Edinburgh trams inquiry: politicians ‘not kept in the dark’

Tram works in West Maitland Street, Haymarket. Picture Ian Rutherford
Tram works in West Maitland Street, Haymarket. Picture Ian Rutherford
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A senior solicitor in charge of the council’s legal team has denied officials tried to keep politicians in the dark over the state of work on the Capital’s tram project.

Earlier this year the News revealed an e-mail sent by council official Nick Smith to his new boss advised councillors had been kept on a “restricted information flow” and that he should be “very careful” what they were told.

The e-mail, dated January 8, 2010, was sent by Mr Smith, then a solicitor in the council’s legal services team, to Alastair Maclean, who had recently joined as head of legal.

In it, he said: “Please treat the attached as highly confidential.

“Dissemination of the actual history here could cause serious problems and we definitely don’t want to set hares running.”

He added: “I’m sure you will be anyway, but be very careful what info you impart to the politicians as the directors and TIE have kept them on a restricted information flow – given current sensitivities it is critical that this remains in place.”

However, giving evidence at an inquiry into the project, Mr Smith – now the council’s monitoring officer and head of legal and risk – denied officials deliberately withheld information.

Mr Smith said the e-mail was to ensure Mr Maclean was fully briefed for a meeting with a senior SNP politician and that he was not aware what information councillors had or had not been passed.

He told the inquiry: “The restricted information flow was the route of the information.

“My understanding was that elected members were receiving information through current leader briefings that happened to make sure everyone got information at the same time.

“I wanted to make sure Alastair [Maclean] was fully informed going into this meeting but that there were sensitivities with releasing information to individual elected members.”

When questioned about his wording, Mr Smith said he accepted how the e-mail could have been interpreted but stressed that was “not what I intended”.

“What I wouldn’t want anyone to think reading this is that there was some kind of orchestrated campaign to keep information away from members by both TIE or the directors.

“If there was then I was not aware of it and that is certainly not what this e-mail refers to.”

Mr Smith went on to say he was aware information was being leaked into the press at the time, to the “detriment” of both TIE and the council.

He added: “My perception was that elected members were finding out about things in the press... the council was leaking from whatever source and these were the current sensitivities.

“I wanted to make sure as far as I could that members were not finding out about these things in the press unexpectedly because the project had become a bit of a political football.”

In fact leaks became “so bad” later on that Mr Smith said he believed there was “a plan to actually get councillors to sign up to confidentiality agreements, to make sure they fully understood the risks”.

The inquiry, now in its second week, looks to examine why the trams were delivered five years late at a hugely increased cost and on a truncated route.

Mr Smith, who joined the tram project team in early 2007, was giving evidence for a second day before the inquiry’s chairman, Lord Hardie.

He previously spoke of his desire to bring in external lawyers for an independent legal review into the project’s contract.

This was something he said would have “more fully informed, and likely better protected, the council’s position as guarantor”.

The inquiry heard he “strongly disagreed” with the final decision to instead rely on the advice of TIE’s solicitors, the DLA.

In an echo of previous evidence from council accountant Rebecca Andrew, Mr Smith said he too had been on the receiving end of complaints from TIE as a result of asking “difficult questions”.

However, he said Mr Maclean afterwards gave him “an explicit instruction that I was to continue doing exactly as I was doing which was ask the difficult questions”.

Questioned over the relationship between TIE and the council, Mr Smith said there were “constant tensions” and that the arm’s length organisation “begrudged being called into account in any way”.

He cited negotiations over operating agreements as one example, with Mr Smith calling the process “an attritional battle which saw the council’s protections eroded and the requests made by CEC legal questioned at every stage”.

He said: “The way I would describe it is when I first drafted them, they had some teeth, and by the time we ended, they barely had gums, which I remained very concerned about, because I think we promised elected members that robust operating agreements would be in place.”

He said controls in the TIE operating agreement ended up “significantly weakened down”, for example the organisation’s bonus structure.

“My recommended approach [to the bonus structure] was in my view watered down beyond the point where I thought it was acceptable,” he said.

The inquiry also heard from council accountant Alan Coyle, who will continue with the majority of his evidence next Friday.