How the £100m Ferguson’s shipyard scandal is only getting worse – Brian Wilson

Evidence from a union convener at Ferguson’s shipyard this week showed the folly of giving it an order for two new ferries, says Brian Wilson.
Finance Secretary Derek Mackay visits Ferguson Marine Engineering (Picture: John Devlin)Finance Secretary Derek Mackay visits Ferguson Marine Engineering (Picture: John Devlin)
Finance Secretary Derek Mackay visits Ferguson Marine Engineering (Picture: John Devlin)

Say it quickly in the verbiage of government and it might not sound a lot but £100 million should actually go a long way in devolved Scotland.

Hundreds of classroom assistants… relief for councils facing another agonising round of cuts… a bit of pressure off NHS staff… something left over for island communities…

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The possibilities are endless. So it becomes truly staggering that £100 million – and probably much more – is the excess cost of building two ferries which currently sit as rusting hulks in Port Glasgow. That’s £100 million for absolutely zilch.

This week, Holyrood’s Rural Affairs and Connectivity Committee began an inquiry into the phantom ferries. With respect, it is ill-equipped for the task, which requires forensic skills and the authority to call every relevant witness and summon all internal Scottish Government communications.

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The history confirms that these witnesses should include Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon and Derek Mackay, along with Jim McColl. It is crystal clear this has not just been a shipbuilding fiasco but a political stunt at every stage, without regard to cost or implications for ferry-dependent communities.

Anti-Scottish naysayers

The SNP’s defence is that they “saved” Ferguson’s (having allowed it to go into administration) by awarding the CalMac contract. Anyone who questions that masterplan would have condemned Ferguson’s to extinction and can be dismissed as anti-Scottish naysayers – the line abrasively peddled by Mackay when he published a “turnaround director’s” report which passed every buck to McColl and Ferguson’s management.

However, the truth is that governments of all hues repeatedly “saved” Ferguson’s for decades (without it entering administration). What none of them did was squander £100 million by orchestrating a contract which the yard was physically incapable of fulfilling.

Any doubt about this reality was laid to rest at the committee’s opening session when the GMB union convener at Ferguson’s, Alex Logan, explained the impossibility of building the vessels – currently known as Hulls 801 and 802 – side-by-side as attempted.

Mr Logan also pointed out that – five years on – there is still no finalised design which meant it was like “building a jigsaw when you’ve got missing parts. You’re never going to complete it”. The two Hulls were supposed to be sailing by 2018.

Final irony

The critical question is how on Earth the contract was awarded by the Scottish Government quango CMAL in these circumstances. In spite of its appalling record of botched projects, CMAL seems untouchable – perhaps because it knows too much about where the real orders came from. That is why politicians should be called to account as star witnesses.

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According to McColl, he was “begged” by SNP ministers to take over Ferguson’s in 2014, when he was a prized pro-independence performer (albeit from the safe distance of Monte Carlo).

On 5 September that year, McColl delivered the required script: “I have no doubts about making such an acquisition in a Scotland that could soon be independent.” Salmond drooled in return about “one of Scotland’s greatest job creators” and thanked the administrators for “the speed at which they have moved” to complete the merry deal. Raised hard-hats and photo-ops all round.

The next requirement was the CalMac contract and the ruse was to claim the ferries were so novel in dual-fuel design that they fell outside EU procurement rules. Even this is now disputed by CMAL, which ordered them but says “building LNG ferries is commonplace in Europe” in order to further pin further ignominy on Ferguson’s. In 2015, it was Sturgeon’s turn to don the hard-hat amidst cheering workers. By 2019, it had passed to Mackay once the rift with McColl was complete and the yard acquired by the Scottish Government – without a clue what it will do next if and when the ferries are completed.

The final irony will be if the hated Brexit creates conditions in which contracts can be awarded at will by ministers. Even then, it might be prudent to design the vessels first and send somebody round to check if the yard can build them, as well as set up the photo opportunity.

After all, £100 million and counting will still be a lot of money.