🚢£97m budget more than doubles to £200m
🧐SNP deny ‘catastrophic failure’https://t.co/eke0pcb74m
— Scottish Conservatives (@ScotTories) January 26, 2021
He added that he was “disappointed” that the MSPs had not placed more blame on the contractor for problems in building the ferries, adding: “we do not accept the committee’s description of a 'catastrophic failure'."
Mr Wheelhouse added: “There are some conclusions in the report with which we do not agree, and some instances where it is not clear to us how the conclusion or recommendation made reflect the evidence presented to inquiry."
The report had said the procurement of the boats from the Ferguson Marine yard in Port Glasgow was "a catastrophic failure".
Throughout the probe, witnesses spoke of a project fraught with problems, including a breakdown in the relationship between Ferguson and Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), the Scottish Government-backed procurement body.
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In a 129-page report, the committee said the Scottish Government was too willing to press ahead with the project despite the risks involved and that due diligence was "inadequate".
The committee also found "strong evidence" to suggest Ferguson Marine continued to build the ships incorrectly to ensure it would receive "milestone payments" that CMAL was legally obliged to give it after completion of certain stages of the project.
Mike Rumbles, a LibDem MSP and a member of the committee, described Mr Wheelhouse’s letter as “the worst government response to a committee report I have ever seen”.
"This is an appalling government response to the committee's unanimous report,” he said. “The failure to accept that there was a catastrophic failure in the procurement process suggests ministers have their hands over their eyes and their fingers in their ears.
"Meanwhile the government's response criticising the committee’s report for not blaming the contractor enough, suggests that complacency is well entrenched in the Scottish government.
"To top it off the Scottish government does not even mention in their response the millions of pounds lost to the taxpayer. The minister must immediately appear before the committee to answer for this dereliction of duty."
🚢 The SNP @Scotgov has announced it is nationalising Ferguson Marine shipyard in Port Glasgow, saving hundreds of jobs.
⚓ The ferries for the Clyde and Hebrides service can be completed, and a future for the workforce and yard is secured.
📰 Read more: https://t.co/qVAznlBfad
— The SNP (@theSNP) August 16, 2019
Ferguson Marine was supposed to deliver two ferries to be used on CalMac's west coast routes by 2018, but the vessels are not now expected to be completed untill 2022 and 2023 respectively.
Tory infrastructure spokesman Graham Simpson said: "The SNP are in total denial over their ferries fiasco. The minister responsible is effectively saying that there is nothing to see here and that nothing has gone wrong.
"The cost of these two ferries has spiralled out of control and they are still not even built yet, which has been a disgraceful failure for the communities which rely on them.
"It is yet another prime example of the SNP splashing the cash but failing to deliver the infrastructure on the ground."