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The greatest political soap opera in the history of our Parliament

EARLIER this month I returned to my old work for the steel cutting ceremony of HMS Birmingham at BAE Systems in Govan.

The ceremony formally marked the beginning of the build of the second batch of Type 26 frigates, a class of ship that I was proud to help develop the construction plan for almost a decade ago.

HMS Birmingham is the fourth Type 26 frigate to be built in Glasgow, with another four scheduled for construction in the coming years; a build programme that shows exactly what is possible when Scotland’s shipbuilding industry is provided with the confidence and certainty it needs to invest and to forward plan.

That investment includes construction of the long-awaited ‘Frigate Factory’ at Govan Shipyard finally getting underway, which will achieve huge efficiencies as ship assembly is brought fully indoors.

That confidence comes from the long term, multi-ship contracts worth more than £4 billion that have been awarded to BAE by the Ministry of Defence (MoD); an approach that stands in sharp contrast to the feast or famine attitude adopted by the Scottish Government, resulting in the seemingly never-ending fiasco that has embroiled Scotland’s domestic ferry network.

As comparisons go, it is about as clear cut as it gets. In both instances, the authority responsible for commissioning the ships decide which yards the prospective work should be awarded to.

The approach taken by the MoD means that only domestic shipyards can bid for contracts. Here in Scotland, Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited (CMAL), the public body wholly owned by the Scottish Government and charged with procuring vessels for Scotland’s ferry fleet, is financed by the Government in such a short-term way that it can only commission one-off vessels every few years, each with an expensive bespoke design.

Perversely, they also weigh the social and economic value created at a foreign bidder’s shipyard equally to that of a domestic bidder’s shipyard, something that no other major European country would allow – they will always have ‘social value’ clauses that favour their home industries.

It is a self-sabotaging process that militates against economies of scale. The result is the contract for four new ferries worth more than £200 million being awarded to a Turkish shipbuilder while Ferguson Marine, the Scottish Government’s publicly owned shipyard, never even tendered for the contract.

To understand the perceived rationale for awarding those contracts to Turkey, we first need to unpack the fiasco involving the now infamous hulls 801 and 802, both of which are still languishing at the Port Glasgow shipyard, almost £200m over budget and more than five years behind schedule.

These vessels were awarded to Ferguson’s in 2015 despite no Builder’s Refund Guarantee being in place, the relationship between CMAL and Ferguson’s being toxic from the outset and no finalised design for the vessels existing.

What ensued can only be described as the greatest political soap opera in the history of the Scottish Parliament; all financed by you, the taxpayer.

My background is in shipbuilding. My dad worked in the yards on the Upper Clyde and I was fortunate enough to work at BAE before I entered politics. It is an industry that is synonymous with Glasgow, with Scotland and with working class communities across the UK.

To see it flounder in such a spectacular way is devastating, and the blame lies squarely at the doors of the Scottish Government and CMAL. They botched the procurement process and flogged the yard to the point of failure, all while failing to recognise their own undeniable shortcomings.

All of this has resulted in a demoralised workforce, none of whom are to blame, and have been dealt a kiss of death as they attempt to rectify mistakes that originated at the very outset of the procurement process, namely the lack of a finalised design and fully financed project.

That is perhaps the most frustrating point of all. As someone with a long-standing interest in shipbuilding, I know how critical it is to have a stable and standardised design when building a ship. Not only does it simplify and streamline the process, but it is also just basic common sense.

BMW wouldn’t build a car without an agreed design and Airbus wouldn’t put a new airliner into production without a finalised and tested design, so why are we building ships that way?

The absurdity of that is equalled only by the frustration at the lack of any plan to ensure a continuous production cycle at Ferguson’s.

To put it into context, Scotland’s ferry network consists of 37 vessels, each of which has a 25-year lifespan. On that basis, the rate of replacement is one new vessel every nine months, forever.

This is the baseline for a constant ferry production system in Scotland. When paired with standardised designs, for example one design for larger vessels operating on open ocean routes to the Western Isles and one design for smaller vessels operating on inshore routes, you have the origins of a slick, efficient, in-house vessel replacement programme.

It would provide long term certainty for the industry and its skilled workforce, something that is badly missing right now.

In a way it is simple logic, but it’s something that appears to be beyond the grasp of SNP ministers.

That is why my generation of young Labour MSPs are so eager for the opportunity to serve our country in government after the next election, so we can finally seize these great industrial opportunities that we are currently missing out on.

You can read my column on the Glasgow Times website here: The greatest political soap opera in the history of our Parliament | Glasgow Times


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