Derek Mackay vows to 'set record straight' at Holyrood ferry fiasco inquiry

Derek Mackay vows to  'set record straight' at Holyrood ferry fiasco inquiry
Derek Mackay vows to 'set record straight' at Holyrood ferry fiasco inquiry

FORMER Finance Secretary Derek Mackay has told MSPs he’s prepared to share details of his role in the Ferguson Marine ferry fiasco.

The disgraced ex-minister - who stood down in 2020 following a texting scandal with a teenager - broke his two year silence to tell the Sunday Times he was “willing to co-operate with a parliamentary committee and do my best to answer any questions they may have.”

Mr Mackay has been blamed by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for signing off on the £97m deal to build two vessels, despite being warned that it carried “significant risks” for taxpayers as it lacked usual financial safeguards, including a builders' refund guarantee.

The vessels are now five years behind schedule and costs have more than doubled, from £97million to at least £240million.

A recent report by Audit Scotland said it was “not clear what discussions took place between Scottish ministers and Transport Scotland about the contract award.

“There is no documented evidence to confirm why Scottish ministers were willing to accept the risks of awarding the contract to FMEL, despite CMAL’s concerns.

“We consider that there should have been a proper record of this important decision.”

In Parliament, after Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross asked Ms Sturgeon to say who “gave the green light” for the contract, the SNP leader said: “Who was Transport Minister at the time in question is, of course, a matter of public record. That was Derek Mackay.”

Friends of Mr Mackay said he was surprised to have been blamed.

In a statement, he said: “I am willing to co-operate with a parliamentary committee and do my best to answer any questions they may have. To do so as comprehensively as possible I will seek access to the necessary papers and information that I am entitled to as a former government minister.”

Government documents from the time show that Keith Brown, who was cabinet secretary for transport, was asked to sign off Ferguson as the preferred bidder in August 2015 while Mackay was on leave.

Documents also confirm the involvement of the deputy first minister, John Swinney, in the affair, revealing that he “approved the financial implications of the contract award prior to the announcement by FM [the first minister] on 31 August that FMEL [Ferguson Marine Engineering Limited] were preferred bidder”.

A friend of Mackay, who is attempting to rebuild his career as a consultant, said: “Derek believes he has been victimised in this whole affair and he is happy to appear at the committee where he will set the record straight and deal with the facts.

“He says in fact he was fourth in the pecking order around these ferry orders, as junior transport minister — the most junior of those dealing with them. He was behind the main players: Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney and Keith Brown.

“Anyone who knows anything about the way these processes work knows something of this size could never have happened without prior approval at the highest levels.”

Holyrood’s public audit committee is expected later this month to authorise a parliamentary inquiry into the ferries scandal.

In an interview with BBC Scotland's Sunday Show, Transport minister Jenny Gilruth was asked if she would like to see Mr Mackay give his side of the story.

"I'm not going to comment on former ministers. I don't think it'd be appropriate for me to do so. I recognise that there has been a lot of parliamentary time committed to looking at this issue," she said.

Asked if the public deserved to know why minister's overruled concerns from CMAL to approve the deal, Ms Gilruth said: "I think we've been quite upfront about this. I think the Audit Scotland [report] makes it clear and we have been absolutely clear that we will learn lessons from what has happened.

"The fundamental thing now though is that we get these ferries delivered for the island communities who really desperately need them, and that's what we're absolutely focused on doing and committed to ensuring that those ferries are out in service by the end of 2023 which is the deadline that we've been given."

Scottish Labour transport spokesman Neil Bibby said: “These comments are bound to raise blood pressure at Bute House

“We welcome Derek Mackay offering to give evidence. Nicola Sturgeon and Kate Forbes have completely failed to explain why the taxpayer has been ripped off, islanders have been let down and the workforce have had their futures threatened.

"A committee inquiry is a chance for Derek Mackay to set the record straight at last, and shed some desperately needed light on this murky scandal.

“The First Minister’s attempt to pin the blame on Mackay fell apart within hours, but he was still at the centre of the dodgy deal.

“After weeks of spin, secrecy and non-answers from a string of Ministers, we have to hope Mackay will come clean where his former colleagues have failed."

Scottish Conservative Shadow Transport Minister Graham Simpson MSP said: “Jenny Gilruth and the SNP are trying to brush this scandal under the carpet and are in complete denial about how badly wrong they got this contract.

“The SNP have recklessly thrown away a huge amount of taxpayers’ cash and no one within the party is owning up and taking responsibility for this utter mess.

“The Scottish Government’s spin is becoming more desperate as each day passes and Scotland deserves proper answers.

“Island communities should be given an honest explanation as to why they are still waiting for these lifeline ferries years after they were due to be completed.”

Meanwhile, Alex Neil, a former SNP minister said questions must be asked of Scotland’s civil servants, including the former permanent secretary Leslie Evans.

He said: “Given the auditor-general’s comments and CMAL’s well-documented doubts about the absence of loan guarantees, what were the accountable officers, the senior civil servants, in the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland doing about this?

“Someone has to be held to account, there must be full transparency, full publication of documents and emails before a parliamentary committee. Ultimately there must be a time-limited judge-led inquiry.”

Mr Mackay - who was promoted to Finance Secretary in May 2016 - was forced to quit the cabinet in 2020 after he was caught contacting a boy over social media without knowing his age, and then sending him 270 messages in six months.

He called him “cute”, invited him to dinner, and asked for their conversations to stay secret.

Opposition parties called it “predatory” and a textbook example of “grooming”.

Mr Mackay apologised “unreservedly” to the boy, but he was suspended by the SNP and a party investigation launched into his behaviour.

He left the SNP in March 2021 and the probe’s findings were never made public.