The Scottish Government’s decision to withhold legal advice used in its decision to no longer financially support BiFab has been branded “complete madness”.
Economy secretary Fiona Hyslop said she would not be releasing legal advice despite repeated requests from unions and opposition MSPs because it would be in breach of ministerial code and not in the public interest.
Ms Hyslop provided a ministerial statement at Holyrood on Tuesday afternoon, where the blame for the potential collapse of the operation was placed by the Scottish Government on SSE not awarding the Seagreen contract to the yard, inaction by majority owner JV Driver and the UK Government’s contracts for difference legislation.
This whole process has been complete madness.”
Scottish Labour MSP Alex Rowley
The Scottish Government is a minority shareholder in BiFab, but said its hands were tied because they were not on the board of directors.
JV Driver, through its subsidiary company DF Barnes, acquired BiFab as part of an agreement brokered by the Scottish Government in 2018.
Sources close to the company pointed out the Scottish Government had agreed to be the “primary financier” when they invited DF Barnes to take over the yards, which are owned by Scottish Enterprise, Forth Ports and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
The source added part of the agreement between the government and the company was that any profit made for five years would not be taken by DF Barnes.
Government is ‘hiding’
Mid Scotland and Fife Scottish Labour MSP Alex Rowley accused the Scottish Government of trying to hide its decision to “drop” BiFab behind legal advice.
He said: “The cabinet secretary said the government came to their judgement made on the legal advice they got, but will not release it.
“That is the wrong decision, they have to publish this advice and it is certainly in the public interest.
“I will be asking the Finance and Constitution Committee on Wednesday morning to call on the government to publish the information and asking for an investigation into how this has been handled.
“We need to secure the BiFab yards, or they will go under.
“Also, why has it taken so long for the UK Government to get involved.
“It was known in September the Seagreen contract was not awarded, yet it appears only last week the UK Government was contacted.
“The cabinet secretary is trying to hide behind the ministerial code in not publishing the legal advice, this is not satisfactory.
“Advice has been given to them which will impact thousands of jobs across the country and they will not publish it.
“This whole process has been complete madness.”
Green jobs depend on advice being released
In a joint statement, BiFab joint trade union secretaries Gary Smith and Pat Rafferty said: “The statement amounts to little more than an attempt to deflect from the Scottish Government’s role in BiFab’s predicament, rather than providing accountability and a way forward for the workers’ and communities dependent on these yards.
“The legal advice given to the minister concerning the withdrawal of guarantees for the NnG contract can and should be released, it is a matter of public interest because any credible hopes of kick-starting the much-touted ‘green jobs recovery’ depend on it.”
Government wants to help
Ms Hylsop said it was not that the Scottish Government does not want to continue to support BiFab but “it currently cannot”.
The cabinet secretary said it would be possible to re-examine the lease in Arnish to “decouple” BiFab from the island site, as a result of a lack of jobs forthcoming.
SNP MSP Alasdair Allan was among the Na h-Eileanan an Iar members who asked whether the Arnish site could change hands.
Ms Hyslop responded: “It would be up to the majority shareholder. We will look at the lease for Arnish, it may have potential to be decoupled. That is what is meant by explore all options.
“We have been pressing JV Driver on their plans for the yard and business and pressing on them to put their long-term plans to us.
“We need the commitment, if it is not forthcoming it is important we look at other options.”
On releasing legal advice, Ms Hyslop added: “I have made clear it is not possible under the Scotland Act and also the ministerial code, which many opposition members always make sure ministers adhere to, for us to provide the legal advice which was given to us.
“We can acknowledge it exists but cannot provide it, for understandable reasons.”
Not an excuse
Scottish Greens energy spokesperson Mark Ruskell said: “There are plenty of examples across Europe of countries protecting their own supply chain through smart investments, so ministers cannot continue to hide behind state aid rules. Besides, these rules are changing, anyway.
“The majority shareholder of EDF is the French government. The Scottish Government should do the same here with a national energy company and majority shareholdings in firms like BiFab.
“There is an enormous amount of potential in the number of wind energy contracts coming, and we need to make sure Scotland is ready to fulfil that potential.
Scottish Lib Dem leader and North Fife MSP Willie Rennie said: “The Economy Secretary’s statement is nothing more than a long list of excuses which will provide no comfort for the Bifab workers who were promised so much and after the SNP Government had boasted a short time ago that they had saved the company.
“Work is already under way on wind farms off the Fife coast so it’s too late to blandly claim to be exploring all options.
“The SNP Government should be honest with people that they have missed the opportunity to create these jobs for Scotland. They have let down the workers.”