THE public inquiry into Edinburgh’s £776 million tram debacle has been granted beefed-up powers to force witnesses to give evidence – with those who refuse facing prison.
It comes after inquiry chairman Lord Hardie complained that witnesses had failed to co-operate with the probe into the mismanaged tram project.
A preliminary list of witnesses who will now have to appear before the hearing or face a charge of contempt is being drawn up, with legal experts insisting Lord Hardie would now “get the answers he wants”.
It is not yet known which of the tram figureheads had failed to co-operate with the inquiry.
First Minister-in-waiting Nicola Sturgeon yesterday ordered the non-statutory probe be upgraded to a full-blown public inquiry, insisting it was “clearly unjustifiable” that some of those responsible for the tram saga had failed to comply.
But she said the new legal powers would not increase the cost or prolong the inquiry process.
Fears that the probe might not be as “quick and efficient” as had been promised by the Scottish Government were raised after the Accounts Commission for Scotland warned it could take up to two years to reach its conclusion.
Today, a string of former tram chiefs expected to appear at the inquiry – including directors of Transport Edinburgh Limited, Transport Initiatives Edinburgh and Edinburgh Trams Limited – said they were yet to be contacted by Lord Hardie.
And representatives of Bilfinger Berger – the contractor whose spectacular falling out with city officials caused the project to fall years behind schedule – insisted they would co-operate with the inquiry.
German engineering conglomerate Siemens said it had already been working with the tram inquiry.
A senior QC, who wished to remain anonymous, said it was “pretty much guaranteed” that with additional legal powers, Lord Hardie’s inquiry would have the tools to expose what went wrong with the tram project.
And he said: “There must have been a request for information, and it’s either not been produced or it’s not been produced quickly enough, or it’s been edited or restricted in some way.
“In short, the judge is not getting the voluntary co-operation that he thinks is necessary for his purposes, and he wants to have control.
“He’s obviously reached the conclusion that he’s not going to be able to conduct as full an inquiry as he thinks is necessary without an ability to compel people to produce documents.”
Boxes of documents have already been compiled by Edinburgh City Council in anticipation of being handed over as evidence to the inquiry.
Tory councillor Cameron Rose, who had previously called for the inquiry to be given full legal powers, said the move made a “quick and clear” outcome more likely.
He said: “We’re not very good at holding to account public projects that go wrong, and there are people who may not be happy at hearing all of the details out in the open.
“If there is some reluctance being shown, I am not at all surprised. It was a bitter and complicated dispute.
“I think for Lord Hardie to get to a quick and clear conclusion, I think this will help considerably.”
Council leader Andrew Burns welcomed the development, saying it would lead to a “broader and more detailed picture of what went wrong with the project”.
The enhanced inquiry powers were ordered following a parliamentary question from Edinburgh South MSP Jim Eadie, who had called for an update on the Edinburgh Trams probe.
He said: “The Edinburgh trams debacle has become a byword for incompetence and mismanagement.
“It is vital that the inquiry is able to unearth the facts, hold to account those that were responsible for the mistakes that were made and learn the lessons so that these mistakes are not repeated in the future.”
In a statement, Lord Hardie said: “The inquiry was initially non-statutory but was converted to statutory by Scottish ministers following my request, to ensure it can be carried out thoroughly and efficiently and to allow me to produce a comprehensive, fair and balanced report.”
Willie Gallagher, who was executive chairman of TIE from 2006 to 2008 when the construction contract was signed, said he was yet to be contacted by inquiry officials but would co-operate.
“In due course, if someone wants to speak to me, I’ll consider my position at that time,” he said.
When asked about the six-month maximum sentence for non-appearance, he said: “I’m sure I’ll co-operate rather than go to prison.”
Jim Eadie MSP, the SNP member of the Scottish Parliament for Edinburgh South, prompted the announcement from Mrs Sturgeon following a written parliamentary question.
He said: “I am delighted that in response to my question Nicola Sturgeon has agreed to put the public inquiry into the trams on a statutory footing.
“Given the widespread public anger over the mismanagement of the Edinburgh trams project, it is only right that Lord Hardie be given the extensive powers necessary to conduct a full and thorough investigation.
“By making the inquiry statutory, Lord Hardie will be able to compel witnesses to attend and insist information helpful to the inquiry will be made available.
“The Edinburgh trams debacle has become a byword for incompetence and mismanagement. It is vital that the inquiry is able to unearth the facts, hold to account those that were responsible for the mistakes that were made and learn the lessons so that these mistakes are not repeated in the future.”
Under the Inquiries Act (Scotland) 2005, any person of interest to the inquiry who refuses to provide evidence or participate when requested by Lord Hardie could face up to six months in prison.
Meetings with Edinburgh Council officials, including chief executive Sue Bruce, have already been held, and sources have told the Evening News that boxes of documents have been made available to the inquiry.
Senior figures to be called
Lord Hardie’s witness list will be a who’s who of senior figures connected to the ill-fated tram project, starting with current and former council leaders Andrew Burns and Jenny Dawe, as well as transport conveners Phil Wheeler, Gordon Mackenzie and Ricky Henderson.
Former project directors Ian Kendall, Matthew Crosse, Steven Bell and Andie Harper all fell on their swords as the project went wrong and are likely to be called, as well as former chief executives Michael Howell, Neil Renilson, Willie Gallagher and Richard Jeffrey.
Former chairman David Mackay is another likely feature on the witness list, which will no doubt also include representatives from contractors Bilfinger Berger and Siemens.