Council accused of destroying key tram papers before inquiry

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COUNCIL bosses were today accused of shredding key documents about Edinburgh’s trams fiasco ahead of a public inquiry into the project.

Responding to a Freedom of Information request, council officials admitted they could not provide details dating back to 2007 because correspondence to and from the council’s chief executive and the city development director was only kept for a year.

Also, crucial diaries for 2007 and 2008 were no longer held and correspondence to and from trams firm TIE was only kept for three years.

The lost documents could include information on key points in the scheme, including the conclusion of contract talks in the spring of 2008 and the start of work on the network that summer.

Council Labour group leader Andrew Burns said he was “astonished” that information vital to the promised inquiry could have been destroyed. And he called for a guarantee that no more documents relating to the trams would be shredded.

Labour had used the Freedom of Information Act to ask for “all information the council holds” on the decision to remove Transport Scotland officials from the trams board after the SNP came to power at Holyrood in 2007.

But the request was turned down on the grounds “the information requested is no longer held”.

When Labour asked the council to review its refusal, the authority’s legal services department said: “Correspondence to and from the chief executive office and the [city development] directorate office is only retained for one year, therefore the requested information is no longer held by the council. TIE Limited have also confirmed that they only retained correspondence for three years.

“The chief executive office have confirmed that diaries for 2007 and 2008 are no longer held.”

After receiving the response, Councillor Burns said: “It looks like the council is turning on the shredders before the public inquiry starts. I’m astonished crucial papers on the tram project from 2007 and 2008 appear to have been completely destroyed.

“The politicians in charge of the council, who are the same today as back in 2007, should immediately instruct that no further correspondence, or diaries, relating to the tram project are destroyed.”

Lothians Labour MSP Kezia Dugdale said: “The case for the independent inquiry is now unanswerable. If documents are being destroyed to prevent them being put into the public domain then that is an extremely serious matter.”

There are no legal requirements for how long public bodies should keep documents. The Scottish Government’s Code of Practice on Records Management offers criteria to help bodies decide when documents should be preserved. The questions they are urged to ask themselves include: “Is it likely to be of ongoing or recurrent public interest?”

The Scottish Council on Archives’ recommended retention period for “records documenting the council’s involvement in a major transport scheme” is “permanent”.

Today the council suggested the information it had issued in response to the FoI request may have been incomplete. It said the chief executive usually retained documents for at least five years. However, the council could not confirm that it still had the trams documents.

The council could also not confirm for how long the city development director kept his correspondence, nor whether the diaries had been retained. It said it understood it was true that TIE retained documents for only three years.

Alastair Maclean, the council’s director of corporate governance, said: “The council has previously backed calls for a public inquiry and we are currently gathering all relevant information to ensure that we can cooperate fully with this process.

“We have clear records retention policies in place and would expect these to be fully complied with.”