A CONTENTIOUS ferries report which led to a misconduct allegation against Audit Scotland is to be independently reviewed following a Greenock Telegraph investigation.

The disputed document contains cost estimates for returning vehicle-carrying vessels to the Gourock-Dunoon route 80 per cent higher than expert analysis commissioned by the Scottish Government.

Audit Scotland — which used senior Transport Scotland officials and the boss of a rival ferry firm as advisors — quoted figures of up to £30 million each for two new ships to replace the existing passenger-only craft.

Connectivity minister Paul Wheelhouse has decided to keep the cancellation-plagued boats on value for money grounds following publication of the report, 'Transport Scotland's Ferry Services'.

Now, following a series of Tele articles and a complaint against Audit Scotland by the Dunoon-Gourock Ferry Action Group, it has been confirmed that an official probe is to take place.

In a letter sent to the action group, audit quality associate director Elaine Boyd stated: "After consideration of the issues that you have raised, I have decided to initiate a formal review."

Ms Boyd added: "For clarity, the Audit Quality and Appointments team operates independently of the audit teams that carry out audits for the Auditor General."

Specialist transport consultants MVA, hired by the government in 2013 at a cost of £50,000, recommended ships of at least 40 metres in length to cope with changing weather conditions on the route, and stated that car ferries would cost £6 million each.

The organisation in charge of Scotland's national ferries fleet, Caledonian Maritime Assets Ltd [CMAL], says the current 'ballpark' figure for vessels capable of carrying 220 passengers and 40 cars is £10 million — a fraction of the figures published by Audit Scotland.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon previously declared that 'the status quo is not an option' in relation to the current unreliable vessels, which were previously officially dismissed as 'not fit for purpose'.

MVs Argyll Flyer and Ali Cat, operated by Caledonian MacBrayne, have suffered more than 4,500 cancelled sailings in the last three-and-a-half years due to mechanical breakdowns and because they can't cope with windy weather.

In the first six months of this year alone there were 678 failures to sail — equivalent to 113 cancellations every month.

But minister Mr Wheelhouse is keeping them, and a previously stated government 'wish' to have car ferries returned to the route has been sunk in the wake of the Audit Scotland report.

Official policy now is a 'commitment' to providing a passenger-only service, with no indication of when any improved vessels will come into service.

The Telegraph told last month how two top Transport Scotland officials, Graham Laidlaw and Richard Hadfield, were part of an advisory group — along with Western Ferries managing director Gordon Ross — whose input was sought by Auditor General Caroline Gardner for the report.

The action group insist that a statement from Transport Scotland that it 'shared the concerns of others over the accuracy of the cost data assumed' by Audit Scotland amounts to prima facie evidence of misconduct in a public office.

In the group's formal complaint, convener Susanna Rice stated: "They [Mr Laidlaw and Mr Hadfield] will have been given copies of the draft report before its publication to help verify its accuracy.

"Their concerns must have been ignored by officers of Audit Scotland."

Action group spokesman Ken Barr said yesterday: "That Audit Scotland thought it appropriate to use advisors from the department they were auditing and, furthermore, use an MD of a competing commercial operation in a similar capacity, is incredible and beggars belief.

"This is particularly true when those advisors did not question the highly inflated costs for two ferries for the route when they must have known that the figures used by Audit Scotland were inaccurate."

Transport Scotland declined to comment on the decision to have a formal indepedent review, stating: "This is a matter for Audit Scotland and the Dunoon-Gourock Ferry Action Group."

Audit Scotland declined to comment.