NICOLA Sturgeon has denied there is a Government “cover-up” after a key document explaining when a controversial contract was awarded without a full refund guarantee cannot be found.

Yesterday, Scotland’s Auditor General has expressed his frustration at not being able to review all documentation relating the awarding of a contract for two ferries fraught with delays and overspends.

A recent report from Audit Scotland found there was “insufficient documentary evidence” to explain why the contract was given to Port Glasgow-based Ferguson Marine without a full refund guarantee.

In the years since the contract was awarded, the yard has been saved from administration by the Scottish Government, and the estimated delivery of the vessels has been pushed back by five years, along with an increase in costs from £97 million to at least £250 million.

The Glen Sannox and the as-yet-unnamed hull 802 are now expected to be completed between March and May 2023 and between October and December 2023 respectively.

Speaking at the launch of the SNP local elections manifesto in Greenock, less than four miles from the shipyard where the new vessels are being built, the First Minister insisted “the two ferries are going to sail” as she admitted the Scottish Government will need to learn lessons about record keeping.

Asked if there had been “some kind of cover-up”, Ms Sturgeon said: “There is no cover up.

“There is clearly a key point of decision making that has not been recorded in the way it should have been. That is regrettable, but there is no cover up around this.

"There was no suggestion from the auditor general that information had been withheld from Audit Scotland.

"It was simply that this particular piece of written evidence, this particular decision hadn't been recorded.

"That is regrettable - I'm not trying to diminish the importance of that.”

The First Minister acknowledged that the Scottish Government will have to “reflect” on how the key document has apparently been lost – but she was unable to say whether the paperwork had been misplaced or deleted.

She said: “The Government will, in terms of the wider issues around the ferries but in terms of that particular issue which is one point of decision-making where the written record is not there, we will of course reflect on any lessons we need to learn about record-keeping and data retention in the Scottish Government.”

The First Minister repeated her “regret about the delay to and cost overruns” of the two vessels being constructed at the Ferguson’s shipyard and pledged to appear before any investigation by Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee that is expected to be launched.

She said: “I would expect and be perfectly content to appear before that committee and set out all of the detail around that.”

Scottish Tory Graham Simpson said: “It is completely unacceptable for the SNP to claim they can’t find the paperwork explaining why ministers ignored CMAL’s warnings about the dangers of awarding the contract to Ferguson Marine.

“In this day and age, it’s almost inconceivable there is not an electronic trail of how this fateful decision was made, even if there is no paper copy.

“We saw when the SNP attempted to blame this whole ferries fiasco on Derek Mackay that the correspondence they published to the media was of an email sent to him. Yet we’re expected to believe there was no email chain in respect of why the CMAL advice was ignored by ministers.

“And Nicola Sturgeon has the audacity to claim she’s being open and transparent on this scandal. It’s clearer than ever we need a public inquiry to get to the bottom of this murky affair.”