Ferry Procurement (Documentation)

– in the Scottish Parliament at on 28 April 2022.

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Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

1. Last week, the Auditor General criticised the Scottish National Party for failing to record the crucial decision to go ahead with ferry contracts that have, so far, cost the taxpayer a quarter of a billion pounds. In response, a Scottish Government spokesperson said:

“A thorough search has been conducted and the paperwork ... cannot be located.”

That is laughable. A few weeks ago, the First Minister was telling us that a big boy did it and ran away. Now, the dog has eaten all her homework. Those excuses would not cut it in a primary school classroom. Does the First Minister really expect anyone to believe that? Will she tell us where that crucial document has gone?

Photo of Nicola Sturgeon Nicola Sturgeon Scottish National Party

More than 200 documents, amounting to more than 1,500 pages, relating to the decisions are already in the public domain. They were published by the Scottish Government and they have been there for quite some time for anyone to read and scrutinise.

One piece of documentation is not there, which is the formal record of the decision to proceed with the final contract award. That is, absolutely, a key decision.

There are two further points that it is important to make. First, there is no evidence that the paperwork has been withheld. [

Interruption

.] Well, let me quote the Auditor General, who said at last week’s committee meeting:

“our judgment is not that evidence has been withheld from us during the course of our audit work but, rather, that an important piece of documentary evidence was not prepared in relation to the judgment that ministers arrived at”.—[

Official Report

,

Public Audit Committee

, 21 April 2022; c 31.]

That is the first point.

Secondly, what is missing is a note confirming that ministers have considered the issues and have decided to proceed. However, that decision is clear in all the surrounding documentation. There was advice to ministers on 8 October, which said—I am summarising—

“We would welcome the Minister’s confirmation that he has ... considered the CMAL note,” is

“aware of the ... procurement and financial risks” and is

“content to give approval to CMAL to proceed.”

The day after that, on 9 October, Transport Scotland wrote to CMAL and said:

“The Scottish Ministers have also seen and understood that”

CMAL risks

“paper and have noted and accepted the various technical and commercial risks identified and assessed by CMAL and have indicated that they are content for CMAL to proceed with the award of the Contracts.”

So, the minister’s decision is narrated in the letter that Transport Scotland wrote.

There is one link in the chain that is missing, but one can still very clearly follow the chain of events—something that Douglas Ross clearly has not tried to do.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

Let us try to get this straight. At the time, Nicola Sturgeon said that this was

“one of the achievements we are most proud of”.

Now, we are expected to believe that there is not a shred of evidence about the crucial final decision. The SNP was so proud of it that it did not want anyone to know about it.

Given the First Minister’s pride, that should have been hanging on her wall. Maybe that is it—maybe the document is hanging on Nicola Sturgeon’s wall in Bute house. The excuse that we have just heard from the First Minister is that there are hundreds of documents available but—wow!—not the one that we need and that the Auditor General was looking for. The vital document has vanished into thin air.

Can the First Minister say, with a straight face, that this does not look like an almighty cover-up? I will also ask again, because she did not answer: where has that document gone?

The First Minister:

That document would have been an email or a note that said, “The ministers are content on the basis of the reasons set out”.

I will say, first of all, that it was and is an achievement to have saved almost 400 jobs. As we speak, 400 people are working in Ferguson’s shipyard, earning a wage and supporting their families. I know that jobs do not matter much to the Conservatives, but they matter to this Government and they always will.

Let me run through it again. On 8 October 2015, a submission goes to ministers, asking for confirmation that ministers have considered the CMAL note and

are aware of the potential procurement and financial risks—of course, the mitigations are set out in the submission—and that ministers are content to proceed. The next day, Transport Scotland writes to CMAL and says that

“Scottish Ministers have ... seen and understood”

the risk paper,

“have noted and accepted the ... technical and commercial risks”

and have decided “to proceed”. The decision is recorded there. The bit that is missing is the link in the chain between those two things that says simply that the ministers were content. However, the fact that the ministers were content is narrated in the document from the next day.

I suggest to Douglas Ross that it might be a good use of his time to read the 200 documents—the 1,500 pages—that are published on the Scottish Government’s website.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

I say to the First Minister that it might be a good use of her time, and Parliament’s time, if she answers the question. Again, there is nothing—[

Interruption

.] Nicola Sturgeon has more ministers than ever before, more special advisers than ever before and more communications staff than ever before, and none of them can find the vital link—as she has called it—that is missing.

The First Minister claims to be a master of detail right up until the point at which the Government makes a mistake. Then, her memory is like a sieve. Every time the going gets tough, we hear, “She can’t recall,” “She doesn’t know,” “She’s not sure.” We are supposed to believe that a quarter-of-a-billion-pound decision either was never written down, has vanished or has been illegally destroyed.

The First Minister has botched this and covered up mistakes. Those who are trying to get to the bottom of the matter have been unable to do so because Ferguson Marine employees cannot speak openly, because of Scottish National Party gagging orders. The First Minister could change that. Will she tell us—as she is rifling through her folder—how many gagging orders were issued? Will she waive them all today to end the secrecy? I am also going to keep asking: where has the vital document gone?

The First Minister:

The email, as the Auditor General said last week, has not been “withheld”. It was, in his judgment, “not prepared”. I am answering that question.

Let me set it out again. On 8 October 2015, a submission goes to ministers, setting out CMAL’s concerns, the issues with the guarantee and the steps that have been taken to mitigate those risks. That is what ministers considered. On 9 October—the very next day—Transport Scotland narrates to CMAL—

The First Minister:

Yes, it is the third time, because Douglas Ross does not seem to want to understand it. I am going to read it—

The Presiding Officer:

I am sorry to interrupt, First Minister.

When people are asking or responding to questions, I would be grateful if everyone else could keep from contributing. Thank you.

The First Minister:

Let me read it again, a bit more slowly:

“The Scottish Ministers have also seen and understood” the CMAL risk paper

“and have noted and accepted the various technical and commercial risks identified and assessed by CMAL and have indicated that they are content for CMAL to proceed with the award of the Contracts.”

On the basis of the advice on 8 October, that is the decision that was narrated to CMAL on 9 October.

On the issue of non-disclosure agreements, it was the Scottish Government that negotiated with the FMELFerguson Marine Engineering Ltd, which was the previous owner of the yard—administrators to secure the release of FMEL’s employees, who gave evidence to the inquiry, from their terms and conditions of employment confidentiality obligations. The Scottish Government complied fully with Audit Scotland’s inquiry and will encourage everybody to comply fully with any future investigations or inquiries.

Photo of Douglas Ross Douglas Ross Conservative

Again, I am asking questions that Nicola Sturgeon will not answer. I asked specifically—[

Interruption

.] SNP members do not want to hear this, but I asked how many gagging orders are in place—how many are there?—and whether the First Minister will agree to waive them today. She has quoted the Auditor General from last week. Let us quote him from this morning. He told the Public Audit Committee that he would speak to Ferguson employees if those gagging orders were removed. Let us allow him to do his job.

Last week, the Auditor General also said:

“we recommend that there needs to be a fuller review—lessons learned feels too glib to describe the circumstances before us.”

All we have heard from Nicola Sturgeon is one glib statement after another. When asked to apologise to the islanders, she dismissively said, “Och, for goodness’ sake.” That was the response from Nicola Sturgeon to islanders who are struggling right now. Her feeble excuse for wasting a quarter of a billion pounds on the ferries is that it is regrettable. It is not regrettable—it is absolutely scandalous.

We know that advice was given to Government ministers not to go ahead with the deal, and we know that they ignored it. Will the First Minister finally come clean and tell us this: she mentions Government ministers, but did she personally see that advice not to proceed with the deal before the decision was made? And, for the fourth and final time today, I ask: will she tell us where that vital piece of documentation is?

The First Minister:

The Tory leadership is in some difficulty, but this really is desperate stuff. I have quoted from the advice that was given to ministers and from the Transport Scotland letter that went to CMAL, narrating the decision that ministers took.

Let me go back to the issue of non-disclosure agreements. I will say this very clearly: nobody in the employment of Ferguson’s shipyard will be prevented in any way, shape or form from speaking in full to Audit Scotland. [

Interruption

.] I point again to the fact that it was the Scottish Government that negotiated with FMEL’s administrators to release employees from the confidentiality obligations that they had back then. Therefore, everybody will be fully free and enabled to speak to Audit Scotland.

On my views on island communities, I think—I will be corrected if I am wrong—that the

Official Report will show the regret that I expressed about the impact on those communities.

In terms of a fuller review, in the first exchange that we had on the issue after the Audit Scotland report was published, I pointed to the recommendation about having a fuller review and said that we would consider the terms of that. However, I think—and I think that the Auditor General said this last week—that the focus and priority now must be on completing the ferries. A key milestone in that vein was delivered yesterday.

I take full responsibility for everything that this Government does, and I always will. Perhaps that is the difference between me and some other leaders across these islands.