Ministers have defended a spend of £6m of taxpayers' money on a series of consultants providing advice over the future of ferries, in a move described as "scandalous".

Private consultants Ernst and Young are the latest to benefit from the spend having been given a quarter of a million pounds for a new wave of advice over the future of lifeline island ferry services off the west coast of Scotland.

That comes on top of more than half a million pounds that was spent by ministers with the consultants between 2015 and 2022.

Ernst and Young was awarded its latest £250,000 contract at the start of the year to look into the legal and financial impacts of whether state-owned ferry operator CalMac can be given a new contract for the beleaguered west coast ferry services by "default" without going through a competitive tendering process.

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The year-long contract, due to end in January, next year forms part of a due diligence over the Scottish Government's preferred option to directly award the next contract over the future of lifeline ferry services to CalMac.

According to the contract specification, Ernst & Young, which trades under the name EY, will "fully examine the financial impacts of required governance changes" as well as any "identified restructuring" of both Scottish Government-owned CalMac Ferries and its parent company David MacBrayne Limited.

Scottish Labour MSP for West Scotland Katy Clark has quizzed transport minister Fiona Hyslop over the consultants spend revealed in the Herald after concern that the Scottish Government could have used its own internal expertise.

Ms Hyslop said: "On complex, high value projects, specialist advice is required to ensure that Scottish Government contracts fully meet policy objectives and legal requirements, and those figures refer to work since 2015.

"This has included support from specialist, technical, legal and financial external advisors, including those with expertise in the maritime sector. This will help ensure we adhere to the relevant legislation, that we meet the needs of communities, and that the appropriate ferries and projects deliver value for money to the public purse."

Two Scottish Government-sanctioned ferries to support creaking lifeline islands services Glen Sannox and sister ferry Glen Rosa are still to be completed at the nationalised shipyard firm Ferguson Marine.  They were due online in the first half of 2018, with both now due to serve Arran, but will be over six years late, with costs expected to be quadruple the original £97m contract.

Ms Clark said that passengers and the workforce had been in the dark about what the latest work given to Ernst and Young has achieved to date. She called for the Scottish Government to commit to a formal and regular structure of direct engagement with the unions representing workers in CalMac over the case for a direct award of a long-term contract to the ferry operator.

The ferry operator CalMac's community board has said it has been "clearly informed" that the Scottish Government-owned ferry operator is to get an uncontested award of the lifeline islands contract, despite objections.

It is understood ministers have been looking at giving a permanent contract to CalMac, giving it the right to run lifeline services in perpetuity as "an arm of government", which has sparked a row amongst user groups.

CalMac's current billion pound eight-year Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Services contract expires in September 2024. It had previously won the contract for six years in 2007 – after ministers were forced to tender for routes to satisfy European competition rules.

Ms Clark, the Scottish Labour community safety spokesperson Katy Clark has previously been critical of the use of consultants and described the latest award to EY as "scandalous" saying they were an "unaccountable firm with a vested interest in private provision of public services".

The life peer and long-term former MP for North Ayrshire and Arran said the Scottish government was "addicted" to outsourcing key work relating to the future of the public ferry service "rather than using its own civil service".

She wanted to know what more can be done to ensure that the voices of the workforce and islanders are heard in decisions about the future structure of our ferry services.

Ms Hyslop said: "We regularly engage with unions. I have a specific, regular session with ferry unions in particular. And obviously the direct award has been subject to discussions with them, but probably as important, if not more important, the detail of that and the content for the next award has been the subject of direct engagement by Transport Scotland officials and the unions, similarly with islanders. And indeed, we'll be reporting on the consultation with islanders for the next award. "

On April 3, Robbie Drummond stepped down as chief executive of CalMac with "immediate effect" following a review of its executive leadership as it faces "challenging years ahead".

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Services to be provided by EY will also "validate and quantify the financial impact of structure changes" and to conduct a benchmarking exercise over the value for money of the proposed costs of the west coast ferry contract.

It will also carry out a wider long term affordability assessment.

Critics say the ministers should be using its own free expertise rather than use a management consultancy which has frequently been accused of promoting using private capital to redesign public services while advocating “public-private partnership”.

Contracts have worth £560,000 have already been paid out to the external multinational consultants which was tasked by ministers to look into the future of Scotland's ferry service structure including the option of “unbundling of routes into smaller packages”.

EY was paid £156,000 for the Project Neptune examination of the Scottish Government-controlled structure that underpins Scotland's ferry service.

A further £404,000 was given to EY for analysing the financial state of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry Service contract operated by CalMac.

Project Neptune emerged amidst growing concern that the service was "cocooned" inside four levels of Scottish Government control with the Transport Scotland agency as funders, the procuring and vessel owning company, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd (CMAL), the ferry operators CalMac and the nationalised shipbuilders Ferguson Marine (Port Glasgow).

A further £5m of public money was spent on two consultancy firms last year which will help decide whether Scottish Government-owned CalMac will retain the west coast ferry contract from next year.

Transport Scotland recruited two sets of firms to provide legal and commercial advice over the award of the Clyde and Hebrides Ferry services contract.

International law firm CMS Cameron McKenna Nabarro Olswang LLP was recruited on a four year contract worth £1m to provide legal advice to the Transport Scotland ferries unit over the contract.

A further £4m was given to Edinburgh-based infrastructure consultants Turner & Townsend, which will examine commercial implications.