Edinburgh Council’s integrity is at stake over tram inquiry investigation- John McLellan

Just when the curtain was about to fall on the disgraceful Edinburgh tram saga, there may yet be another twist in this extraordinary fiasco.
Lord Hardie said there had been a "litany of avoidable failures" in the Edinburgh tram projectLord Hardie said there had been a "litany of avoidable failures" in the Edinburgh tram project
Lord Hardie said there had been a "litany of avoidable failures" in the Edinburgh tram project

​As if any reminder was needed, a line initially estimated to cost £345m ran to over £1bn and the first tram to Newhaven arrived 14 years late. The resulting inquiry under Lord Hardie took nearly a decade, added £13m to the bill, but exposed a culture of deceit, back-covering and back-stabbing.

But if anyone thinks this sorry episode could not heap more shame on Edinburgh Council, they need only read its cursory response to the inquiry findings or watch the dismissive performance from chief executive Andrew Kerr at last week’s governance committee meeting.

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Apart from details about how procurement can be improved and contracts tightened, at the heart of the matter is how councillors were misled by officials into making decisions they otherwise might not have taken.

It was, as Conservative councillor Jo Mowat told the committee, a betrayal.

Despite Mr Kerr trying to give the meeting every impression the wrongdoing was all the responsibility of people no longer employed by the council, Lord Hardie accused the current legal chief Nick Smith of deliberately including misinformation in crucial reports, yet Mr Kerr has decided no further action is needed.

Mr Kerr didn’t so much defend his decision as effectively tell councillors to get lost, simply repeating he was satisfied an internal investigation was robust and comprehensive, without any indication about how it was conducted or its conclusion reached.

It was, he inferred, none of their business.

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It’s understood the internal inquiry was run by new human resources head, Nareen Turnbull, and although she was at the meeting she noticeably let Mr Kerr do all the talking, apart from explaining recent changes to the employee code of conduct.

In fact, when Conservative group leader Iain Whyte raised the code, Mr Kerr smirked, waved a haughty wave of dismissal and gave his fingernails a bored inspection.

He couldn’t even bring himself to accept that lying to councillors in reports should be an instantly sackable offence.

But full credit is due to the committee convener, SNP councillor Kate Campbell, for refusing to swallow his assurances.

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“I don’t think it’s acceptable that the response is a couple of paragraphs saying we have had an internal investigation, and everything is fine,” she said.

Mr Kerr didn’t agree, but she wasn’t wrong.

Her view that an external inquiry is necessary is an appalling indictment of the continued lack of candour and creates the extraordinary situation in which yet another inquiry into the tram fiasco is necessary, and could be launched if councillors vote for one at the full council meeting a week today.

There is plenty for a new probe to go at, particularly if the internal inquiry examined the veracity of testimonies before Lord Hardie under cross examination.

Mr Smith may have been in a more junior position at the time of the tram dispute, but not so when he was called to give evidence, and it would be extremely serious if there was any attempt to mislead the inquiry.

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An external examination of the council’s investigation, perhaps by Audit Scotland, needn’t be too costly or drawn out, and Cllr Campbell should have the courage to press her case.

What’s left of Edinburgh council’s integrity is at stake.

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