Swinney denies 'political motive' drove disastrous £250m ferries deal

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Nicola Sturgeon and Jim McColl at Ferguson Marine. Picture: PA
Nicola Sturgeon and Jim McColl at Ferguson Marine. Picture: PA

JOHN Swinney has categorically denied a political motive lay behind SNP ministers deciding to order two CalMac ferries in a deal that quickly turned to disaster.

The Deputy First Minister rejected the accusation when it was put to him at FMQs by Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross.

The SNP Government ordered the boats from the Ferguson Marine yard in October 2015, ahead of the SNP party conference and the run-up to the 2016 Holyrood election.

The Port Glasgow yard was supposed to deliver the vessels by 2018 for £97m.

But the deal was dogged by delays and arguments over design changes and cash.

The yard went bust and was nationalised in 2019, and the boats are currently £150m over budget and five years late, and will not sail until late next year at the earliest.

It later emerged the state-owned ferry owner Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL) warned ministers about financial risks linked to Ferguson's inability to provide a standard refund gaurantee that would have protected taxpayers in case of problems.

Former Ferguson’s boss Jim McColl has claimed the contract was rushed through for “political capital”.

Standing in at FMQs while Nicola Sturgeon recovers from Covid, Mr Swinney was asked by Mr Ross about a series of Government emails showing he was asked to give the deal his final approval after then Transport Minister Derek Mackay signed it off.

“There was no political motive behind this contract,” Mr Swinney said.

“The objective of this Government was to ensure that ferries were built and that’s what we’re concentrating on achieving and we are also determined to ensure that the employment in the lower Clyde was supported with contracts coming from the CalMac network.”

He said his role had been to provide the necessary budget for the ferries, but the key decision to sign the contract had been taken by Mr Mackay.

Mr Swinney said officials told him this had been done and that the initial budget he allocated for it in August 2015 was still the same.

Mr Ross said later: “John Swinney signed off these ferry contracts that have cost taxpayers £250 million so far and denied islanders the ferries they need.

“He needs to finally tell the Scottish public why he signed off this deal.

“John Swinney charged ahead despite ferry experts warning against the contract. Despite the legal advice that they tried to hide, warning of the high risk of the contract being challenged and ruled ineffective.

“Despite the contract missing a key safeguard that is an industry standard. Despite the fact the jobs at Ferguson were already safe, because the yard had plenty of other options for work.

“Despite there being no agreed design for the ferries. And despite the Ferguson bid being the most expensive of them all.

“It seems obvious to everyone why the SNP signed off this deal – they wanted the political praise from keeping the yard open ahead of an election, so they ignored all the alarm bells.

“It looks an awful lot like the SNP made a dodgy deal and now they’re covering it up. It was the best deal for the SNP, not for Scotland.”

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