JOHN Swinney has dismissed claims that a controversial CalMac ferry contract was awarded by the Scottish Government for political gain.

The accusations came from Douglas Ross at First Minister’s Questions, with Swinney stepping in for Nicola Sturgeon, who has been “floored” with Covid-19.

The deputy FM paid tribute to Sturgeon ahead of the session, wishing her a speedy recovery.

Ross insisted Swinney was instrumental in signing off on the controversial contract for two ferries – the Glen Sannox and as-yet-unnamed hull 802 are set to be completed five years later than planned and at least two-and-a-half-times over budget.

But the deputy FM said it was disgraced former minister Derek Mackay who was ultimately responsible. The latter announced the deal at the SNP conference in 2015 – more than four years before he told MSPs the beleaguered yard was being brought into public ownership to save it from administration.

The Scottish Tory leader argued that the awarding of the deal to Ferguson Marine was not necessary to save jobs, that it was a bad deal for taxpayers and that the Government had been warned it was a “risky” move.

Pointing to emails which he said show Swinney approved the contract, he told MSPs: "Against overwhelming evidence, John Swinney signed off the deal anyway.

"It seems obvious to everyone what has happened here. The SNP wanted the political praise for 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.

"Can the deputy first minister really tell the public that there was no political motive behind the award of this contract?"

Ross was told off by the Presiding Officer during the session for referring to the deputy FM as "honest John".

In a feisty exchange, Swinney took aim at "skiving" Tory MSPs who jetted off to Seville last week for the Rangers Europa League final.

READ MORE: Douglas Ross told off for giving John Swinney new nickname during FMQs

Opposition MSPs have called on the deputy FM to appear before Parliament to ask questions on the ferries contract since an email trail was released showing he was briefed on the deal ahead of its final sign-off to ensure there were no “banana skins”.

Swinney said his role was to “provide the necessary budget for the ferries”.

He pointed to the Government email Ross quoted from and completed the sentence, saying: "Mr Mackay has cleared the proposal". He argued that proves it was the former transport minister’s decision.

The deputy FM said: “There was no political motive behind this contract.

“The objective of the Government was to ensure that ferries that are required are built and that is what we are concentrating on achieving. And we are also determined to ensure that employment in the lower Clyde is supported with contracts coming from the Calmac network.

“For Mr Ross to say that somehow the yard could stay open without any contracts is just to deny physical reality about the way which a yard would be run.”

He insisted that “Audit Scotland had deemed the procurement process to be “entirely standard”, adding: “And on that basis the transport minister took the decision to award the contract.”

The National:

Swinney’s comments came just hours after Roy Brannen, the interim director general of Net Zero in the Scottish Government, told the Public Audit Committee it was “right” that a “final check” was done in case there were any more finances that needed to be signed off.

Brannen also defended the Scottish Government’s record-keeping on the issue, which has been criticised after it took weeks for an email from Mackay, which showed he was the minister to sign off the deal, to be released after it could not be found.

He said: “I accept that on this occasion, this one bit of paper was not easy to find, but we did find it.

“Our focus is on record-keeping generally going forward and I know that [Permanent Secretary John Paul Marks] has written recently to the Finance and Public Administration on the new strategy that we have in place to improve our records management.”

The document showing Mackay giving the contract the green light was not enough to satisfy Audit Scotland, who said there was a lack of “documentary evidence” over why the deal had gone ahead despite concerns from ferry procurement body Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd.

“I don’t accept that,” Brennan said under questioning from committee convener Richard Leonard.

“I think the information that was put forward by Transport Scotland, as referenced by the auditor general in the report, that we put forward the entire case of what the risks were associated with this contract award.

“The consideration of that is for the minister – how he chooses to respond to that is entirely up to the minister.”

He added: “He had in front of him, everything he needed to make that decision.”

Ross also took aim at Swinney over ScotRail services since they were taken over by the Government. In recent days, services have been substantially reduced as drivers refuse to take overtime amid a pay dispute. 

READ MORE: We have an adequate supply of train drivers for future, says John Swinney

He warned "delays, last-minute cancellations and reduced services are causing real problems for passengers right across Scotland".

The Scottish Tory chief sought assurances that the Tartan Army will be able to get to and from Hampden for next week's World Cup qualifier against Ukraine.

Swinney replied: "When a political leader changes the topic of their question in the run of First Minister's Questions, it's an indication they are in trouble. And that's exactly where Douglas Ross is."

He added: "Ross knows full well that there are negotiations under way between the employers ScotRail and the trade unions to resolve the industrial dispute that is disrupting its limited services just now."

The deputy FM said he was "very confident" that ScotRail will have additional services to ensure fans are able to get to the game. He said there will be announcements made "in due course".