John Swinney accused of 'inside job' over bid to sell Prestwick Airport

John Swinney is facing an “inside job” conflict of interests scandal over his government’s plans to sell Prestwick Airport.

Multi-millionaire businessman Forsyth Black has emerged as a secret bidder to buy the profitable nationalised facility – despite having been appointed chairman by ministers to run it on behalf of the public.

And the Sunday Mail has uncovered evidence that Black previously blocked and failed to pass on rival bids.

At a Holyrood committee meeting in December 2023 he admitted having knowledge of alternative bids that were not passed on to ministers. He suggests that even senior management had not been given full sight of bids because they could be “very distracting”, and that a “pre-filter” was being applied.

He said: “The board has recognised that bids for a business are very distracting to senior management and suck up a lot of time.

“We have put in place a pre-filter process so that spurious bids or bids that do not have the correct provable financial backing, the correct experience or various other things, will not go beyond that first filter.

“Otherwise, we would end up down rabbit holes, with Ian Forgie (the airport’s CEO) and his team doing nothing but managing
potentially spurious bids and not paying attention to the day job.”

When Black was asked how many bids had been received in total, and then passed to the Scottish Government with a recommendation for sale, he added: “During my time as chair, no bids have been passed to the Government. We have received a small number of bids during my time as chair, but none has passed every test that is required.”

During the same meeting, Black admitted that a new bid is in the process of being assessed, stating: “We will put the bid through the filter and make a recommendation.”

The Scottish Government later revealed it had received a bid but declined to reveal the identity of the bidder. In was only in March this year – a few weeks after Black quit as chairman without explanation – it emerged that he had joined with aviation investment company Onex Corporation to bid for the airport.

Before Black became chairman in 2022, a total of four unsuccessful bids are known to have been made for the airport since it was nationalised by the Scottish Government in 2013.

Black’s LinkedIn page states that he joined Onex in June 2022, just seven months after being named by Economy minister Kate Forbes as chairman at Prestwick.

Graham Simpson, Tory MSP for Central Scotland, told a parliament committee that there was a “perception of it being a bit of an inside job”. He said: “If he did, then there is no way that the chair of the Prestwick board should have been working on a bid for the airport while in position.

“That was wholly inappropriate. There is a clear potential conflict of interest there.”

Scottish Lib Dem Willie Rennie MSP said: “To avoid further damaging accusations and confusion, we must ensure the highest standards of transparency and accountability are adhered to.”

The Scottish Government last night refused to answer key questions, including whether it knew in December that Black was behind the bid discussed, and when further offers were received.

A spokesperson said: “In January this year the Scottish Government updated the Parliament on the status of Glasgow Prestwick Airport and confirmed expressions of interest had been received. As one of the expressions of interest is linked to Forsyth Black, the then chairman of the board of the Airport, it was mutually agreed that Mr Black should step back from the board to ensure an independent and fair assessment can be made.”

“It would not be appropriate to share further details, including the number or identity of any other organisations behind an expression of interest, at this time.”

A Glasgow Prestwick Airport spokesperson said: “It was mutually agreed at that time that Mr Black should resign from the board to ensure an independent and fair assessment could be made of all expressions of interest and in any process that may follow.”

Onex, where Black is a strategic advisory board member, did not respond to requests for comment.

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