NICOLA Sturgeon has refused to rule out Scotland’s ferries fiasco going £300million over budget as she endured a mauling over the scandal at Holyrood.

The First Minister also defended hiring a troubleshooter at a cost of £2850 a day, in a deal that eventually cost taxpayers £2m, saying it had been the “market rate”.

At FMQs, Ms Sturgeon repeatedly defended her Government’s decision to award a deal for two CalMac ferries to Ferguson Marine in 2015, saying it saved the yard and jobs.

However she also expressed her “deep regret” that the contract had gone disastrously wrong, with the vessels currently five years late and double the original budget. 

She said she would not award the contract in the same way again.

Ministers agreed to go ahead without a standard refund guarantee from the Port Glasgow yard which would have protected the public purse.

The Government pressed ahead against the advice of its own ferry procurement arm, Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL).

When the Government struck the deal, the ferries were supposed to cost £97m, but the latest official estimate is £240m, with some outside experts forecasting far more.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross asked Ms Sturgeon if she agreed with former Scottish Government shipbuilding adviser Luke van Beek that the cost could hit £350m to £400m.

The yard's new CEO has also warned major items, such as engines, generators and switchboards, had yet to be tested and could throw up further problems and costs.

The First Minister conspicuously failed to answer the question head-on.

She said: “I simply don’t recognise those numbers. 

“The cost estimates are set out by the Finance Secretary and those are the cost estimates that we stand behind and I’ve been very clear about that.”

She added: “Our focus now is on ensuring these ferries are completed in the interest of our island communities and also on ensuring that Ferguson shipyard, and all those who work in it, have a bright future. We will learn lessons from this - I’ve said several times today I deeply regret the experience of this.”

Asked if she now considered it had been a “bad deal”, Ms Sturgeon said: “Obviously, we would not repeat what has happened - I think that is self-evident.”

Mr Ross reminded the First Minister she called the yard “iconic” when the deal was done.

He said she had helped it become “iconic, but for all the wrong reasons”.

Ms Sturgeon reiterated her “deep regret” for delays and cost overruns, but insisted that, had the contract not been signed, jobs at the Government-backed yard would be at risk.

She said: “I still believe the Scottish Government was right to do everything to save Ferguson’s shipyard. But for those decisions, Ferguson’s shipyard would not still be employing significant numbers of people as it is today.

“Douglas Ross may well take different views on this, but I do think it was right for the Scottish Government to protect and save jobs and protect that shipyard.”

Mr Ross said the deal she was “so proud of has become a disaster”.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar confronted Ms Sturgeon with emails released under freedom of information about the appointment of a troubleshooter at the yard.

Tim Hair was hired as “turnaround director” on the eve of Ferguson Marine being nationalised in August 2019, after problems with the ferry contract led to it going bust. 

He said: “Emails obtained through freedom of information show that appointment was rushed through without the usual competition in just a few days.

“Mr Hair was selected from a shortlist of only three people, all recommended by corporate advisers PricewaterhouseCoopers.

“In the process of negotiating his salary, he started by offering a rate of £2,000 a day but ended up being paid just under £3,000 and expenses per day.

“And that the First Minister was informed about all of this, and didn’t raise a single objection.”

He said Mr Hair ended up earning £2m under a rolling contract after staying in place until the start of 2022, when David Tydeman came in as a new CEO.

The First Minister replied: “Decisions were taken at the time in line with proper processes and procedures and people paying the market rates.

“I don’t set the market rates for what people are paid.”

She said the Government was now concentrating on completing the ferries.

Mr Sarwar replied: “Market rate, £3,000 a day? Were you signing Lionel Messi?

“Government advisers actually suggested Tim Hair needed a decent pay package so that life wasn’t and I quote, ‘unnecessarily painful’ for him while he swapped Hampshire for Port Glasgow. Shocking and out of touch.”

He said families struggling with the cost of living crisis were paying the price for the Scottish Government’s mismanagement.

The First Minister said she didn’t think the experience of the ferries contract was “‘acceptable in any way, shape or form”.

She continued: “We should not lose sight of the fact that but for Government intervention, this shipyard would no longer be operational, it would no longer be open and there would be nobody employed.

“Right now we have more than 400 people employed in that shipyard and we intend to do everything we can to ensure that it has a bright future, which I think is what people in Port Glasgow and across Scotland will want to see.”

Mr Ross said later: “Nicola Sturgeon is lost at sea. 

“The First Minister is somehow trying to claim her government were right to sign this deal - while accepting she wouldn’t agree to it again.

“She is in denial about how badly wrong her government got this contract.

“Nicola Sturgeon signed a contract against the advice of experts. 

“She started building ferries without agreeing a final design.

“She threw good money after bad and has run up a £250 million bill. Worst of all, she removed the essential safeguard that would have protected Scottish taxpayers.

“The public is going to be left picking up the tab for Nicola Sturgeon’s mistakes - and we don’t even know how big that bill will eventually become. 

“Nicola Sturgeon refused to guarantee that costs will stay below £350 million. The final bill here could still spiral out of control further.

“The Deputy First Minister John Swinney said in 2014 that the SNP would replace 12 ferries for £250 million. They haven’t even built one for that.

“The deal that the First Minister is so proud of has become a disaster and a sign of this government’s incompetence.

“The only lesson this government seems to have learned is how to send ferry contracts abroad to Turkey and Romania.”