The decision to award a contract for two new CalMac ferries to the Ferguson shipyard could have been based on “incompetence, vested interest or corruption”, MSPs were told.
The Port Glasgow yard won the contract despite its bid being the most expensive and with the highest specification.
MSPs on Holyrood’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, who are carrying out an inquiry into the new vessels – which are delayed and over-budget – were told by experts that the ferries could be “overspecified” for their purpose.
Alf Baird, a former professor of maritime business at Edinburgh Napier University, said the contract that was awarded was “specifying what is in effect a mini-cruise vessel to run a utilitarian shuttle ferry which is basically a bus”.
Liberal Democrat MSP Mike Rumbles questioned why the contract had been awarded to the Ferguson yard – which was formally taken into public ownership by the Scottish Government last year.
He said the bid “was the highest quality bid received, in other words the highest specification, but also the highest price” of all the six yards competing for the job.
He asked the experts why it could be that “the highest bid of all, over the Scottish Government’s own budget, was made and given to Fergusons”.
Roy Pedersen, a member of the Scottish Government’s Ferry Industry Advisory Group, said: “I don’t know the answer but three things spring to mind – one is incompetence, the other is vested interest and the other is corruption.”
Speaking about the new vessels – which were awarded on a fixed-price £97m contract in 2015 but could cost an additional £110m to complete – he said the yard is “building a ship with a far higher specification, far higher expense to build, far more expensive to operate than necessary”.
He said: “Why build a ship with a capacity of 1,000 passengers for a route, namely the Uig routes, on which there has never been more than 312 passengers carried on any sailing, and when the average carryings are half that and in the winter time even less than that?”
He suggested work on the vessels should be scrapped and started again from scratch, telling the committee: “It’s good business practice when you are on a losing run to cut your losses and start again, same when playing poker. It doesn’t do to keep putting good money after bad.
“From that point of view just looking at the numbers it seems to me the best option for this is to stop, start again.”
Meanwhile, representatives from the Western Isles told MSPs about the impact the delay in building the ferries has had on their communities.
Barra resident Eoin MacNeil, a member of the CalMac community board which was set up by the ferry firm to represent those who use its services, said: “We’ve had five occasions where we haven’t had a ferry for five days. I came out on the ferry last Friday and we haven’t had a ferry since then.
“This time of year the stores are empty, the shops are empty, the medical supplies are drying up.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We have been working for over two years to find a resolution to the difficulties at Ferguson Marine and our priorities have always been the completion of the two CalMac ferries, protecting jobs, and securing a future for the yard.
“As is routine during procurement processes, the decision to award the contract was not based on price alone. It was made clear to tenderers that the quality/price ratio for assessment of proposals was 50:50 and would be taken together.
“On a combined mark covering both assessment factors the FMEL tender achieved the highest overall evaluation score.
“After detailed consideration of the quality and costs submissions, the CMAL executive team recommended the award of the contracts to FMEL.
“The Scottish Government is committed to transparency on these issues, and have kept Parliament informed of progress and proactively published information on our website.”