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Russell backs call for probe into other ministers’ agency

Controversial minister Michael Russell is today at the centre of a new row, this time involving an agency overseen by fellow SNP ministers.

Michael Russell at Holyrood yesterday
Michael Russell at Holyrood yesterday

The latest dispute is focussed on alleged “maladministration and negligence” within the Scottish Government over a ferry service operating in the Firth of Clyde. Mr Russell, an Argyll and Bute MSP, has backed calls for an investigation.

That follows a protracted row between Mr Russell, the education minister in Alex Salmond's cabinet, and Kirk Ramsay, chair of governors at Glasgow's Stow College, who eventually resigned after The Herald revealed he had taped a meeting of the minister and senior Scottish college leaders. 

Mr Russell, noted for his no-nonsense political style, was also forced to make a "full and unreserved" apology to MSPs yesterday for giving the wrong information on college budgets.

He told parliament in June there was no cut in funding in 2012-13, when it actually fell by £9.3m. That followed an apology from the First Minister to Holyrood last week on the same issue.

Now, Mr Russell has written to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman, which investigates complaints against public bodies, saying he “fully supports” a demand that it should look into Transport Scotland’s role in overseeing a publicly-funded ferry service between Gourock and Dunoon.

The government agency reports to Deputy First Minister and Infrastructure Secretary Nicola Sturgeon and Transport Secretary Keith Brown.

Civil servants at the agency have come under fire after two vehicle-carrying ferries were replaced in April 2011 with two passenger-only vessels operated by Argyll Ferries, a sister company to publicly-owned CalMac, which have been condemned by locals as “bathtub boats” that are unreliable and prone to cancellation in bad weather.

The Dunoon Gourock Ferry Action Group has asked the Ombudsman to examine alleged “negligence, maladministration and system failure” at Transport Scotland, accusing it of delivering a service that was not fit for purpose.

Gordon Blair, an SNP councillor for Cowal and secretary of the action groiup, said: “It’s not only the current SNP administration, there’s been misinformation through several administrations in the way it’s all been done. When you look at the vessels they have operating on these routes, you have to ask how on earth they were deemed appropriate for the weather we have got.”

Mr Blair also claimed there was a rift between government ministers and Transport Scotland staff, adding: “Civil servants need to be working with the elected representatives and have their fingers more tightly on the pulse.”

When contacted by The Herald, Mr Russell declined to comment on the merits of the complaint but said there was a “need to investigate” it.

He said: “I have, at the request of  an individual within the ferry group, indicated to the Ombudsman that there is a need to investigate this complaint. It is up to the Ombudsman to decide whether or not to do so, and of course to come to a conclusion about the facts.”

His intervention has been welcomed by the Conservatives, whose Highlands and Islands MSP Jamie McGrigor has also written to the Ombudsman about the Gourock-Dunoon service.

However, Mr Russell was accused by Labour of using the Ombudsman to “settle scores” between members of the Scottish Cabinet.

Duncan McNeil said: “This is more evidence of drift at the heart of the Scottish Government.

“If the SNP was more focussed on the day job, rather than obsessed with the referendum, then perhaps this bizarre situation could have been avoided. It is perverse that the Ombudsman is being used to settle scores between ministers.”

Scottish Liberal Democrat transport spokesman Tavish Scott added: “The Scottish Government's omnishambles continues. On one hand, Mr Russell is happy to back an inquiry into his own government over mismanagement of the Dunoon-Gourock ferry line but, on the other, he has blocked an inquiry into his own mismanagement of Scotland’s colleges.

“As a minister, the most appropriate course of action should have been to take this case to his colleagues in government. I doubt they will be too happy that he has backed an investigation into another government department’s blunder. Mr Russell would do well to taste his own medicine.”

A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “As this matter is being considered by the public service ombudsman we are not currently able to comment further in relation to this complaint.

"However, Scottish Ministers' position on the Gourock-Dunoon ferry service has been made clear repeatedly. The Gourock-Dunoon town centre service was tendered in line with the requirements of the European Commission following their in-depth investigation of Scottish ferry subsidies. This meant a subsidy for passengers only with vehicles to be carried at the commercial risk of the operator. As no bidder included a vehicle-carrying service in their submission, Scottish Ministers were regrettably not able to continue the vehicle and passenger service.

"The Scottish Government is looking to the future of the service. Ministers remain committed to delivering a ferry service that meets the needs of local people in Cowal and Transport Scotland is working with the councils, the Ferry Action Group and Argyll Ferries to achieve this.

“Ministers would like to see a vehicle-carrying service restored to the town centre route but this must be in line with the rules.

"A feasibility study is now under way which will establish whether an unsubsidised vehicle ferry service on the route is a viable proposition. We are working with the Action Group, Argyle & Bute Council and Inverclyde Council on that project and look forward to continued collaboration with them.”

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