Swinney confirms he gave vital 'budget approval' to disastrous CalMac ferries deal

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Swinney confirms he gave vital 'budget approval' to disastrous CalMac ferries deal
Swinney confirms he gave vital 'budget approval' to disastrous CalMac ferries deal

JOHN Swinney has denied giving the “final nod” to the contract that led to the CalMac ferries fiasco, but admitted he did give it “budget approval”.

The deputy First Minister was speaking after Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross accused Nicola Sturgeon of “cover-up and corruption” over the now infamous deal.

Ms Sturgeon insisted then transport minister Derek Mackay signed off on the contract, despite serious misgivings from the state-owned ferry procurement body CMAL.

However Mr Ross said an email trail released by the Scottish Government on Wednesday showed Mr Swinney was asked for his approval by officials after Mr Mackay gave his.

The emails showed the Deputy FM had been asked to confirm “the absence of banana skins” and after he did so an official said “the way is clear to award” the contract.

A Government blunder also meant part of the material was improperly redacted, allowing blacked out text to be revealed through a simple cut-and-paste move.

This showed Mr Mackay was warned on 8 October 2015 about possible legal challenges to awarding the £97m deal for two ferries to the Ferguson Marine yard on the Clyde.

It said: “The impact of a successful legal challenge could be high - in the worst case the contract could be declared ineffective - and a challenge could be brought at any time as the contract terms are not being made public.”

However it also said there was little sign of such a move by any yards whose bids failed.

Despite the warnings, and the other concerns about the lack of a refund guarantee which would protect taxpayers in the event of problems, Mr Mackay signed off the contract.

The following day, October 9, Mr Swinney was asked to confirm there were “no financial / procurement issues that he might want further reassurance on”.

After speaking to the then finance secretary on the phone, an official reported Mr Swinney “now understands the background and that Mr Mackay has cleared the proposal. So the way ahead is clear.”

The ferry deal rapidly turned sour, with disputes over design changes, delays and money leading to the yard going broke and being nationalised in late 2019.

The boats are now five years behind schedule and £150m over budget.

Despite the reference to understanding the background, Mr Swinney told reporters at Holyrood he was merely briefed on the previously agreed pricetag staying the same.

Asked if he gave it the final nod, the Deputy First Minister said: “What I gave was the budget approval, which I had given in August. And the budget approval I gave in August of 2015, the officials assured me on October 9 did not need to be changed.

“The finance secretary does not approve all contracts, if that was the case there would be significant inefficiency in the processing of contracts within Government.”

He went on: “I didn’t give it the final nod. I was given assurance that the budget provision that I had put in place in August was adequate for the contractual arrangements.

“I was given the assurance that no additional financial support was required.

“As finance secretary I was ultimately responsible for the spending of public money and the balancing of the budget, which I exercised. But on other issues ministers would take decisions and I would provide the finance.”

Earlier at FMQs, Mr Ross accused Mr Swinney of “signing off” the deal.

Ms Sturgeon said: “The Deputy First Minister did not take the decision, he wasn’t even copied in to the advice of October 8 that was the basis of that decision, he was simply briefed on that decision after it was taken – not even at his request, but on the initiative of an official.

“It is not unusual, really not unusual, for finance secretaries to be briefed on all sorts of decisions that involve the spending of money - it does not mean the finance secretary has actually taken the decision.”

Mr Ross continued: “It’s very clear in here how officials escalated to John Swinney, waiting for his green light. In these emails, civil servants state that the Deputy First Minister confirmed the ‘absence of banana skins’.

“John Swinney couldn’t find a single banana skin, when they were absolutely littered around him - there were more banana skins in this project than there are in the monkey house at Edinburgh Zoo.

“We now know all of this, but what we don’t know is why the Deputy First Minister ignored all those banana skins.

“The most crucial document in this affair is still missing – the one that explains why John Swinney charged ahead against expert advice.”

Ms Sturgeon maintained Mr Swinney was briefed on the issue but it was Mr Mackay who had already made the final decision.

Mr Ross pushed for a parliamentary statement on Thursday from Mr Swinney “to hear why he forged ahead with the deal that has cost taxpayers a quarter of a billion pounds”, adding there is a “stench of cover up and corruption” around the issue.

Transport minister Jenny Gilruth told MSPs on Wednesday that the missing emails had been recovered from a cache of emails and helped show why the contract was awarded.

However she was later contradicted by the spending watchdog Audit Scotland.

It said that, while the emails confirmed ministers approved the deal, there remained “insufficient documentary evidence to explain why the decision was made to proceed with the contract given the significant risks and concerns raised by CMAL”.


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