SNP hits out at tram inquiry after John Swinney accused of meddling in crisis

Former deputy first minister John Swinney <i>(Image: PA)</i>
Former deputy first minister John Swinney (Image: PA)

John Swinney has been heavily criticised by the £13 million Edinburgh trams inquiry for “pulling strings” and meddling in the scandal – with the SNP’s Transport Secretary claiming the investigation’s conclusions do not match up with evidence.

Lord Hardie has finally published his 961-page report on the Edinburgh trams scandal – with the costs of the shortened project now estimated to be £835 million.

The inquiry found there was a “litany of avoidable failures” and specifically criticised the decision of Transport Scotland to walk away from the troubled project in 2007.

Lord Hardie has highlighted then finance secretary John Swinney for criticism after Transport Scotland stopped being officially involved in 2007, concluding that in the following years, he was “directing” the city council “as to what should be done” to fix the crisis from behind the scenes.

Transport Scotland re-entered the project in 2011 to help conclude the fiasco.

Read more: Edinburgh tram inquiry reveals 'litany of avoidable failures'

In his report, Lord Hardie put the majority of the blame on the Tie company, set up by the city council to deliver the project, as well as blaming council officials.

But Lord Hardie warned that “Tie’s concerns about the future of the project were heightened by the SNP’s opposition to it in its manifesto for the Scottish Parliament election published in 2007 and the SNP minority Government’s attempt to cancel the project in June 2007 that was frustrated by the Scottish Parliament”.

The Herald: An Edinburgh tram
The Herald: An Edinburgh tram

An Edinburgh tram

He added that “Scottish ministers withdrew the support of officials in Transport Scotland whose technical experience would have been invaluable in advising tie in the contract negotiations”.

The inquiry found that a “conduit of information” from Transport Scotland “was lost” by the Scottish Government’s decision to walk away from the project, as well as “the chance for Transport Scotland to influence directly decisions taken by the board”.

Read more: After nine long years, the Edinburgh Trams Inquiry trundles into view

It added: “The decision of Scottish ministers was taken despite the evidence of the Auditor General to the Audit Committee of the Scottish Parliament on 27 June 2007, anticipating the continued involvement of the Scottish ministers in the project after that date.”

Lord Hardie added that “it is significant” that Audit Scotland urged Transport Scotland to reconsider its role and said there “was no satisfactory or rational justification” for the removal of a representative of the tram project board between 2007 and 2011.

Swinney accused of 'pulling strings'

Former ministers, particularly Mr Swinney, come in for heavy criticism in the damning report – including for attempting to “seek to exert influence in the background” after Transport Scotland had walked away.

The investigation reported that Mr Swinney met former Edinburgh Trams chairman David Mackay in February 2009 “regarding the ‘Princes Street Dispute’, when Mr Swinney told him to ‘get it sorted’”.

Lord Harvie agreed with evidence that this was Mr Swinney “pulling strings”.

The report added that Mr Swinney also held meetings with council officials and Tie “on several occasions throughout 2009 and 2010”.

The Herald: Lord Hardie
The Herald: Lord Hardie

Lord Hardie

Lord Hardie said that the “active involvement in the mediation and in the project after 2011 coupled with the activity of Mr Swinney” showed “just how far the Scottish ministers had moved from their stance in 2007”.

He added: “From seeking to distance themselves from major decisions on the project, they were now directing CEC as to what should be done.

“This may be seen as recognition that their original approach had failed. On any view, any policy that they were ‘hands off’ or that they had a ‘scaled-back' approach had been abandoned.”

The inquiry found that "there was no acceptable explanation provided" for the decision of Scottish ministers to "continue to fund the project to the extent agreed by their predecessors but to remove the safeguards to protect that funding".

Lord Hardie pointed to claims by Mr Swinney that he would do nothing differently in hindsight, and warned “that would be an error”.

He added: “Mr Swinney considered ‘that every reasonable measure was taken’. I do not agree.”

Read more: Edinburgh's tram extension success 'shows toxic legacy is history'

Lord Hardie said that allowing council officials responsibility to review contracts or structures for delivering the project to the city council “with no checks in place to ensure that such steps were taken” was “wholly inconsistent with having taken every reasonable measure”.

He said: “It amounted to an abdication of responsibility for ensuring that public funds provided by Scottish ministers for a specific project were spent wisely.”

But Transport Secretary Mairi McAllan, as well as criticising how long the Scottish Government-appointed inquiry has taken to complete, hit out at its conclusions not being a true evaluation of the evidence.

Government officials confirmed this is in relation to the criticism of Transport Scotland for washing its hands of the project.

Ms McAllan said: “The Scottish Government places the highest importance on the efficient spending of public money. It is why the Public Inquiry was set up and given statutory powers to thoroughly investigate matters. It is also why we committed significant resources to diligently support the Inquiry and to engage meaningfully and openly with it.

The Herald: Mairi McAllan
The Herald: Mairi McAllan

Mairi McAllan (Image: PA)

“However, the inquiry took too long, was too costly and in some instances the evidence heard does not support the conclusion drawn.

“Clearly all organisations and individuals who gave evidence to the Inquiry, including the Scottish Government and Transport Scotland who have just received the report, must take our time to consider the detail and the recommendations.

"Having done that I will provide a more comprehensive response to Parliament, and respond to Members' questions, in due course.”

'Questions to answer' for Swinney over trams scandal

Scottish Conservative MSP for Lothians region Miles Briggs said: “Lord Hardie’s report is a scathing critique of the SNP Government and City of Edinburgh Council’s roles in a national scandal.

“After years of delays and millions of pounds of public money, we at last have some conclusions on the appalling mishandling of Edinburgh’s tram network.

“Lord Hardie is highly critical of councillors and the arms-length bodies responsible for the project – but he also singles out Scottish Government for criticism.

“He is clear that ministers failed to protect the public purse and acted in the SNP’s political interests, rather than the public interest. John Swinney, especially, has questions to answer for removing safeguards that would have protected grant funds.

“The SNP government must now respond to this damning indictment of a fiasco that dragged on for more than a decade, and resulted in huge avoidable costs to the Scottish taxpayer.”

A Transport Scotland spokesperson said: “Transport Scotland welcomes the publication of the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry Report, which it received earlier today.

"We are committed to ensuring that public money is spent efficiently and effectively and, as such, significant Agency resources were committed to assisting the inquiry via written witness statements and provision of oral evidence at committee hearings, engaging meaningfully and cooperating fully and openly with the Inquiry at all times.

"Alongside the Scottish Government, ministers and other parties named in the report, we will take our time to fully consider Lord Hardie’s detailed findings and recommendations.”