CITY council chiefs breached the law when they turned down a request for tram documents, wrongly claiming the papers had been destroyed, the Scottish Information Commissioner has ruled.
The Evening News revealed last year how the council had responded to a Labour request for documents under freedom of information by claiming it no longer held the relevant material.
Even when Labour asked for the refusal to be reviewed, officials said correspondence was only kept for a year and diaries dating back three and four years were not retained either.
The party accused council chiefs of shredding key documents ahead of a public inquiry into the trams.
But after the Evening News story, council bosses were forced to admit they had made a mistake and some of the papers requested – about the removal of Transport Scotland officials from the board of the trams project – still existed after all. However, they still refused to release the documents, claiming it would be too costly to trawl through the archives to find them.
Some of the papers were later released by government agency Transport Scotland, but they were almost completely blacked out, leaving only the odd paragraph intact. The agency said the information withheld related to the formulation of government policy.
Now the Information Commissioner has ruled the council breached the Freedom of Information Act by erroneously claiming the requested information was no longer held.
The official finding stated: “In its submissions to the commissioner, the council explained that this error was a product of human error, based on an incorrect understanding of its records retention policies.
“The commissioner is disappointed to note that this error occurred, and that the council’s review process did not identify it sooner.”
It went on to say the council should “consider what lessons might be learned” from the case.
Lothians Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale said: “This is a damning indictment of Edinburgh council and how it operates. The culture of secrecy surrounding the trams is extraordinary, when all this information should be in the public domain.
“Not only did the council breach the law, but the people of Edinburgh are still in the dark. This underlines the need for a full public inquiry into the whole trams fiasco and why it went so badly wrong.”
On the cost of providing the information, the commissioner accepted that, on a reasonable estimate, it would cost more than £600 to provide the information asked for and so the council was not obliged to comply with the request.
But the ruling said the council should now offer help to narrow the request and bring it within the cost limits.
Alastair Maclean, city council director of corporate governance, said: “The council notes the commissioner’s decision. We have since made changes to improve our management of information requests.”