WHOEVER is in government, there are calls for public inquiries into this, that and the next thing. It is a currency devalued by overuse but that does not mean there should never be independent inquiries into anything. Take the ferries debacle, to which I will return.

Nicola Sturgeon was a regular caller for public inquiries in her opposition days. In fact, old habits die hard. As recently as 2016, she was calling for such an inquiry into public private finance deals under the previous administration. Her appetite has since notably diminished.

She will not, I suspect, be demanding a public inquiry into the eyewatering costs, still mounting as the compensation claims roll in, of the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Route – a financially disastrous public private venture, entirely under the auspices of Ms Sturgeon’s administration.

The most obvious area in which a public inquiry at the highest level is overdue is the handling of the pandemic in Scotland – and I do mean “in Scotland”. This would take account of UK-wide dimensions, of course, but the NHS in Scotland has been devolved since long before Holyrood existed, so it is a bit late to say decisions taken in Scotland – on issues like testing and care home deaths – can only be examined on a UK-wide basis.

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On monetary matters, one wonders how large the sums involved have to be before an independent inquiry is justified. At this point, “independent” becomes the key word because if the Salmond affair proved anything, it was the uselessness of Holyrood committees in getting hold of evidence or eliciting honest answers, however hard some MSPs tried. For an inquiry to be worth holding, it needs a judge, an oath and a sanction.

All governments operate in silos and so, to a foolish extent, do their budgets. It is too rarely pointed out that when tens or hundreds of millions of pounds are squandered in a way the public finds incomprehensible, this is no mere political abstraction to be shrugged off with an insincere “we got things wrong”.

These are tens and hundreds of millions that could have been spent to address multiple problems that are consistently exacerbated by under-funding. Heaven knows, there are plenty of these in Scotland, as a walk down any litter strewn, pot-holed street will confirm. So it is valid to ask how many tens of millions from the Aberdeen by-pass over-run might instead have gone to funding council services – and who takes responsibility? Nobody?

Then we have the Rangers debacle with the meter ticking at £60 million and heading inexorably into nine figures – every penny to be funded from other silos within the Scottish budget. At the same time, we read about the woeful failure to provide laptops to poor children, 18 months into the pandemic. The money all comes out of the same big pot.


Will the question of how that extraordinary descent into legal chaos and “malicious prosecution” could have happened ever be subject to a public inquiry? If not, why not? Reputations to be safeguarded? A hundred million (if they’re lucky) not a large enough sum to justify it? The poor might disagree but then nobody will ask them.

Perhaps the most straightforward current case for a judge-led public inquiry into fiscal profligacy involves the ferries under construction at the publicly-owned Ferguson yard at Port Glasgow. The costs are already over £200 million and may well hit the £300 million mark with no guarantee of what will eventually lurch into the Clyde, far less when.

One reason this stands out as demanding an inquiry into all its aspects is that there is absolutely no sign of lessons having been learned. Denial still prevails while the implications are not restricted to communities already suffering from the Scottish Government’s failure to achieve what generations of its predecessors found possible – to procure vessels timeously in order to maintain reliable lifeline services.

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The whole reputation of the Scottish maritime sector has been tarnished and there is a real risk it will become synonymous with the words Ferguson and fiasco. That is grossly unfair and the specifics need to be pinned down in order to get to the bottom of why it happened and how it can be avoided in future – rather than “don’t build it in Scotland” become the conventional wisdom.

It is interesting that Jim McColl, chairman of Ferguson Marine before it went bust, has backed the call for a judge-led public inquiry as “the only way to draw a line under this catastrophic mess”. Mr McColl asserts that design work was rushed to accommodate a political timetable which allowed Ms Sturgeon and Derek MacKay to make announcements and visit the yard to doff their hard-hats for electoral purposes.

“A judge-led inquiry,” he states, “is the only way to break through the highly effective government propaganda machine which has only one purpose – to cover up the Government and CMAL failings”. Sounds fair to me.

The current tactic of Ms Sturgeon and the machine is to cast aspersions on Mr McColl and his version of events. But that approach is surely invalidated if he is the one who wants a judge-led inquiry while they refuse to grant it. And remember, there is £300 million involved. That would have paid for a lot of laptops and foodbanks.

Not all demands for a judge-led public inquiry are justified, as I have noted, but this one certainly is.

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