Tram chiefs ‘will dodge inquiry’

Years of construction delays and legal wrangles stopped the trams in their tracks before the service was launched. Picture: Jayne Emsley
Years of construction delays and legal wrangles stopped the trams in their tracks before the service was launched. Picture: Jayne Emsley
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DOUBTS were voiced today over whether some of the key figures in Edinburgh’s trams fiasco would turn up to give evidence at the public inquiry into what went wrong with the £776 million project.

News of a judge-led investigation into the project was announced yesterday by First Minister Alex Salmond and comes just days after trams finally began running in the city after six years of delays, disruption and soaring costs.

The inquiry will want to hear evidence from council leaders, German contractors Bilfinger Berger and Transport Initiatives Edinburgh (TIE) – the firm set up to deliver the project

But none of the cast behind the project will be legally obliged to appear.

Although spearheaded by a judge, the “non-statutory” hearing falls short of a full public inquiry which has legal power to compel witnesses to give evidence.

But with a slew of project documents being handed over to the inquiry, senior council sources warned it was in “everyone’s best interests” to attend and defend their role in the saga.

Construction firms Bilfinger Berger and Siemens, barred from speaking publicly during the project, are understood to be keen to break their silence at an inquiry. Some former staff of the defunct TIE firm are also said to want to air their views, but others signed “gagging” contracts preventing them from discussing the project, which may be interpreted as barring them from speaking at the inquiry.

One of the key figures from the early days of the project said many former employees now flourishing in new careers would not wish to revisit the debacle.

“I don’t see why anyone who has some mud on them or who now holds a high-ranking job would feel the need to attend and give witness as there would be some difficult questions to be faced,” he said.

But a senior council source, who declined to be identified, issued a warning to those who failed to appear.

He said: “The council possesses all the documentation and evidence of how key decisions were arrived at and by whom, and if the council doesn’t have it then Transport Scotland does.

“All of this will be turned over to the inquiry so it’s in everyone’s best interests to turn up and give their side of events.

“The inquiry may not receive an oral blow-by-blow account but it’s all there in black and white anyway.”

Key figures set for starring roles in the public inquiry, if they agree to appear, include ex-TIE executive chairman Willie Gallagher and former chairman David Mackay, who previously branded Bilfinger Berger a “delinquent” contractor.

Former TIE chief executive Richard Jeffrey said he was ready to appear. He added; “What I have to say I will say at an inquiry and not before.”

Former political heavyweights such as ex-council leader Jenny Dawe and transport convener Gordon Mackenzie are also likely to appear.

The Scottish Government said the advantages of a non-statutory inquiry were that it can be carried out quickly, efficiently and cost effectively to ensure that lessons can be learned for the future without unnecessary formality.

It has been estimated the “non-statutory” tram probe could cost up to £1 million – compared to the bill of over £9 million for the statutory Penrose inquiry into patients infected with Hepatitis C following NHS blood transfusions, which also took six years to report.

Lawyer Patrick McGuire of Thompsons Solicitors, who was involved in the Penrose inquiry and several others, including the Stockline plastic factory explosion that killed nine people in 2004 and the Vale of Leven Hospital C-diff scandal, said: “What has been announced for the trams is more of a hybrid enquiry that is not underpinned by any legal framework but will have the oversight of an experienced judge.

“These types of inquiries tend to work more quickly than public inquiries and are often less expensive to fund.”

It is understood the decision to opt for a non-statutory inquiry also “leaves the door open” for possible legal action against contractors and could even hasten lawsuits given its shorter lifespan compared to statutory hearings.

The year-long Holyrood Inquiry into budget-bursting Scottish Parliament – which reportedly cost £700,000 – was also a non-statutory inquiry. Speaking at First Minister’s Questions yesterday, Alex Salmond said: “The decision that we have made is to have a non-statutory inquiry.”

He said this was due to timescale and because the transport minister had been assured by the council of full co-operation and full documentation of all aspects of the project.

“That gives of the opportunity to have a judge-led inquiry which will give us a proper examination and a public account of what has happened to the trams project,” he said.

Transport Minister Keith Brown will announce details of the inquiry in a statement to the Scottish Parliament before the summer recess at the end of this month.

Sources say the inquiry proceedings will not begin until after September 18 – the date of the Scottish independence referendum

The selected judge will set out the parameters of his investigation and appoint an inquiry team. Once complete, a clear account of the tram saga should be laid bare alongside recommendations for the future.

The tram network was originally intended to stretch to the waterfront at Leith and Newhaven and scheduled to be in operation by 2009.

It was finally delivered five years late, about £230 million over-budget and reduced to a single route linking the city centre and the airport.

Council leader Andrew Burns said the city had “long supported calls for a public inquiry” and would “co-operate fully in the process, providing any material or information that the Scottish Government require.”

Key figures to be questioned

A HOST of key figures from the trams saga will be expected to give evidence to the public inquiry.

Former council leader Jenny Dawe, who led the city through the ill-fated 2007-2012 period, will be one of those to come under intense scrutiny.

Also likely to be under the microscope is a series of project directors who fell on their swords. They include Ian Kendall, Matthew Crosse, Steven Bell and Andie Harper.

Chief executives Michael Howell, Neil Renilson, Willie Gallagher and Richard Jeffrey will all be expected to appear before the judge, as will spin doctor Mandy Haeburn-Little.

Current city council leader Andrew Burns, pictured, was transport convener until 2006 and will no doubt be asked to share his experiences throughout the lengthy process.

Former councillors Phil Wheeler and Gordon Mackenzie – and current health chief Ricky Henderson – were also at the wheel of the transport department during the soap opera and will be amongst many who have sat in City Chambers invited to make a contribution to the inquiry.

A host of advisers and former chairman David Mackay might also have their say on what went wrong.

STATUTORY VERSUS NON-STATUTORY

POWERS to compel witnesses to attend hearings and provide evidence is one of the central distinctions between statutory and non-statutory public inquiries.

Statutory inquiries – also known as full public inquiries – take evidence under oath and do not rely on the voluntary compliance of witnesses like their non-statutory counterparts. Examples include the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry probing a botched police investigation into the murder of the black teenager in 1993 and the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust public inquiry into substandard care at Staffordshire Hospital.

Non-statutory public inquiries are said to be “more flexible” and less costly. Hearings into the BSE scandal and Butler inquiry into intelligence on weapons of destruction are both examples.

ANALYSIS

By Ian Swanson, Political Editor

THE Scottish Government has acted quickly to announce a public inquiry into the project, which has been a hot topic of conversation since plans were first unveiled in 2003.

The trams began as an exciting scheme which promised Edinburgh a transport system to rival many European cities.

But as the costs soared and the delays increased, it ultimately became a source of embarrassment.

The Capital’s flagship project is now become the butt of innumerable jokes and a stain on the city’s reputation internationally.

Now we’re promised we will get answers about what went wrong and why.

It’s not yet clear when the inquiry will get under way, but given the set-up arrangements needed it seems unlikely it will be before the independence referendum on September 18.

Politicians on all sides may well be relieved not to have anything to distract them from that.

But are any of the politicians – or anyone else involved in the project – going to emerge from the inquiry unblemished?

Councillors and officials will have to explain how they came to agree a contract for the project which seemed to lead to many of the problems later experienced. They will also face questions about the way they dealt with the arms-length company TIE, which they put in charge of the project, as well as the fraught relationship which developed with the main contractors.

All parties on the council at the time – except the SNP – are implicated by their support for the project.

But even SNP ministers will also be under pressure to answer why, despite reluctantly handing over £500 million of Scottish Government money, they decided to withdraw Transport Scotland expertise from the project.

Where will the finger of blame be pointed? Or will the appointed judge follow the example of the late Lord Fraser, who conducted the Holyrood inquiry, and conclude there was “no single villain of the piece”?