The suggestion that the Ferguson Marine ferries contract represented “jobs for the boys” is categorically untrue, Nicola Sturgeon insisted as she faced MSPs looking into the procurement of two overdue and over-budget vessels.
The First Minister also denied that information has been deliberately withheld from the Holyrood committee investigating the Glen Sannox and the as-yet unnamed hull 802.
She said she has “deep regret” about the impact on island communities the delay to the ferries entering service is having, as she gave evidence to the Public Audit Committee for nearly two hours on Friday.
Ms Sturgeon said she is not aware of any impropriety in the procurement process, but she labelled allegations made in a recent BBC documentary as “serious”.
The Auditor General is examining allegations the yard was in possession of a lengthy document of technical specifications before its bid for the contract was submitted.
Ms Sturgeon also reiterated her support for the Scottish Government’s decision to step in and nationalise Ferguson Marine.
At the start of the session on Friday, committee convener Richard Leonard said a submission from Transport Scotland was missing key paragraphs, which later came to light.
He said: “The correspondence that they shared with us was an incomplete censored version of (then transport minister) Derek Mackay’s letter of February 2, 2015, to (Inverclyde MSP) Stuart McMillan.
“It wasn’t even redacted, it was cut.
“To mislead, I don’t know. But do you think that’s an acceptable way for a Government organisation to act?”
Ms Sturgeon said there had been an error with the formatting of the original letter and it was now published in full on the committee’s website.
She said: “I don’t believe that there was any intention to mislead, not least because it would have been very obvious to anybody who had any knowledge of this.”
Mr Leonard asked the First Minister about her involvement in the decision to award the contract to Ferguson Marine, saying one of her special advisers was copied into each email about the matter.
She said the decision of October 8, 2015 was not copied to her directly, adding: “I could never personally take every decision that the Scottish Government reaches.
“That does not change the fact that as First Minister I am ultimately accountable for every decision that the Scottish Government takes.”
The committee’s deputy convener, Tory MSP Sharon Dowey, asked why Ms Sturgeon personally announced Ferguson Marine as the preferred bidder.
The First Minister said it was not unusual for her to do so, saying she was aware that negotiations were ongoing at the time.
She said: “I had no awareness or knowledge that CMAL (ferry owner Caledonian Maritime Assets) had concerns about the announcement of that.
“Obviously I have heard the concerns they have expressed in the evidence to this committee, for example.”
Ms Dowey said: “Was there an interest from the Scottish Government to award the contract to FMEL (Ferguson Marine)?
“Was it a kind of ‘jobs for the boys’?
“There’s obviously been talk of a kind of relationship between the Scottish Government and (owner) Jim McColl.”
Ms Sturgeon said this was a pejorative term which “I completely and utterly refute”.
It is “absolutely, categorically not” the case that there was any inappropriate attempt to steer the decision towards Ferguson Marine, she said.
Conservative MSP Craig Hoy said the committee had visited the shipyard this week and management had told them a fresh injection of working capital was needed in order to avoid redundancies.
He asked: “How can it be that painters, welders and cleaners lose their jobs as a result of this fiasco and you keep yours?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “A key driver of the Scottish Government has been to protect employment and I make no apology for that.”
Without nationalisation, jobs at the shipyard would have been lost, she said.
No decision has been made on additional funding for the vessels since March this year, she added.
The SNP’s Willie Coffey said the committee had been impressed with the progress of work on the vessels and asked if the shipyard would continue to be given sufficient management and oversight.
The First Minister said there is no issue with the quality of the work at the shipyard.
A recent issue regarding sensors for the liquified natural gas engines of the Glen Sannox should be resolved as soon as possible, she said.
The First Minister continued: “While I’m sitting here readily accepting that there are lessons for the Scottish Government and our agencies, I’m not sure I have heard that from FMEL.
“I’ve heard lots about why it’s all somebody else’s fault.
“But I think it’s also important that they recognise that they contracted to do a job that then wasn’t done and that has to be a significant part of it too.”
Conservative MSP Graham Simpson asked if she regrets attending a “fake ferry launch”, which may have added to cost of the project.
She said: “If I knew then what I know now of course I wouldn’t have wanted to do that.”
Mr Leonard issued a statement following the conclusion of the evidence session.
He said: “This morning’s evidence to the committee confirmed that there are still gaps in the information available to the public – information about the key decisions made which are pertinent to our scrutiny.
“The First Minister made a commitment to seek to provide this additional information and we look forward to receiving this in the hope that it will improve transparency and understanding.
“The committee will then take time to reflect on all the evidence received before reporting on our conclusions over the coming months.”
Following the committee meeting, Ms Dowey said: “This was Nicola Sturgeon at her evasive worst.
“Despite repeatedly saying that the ‘buck stops with her’, she dodged and blustered her way through the questioning and shamefully couldn’t even bring herself to say the word ‘sorry’.
“It looks increasingly clear that the catastrophic and illogical decision to award the contract to long-time independence supporter Jim McColl was a case of ‘jobs for the boys’.
“This whole affair has been a catalogue of failures from the start, and it is now clearer than ever that we need a full public inquiry to get to the bottom of it.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton said: “Five years on, the First Minister’s ‘regret’ that those ferries still haven’t actually arrived won’t cut it for island communities.
“They have had to navigate well over 7,000 cancelled sailings this year.
“It’s become so bad that islanders are even considering setting up their own ferry company.”