MINISTERS have been told to act urgently to save Ferguson's as concerns grow that it will not win a vital contract to build a fleet of seven lifeline ferries.

The Scottish Government has confirmed that no decision has yet been made to invest in the new wave of 'loch class' vessels, a programme which is already delayed.

GMB Scotland, the biggest union at the nationalised Port Glasgow shipyard, fear that the contract will go out to a competitive tender, instead of a direct award being made to the local yard to safeguard hundreds of jobs.

The government has already ruled out, for the time being, ploughing a further £25m requested for the modernisation of the shipyard firm to help it secure a sustainable future.

The union, responding to fresh speculation that ministers are in preliminary talks with prospective buyers of Ferguson Marine, says the yard should remain in public ownership with secure work until taxpayers secure a return on the millions already spent there in recent years.

The Scottish Government has been accused of 'sleepwalking' the nationalised firm at the centre of Scotland's shipbuilding scandal into oblivion by failing to support its bid for the new ferry work.

Dual fuel vessels Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa, both currently being built at Ferguson's, were due online in the first half of 2018 but are at least six years late, with costs expected to be quadruple the original £97m contract.

Gary Cook, GMB Scotland senior organiser in engineering, says workers at Ferguson's are blameless for the soaring costs and missed deadlines and deserve to know their jobs are secure and their yard has a future.

He said: “This yard is owned by taxpayers and the absolute priority for the Scottish Government could not be clearer or more urgent.

“Taxpayers must get a return on the money already invested at Ferguson's. It makes absolutely no sense to make the investment demanded by the current contract and endure the difficulties then allow new private owners to profit.“The workforce is in no way responsible for the mistakes that have been made but those errors have cost taxpayers far too much money and our members want to help settle the books and restore the reputation of their yard that has become a political football.

“The future of the yard must be secured as quickly as possible and that means ministers committing to building the small ferries in Port Glasgow.”

Yard bosses have admitted that the lack of Scottish Government commitment so far in upgrading facilities potentially endangers hopes of extra work from BAE Systems, which is delivering 26 frigates on the Clyde, plus prospects for the seven new 'loch class' ferries serving the Clyde and Hebrides.

In February, 2021, state-owned ferry owners and buyers, Caledonian Maritime Assets Limited, said that the procurement for the seven replacement vessels was "on course" to begin within the next 12 months.

In August, CMAL was finally expecting the first questionnaire stage of the procurement process to begin in November. It has yet to start.

A Scottish Government infrastructure investment plan update in September 2021 stated that all seven vessels would serve island communities "within the next five years".

Finance secretary Shona Robison has previously advised that the small lifeline ferries replacement plan had been "reprofiled", along with harbour improvements at Gourock and Ardrossan.

It means that an initial £41m spending plan on the ferries has been put back.

Now the new wellbeing economy secretary Màiri McAllan is being urged to act swiftly to end uncertainty around the contract and the yard’s future.

The GMB has also said ministers must look at all other possible avenues, including funding through agency bodies, to secure investment for the yard.

Mr Cook added: “Apart from the islanders who have waited far too long, no one wants these two ferries [Glen Sannox and Glen Rosa] finished more than our members.

“The mistakes that have been made were not made by this skilled and committed workforce and their jobs and the future of this yard should not be jeopardised by errors made years ago.

“The yard needs the small ferries and from there it can begin to create a pipeline of secure work and secure this yard’s future and the Clyde’s shipbuilding heritage for generations to come.”

A Scottish Government spokesman said “We are considering future vessel contracts from public agencies on a case-by-case basis and whether any might be legally open to direct award - which is legal in strictly limited circumstances under public procurement rules.

“Ministers are currently considering the outline business case for the Small Vessel Replacement Programme. An update will be provided in due course, once a decision on investment has been taken.

“The Scottish Government is committed to securing a sustainable future for the shipyard, and has been clear since the outset of the intention to return Ferguson Marine to private ownership when the time is right. Any decisions around future ownership would be based upon circumstances at the time and would need to work for the shipyard’s employees and the taxpayer.”