Edinburgh Tram Inquiry: Expert told to ‘shut up’ over tram fears

Picture: Ian Rutherford
Picture: Ian Rutherford

A COUNCIL legal expert knew councillors were being given inaccurate information on the trams but was told to “shut up” when he challenged senior colleagues about it, the inquiry into the troubled project has heard.

Former city Tory group leader Jeremy Balfour, now a Lothians MSP, also said the same official, Alastair Maclean, believed the original tram contract was “a piece of mince”.

On the third day of the inquiry into the trams fiasco, chaired by Lord Hardie, Mr Balfour said he believed councillors had been misinformed about the contract and liabilities before they gave the go-ahead for the project in 2007.

He said: “Members of the legal team, who came in subsequent to all of this, their view was that the original contract we had was mince, to use their words.”

In his written submission to the inquiry Mr Balfour names Mr Maclean who joined the council as head of legal in 2009 but no longer works for the authority.

He writes: “I now know the original contract was a piece of mince – not my words but those of Alastair Maclean.”

Mr Balfour, who was Tory group leader 2010-12, told the inquiry Mr Maclean has said during a conversation at the City Chambers that he knew details about the project given to councillors were inaccurate.

Mr Balfour said: “My understanding was he had challenged senior officers in regard to the information we were being given at that time and he was told to shut up and that wasn’t his role.”

Mr Balfour also claimed documents showing what senior councillors had been told at private briefings had now 
“disappeared”.

He said refusing information on grounds of confidentiality was “a let out which in retrospect we should probably have challenged more often”.

Mr Balfour said: “I was told that: of course we trust you never to leak any information, but there are leaks; the Evening News has its sources; it is getting its information from somewhere.”

Earlier there were feisty exchanges at the inquiry as former Labour council leader Donald Anderson was challenged over his claims that arms-length company TIE had deliberately misled council chiefs.

Mr Anderson told the inquiry on Tuesday that TIE representatives had told councillors and officials that adjudications over disputes with contractor Bilfinger Berger were going in TIE’s favour when that was not the case. “If you lose adjudications and you present them as being successes, that’s deliberate misinformation,” he said.

But yesterday Douglas Fairley QC, representing a group of ex-employees of TIE, showed Mr Anderson a series of minutes from meetings where TIE chief executive Richard Jeffrey had reported Bilfinger winning 
adjudications.

Mr Fairley said it was reasonable to infer this was not good news.

But Mr Anderson said it was difficult to tell. And he continued: “The point that I would simply make is that key elected members and officers of the council weren’t given access to the adjudication decisions in any detail. What they were given was presentations of interpretations of the adjudication process.

“If elected members had been given copies of the adjudications themselves they could have made up their mind.”

Citing the minute of another meeting where a similar report was given, Mr Fairley said: “It would not appear Mr Jeffrey was presenting losses as 
successes.”

But Mr Anderson said: “I don’t agree that you can definitively say that looking at that minute.”

He maintained that TIE had presented the outcomes more positively than was justified. And he continued: “What I can tell you is that senior elected members and officers of the council were entitled to get access to the information they needed to make informed decisions about one of the biggest projects, and most controversial projects, in the city’s history. And they weren’t given to access to that information, indeed they were denied and deliberately denied access to that information by officials on TIE.”

He said even the council’s chief executive did not get access to the detailed information in the adjudication decisions.

“I think that leads me to believe very very firmly there was a deliberate campaign on the part of TIE to deny those officials and those elected members who were taking big decisions on this issue, the information they required in order to take those decisions.”

At the end of his evidence, Mr Anderson, who left the council in 2007 and later worked as a communications consultant to Bilfinger, attempted to make a general comment on the project to the inquiry before he was cut short by Lord 
Hardie.

Mr Anderson said: “I know a lot of the key protagonists pretty well. They are people who care passionately and want the best for the city.

“I think they made mistakes and took decisions not in the best interests of progressing the project but I think there is a difference between people who made mistakes in good faith...”

Lord Hardie interrupted to say: “I think that’s ultimately a matter for me. I do appreciate the difference bewteen people making mistakes and people misleading other people. I will take into account all the evidence and form a view of what I think of the 
situation.”

Later, Edinburgh Tory group leader Iain Whyte told the inquiry he had had a briefing with Mr Jeffrey when he asked about dispute 
adjudications.

“When I probed that I was told they were winning but not winning outright. If the claim by the contractor was for £100,000 and TIE disputed that and said there should be no additional cost and the adjudication came in at £20,000 or £30,000 TIE would count that as a win because they had not had to pay out £100,000.”

Cllr Whyte also spoke of his concerns about inaccurate information being given to councillors about the diversion of underground pipes and cables along the tram route.

He said: “About 2009ish, maybe 2010, they started to report that the utilities for the whole line were 95 per cent complete.”

However, after the mediation agreement between TIE and the contractors, it had become clear that there were still many utility conflicts between Haymarket and York Place.

“And I’ve had information given to me more recently, saying there are something like 1200 utility conflicts still in the Leith Walk and Newhaven section. So that 95 per cent complete figure was obviously 
inaccurate.”

iswanson@edinburghnews.com