Rare public showing for CalMac chairman

After six months in the post, Caledonian MacBrayne chairman Erik Østergaard has not visited a single port served by the company or visited any CalMac vessel.

By Brian Wilson
Thursday, 30th June 2022, 11:31 am
Erik Østergaard will appear in front of the Public Audit Committee in relation to the Ferguson shipyard debacle.
Erik Østergaard will appear in front of the Public Audit Committee in relation to the Ferguson shipyard debacle.

Mr Østergaard’s controversial appointment as chairman of David MacBrayne Ltd – which automatically gave him the same role in its CalMac subsidiary – followed five years as chairman of CMAL, the Scottish Government’s procurement quango.

Virtually unknown in the islands served by CalMac, Mr Østergaard is due to make a very rare public appearance in Scotland when he gives evidence to Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee today (Thursday).

Their inquiry relates to his central role in the Scottish Government’s decision to award the ill-fated contract for two CalMac ferries to the Ferguson yard in Port Glasgow where they are now five years late and at least three times over budget.

CMAL was the nominal client and the Auditor General for Scotland found that, as chairman, Mr Østergaard communicated to Ministers the CMAL board’s view in 2015 that the contract should not go to Ferguson’s and should be re-tendered.

When this advice was rejected by Ministers, Mr Østergaard remained in post throughout the five years the Ferguson scandal unfolded. To general astonishment, he was then appointed last year by Scottish Government ministers as chairman of the MacBrayne group.

The panel which recommended his appointment was chaired by Frances Pacitti, the senior civil servant whose remit included responsibility for both CMAL and CalMac.

When his appointment was announced, Jim McColl – previously chairman of the Ferguson yard – said: “I think it is appalling to put him in as chair of CalMac. He is the person at the core of the two ferries debacle. I didn’t think there was anything more the Scottish Government could do that would surprise me, but this beggars belief”

The MSP who chaired the all-party Holyrood committee which investigated the Ferguson affair, and unanimously found “catastrophic failure”, was equally scathing. Edward Mountain said that CMAL under Mr Østergaard was “a major part of the failure”.

He added: “It is absolutely astounding to see the current chair of CMAL being rewarded with a new chairmanship at David MacBrayne Ltd. What kind of message does this send to the island communities affected by the ferries fiasco?”.

This week, the Gazette asked Caledonian MacBrayne to say (a) how many ports and (b) how many vessels, Mr Østergaard has visited during the first six months of his chairmanship. We also asked which local authorities he has met.

A spokeswoman for David MacBrayne Limited said: “The initial focus of the DML Board in the first six months of the chairman’s appointment has been to get new members up to speed on all areas of the business, including CalMac, Perth Harbour and Solent Gateway.

“Members have also spent a lot of time engaging with community representatives including key meetings in person with the Ferries Community Board, which consists of a wide composition of members from island communities. They have also recently met local MSPs and the Transport Minister.

“The chairman has spent a lot of time in the Western Isles prior to his appointment, and his next planned trips on the CalMac network will be to Oban and Stornoway in July.”