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Scotland’s first minister insisted the government is “absolutely committed” to delivering two new ferries for services to island communities, despite them being at least five years late and the building costs soaring.

Giving evidence to the public audit committee, Nicola Sturgeon also denied that the awarding of the contract in 2015 to Ferguson Marine was cronyism after questions were raised about the government’s economic competence and judgement.

Haulage operators have complained about a lack of adequate ferry services to Scottish islands and said the decision to pull boats off other routes to try to resolve capacity issues has been mismanaged.

Earlier this year, the auditor general for Scotland published a report into the ferry project and concluded that it had “been fraught with problems and delays for over six years”.

The report said the total cost of the project had ballooned to £240m, which was two-and-a-half times the original vessels’ budget.

This week, Sturgeon told a committee of MSPs: “This is still a live project, regrettably so, and the Scottish government remains absolutely committed to delivering both ferries and supporting out-island communities that rely so heavily on vessels of this type on a daily basis.”

Asked by Sharon Dowey, a conservative MSP, if the contract was “jobs for the boys”, the first minister said: “You have used a rather pejorative term that I completely and utterly refute.

“If you’re saying was there anything untoward in this procurement process, in order to somehow inappropriately steer this contract towards [Ferguson Marine]: absolutely, categorically, not.”

David McCutcheon, chief executive at Glasgow-based Bullet Express, said it relied largely on firms for groupage services to Scottish islands and they were having a “horrendous time”.

He said: “They bear the brunt of this.

“This business has been going on for years and it’s been ignored. Even when the two new ferries are supposed to come on, they can’t dock because they’re too big for some of the ports.

“What can hauliers do if the ferry isn’t operating and they’re sitting in a queue for another day?

“We don’t have any option, we can’t fly it or drive it there.”