​How about an apology for trams fiasco, John? - Sue Webber

Former Deputy First Minister John SwinneyFormer Deputy First Minister John Swinney
Former Deputy First Minister John Swinney
​Throughout my time as an Edinburgh councillor during the often bitter debate about the completion of the tram line to Newhaven, the administration repeatedly claimed the lessons of the previous disaster had been learnt.

It is now apparent from Lord Hardie’s forensic report that there were few new lessons to learn from the scandal, because the primary causes were repeated and widespread failures to follow basic principles of good governance and management as the project went live.

Proper procedure at all levels was ignored until it was too late to stop the waste of millions of pounds, and while most responsibility rests with the City Council and its shambolic arms-length company TIE, the complicity of the Scottish Government, in particular ex-deputy First Minister John Swinney, has been fully exposed.

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Lord Hardie reserves some of his most stinging criticism for Mr Swinney, first for his clearly political decision to withdraw Transport Scotland officials from oversight of the project in 2007 in what looks very like a hissy fit of hugely expensive pique because the SNP lost a Scottish Parliament vote which called for the project to continue.

Having agreed to contribute £500m, “scaling back” government officials’ participation was “a serious error and resulted in the failure by the Scottish Ministers to protect the public purse”, which, said Lord Hardie, was “a decision being taken to suit the Minister’s political wishes”.

But Lord Hardie found Mr Swinney started interfering behind the scenes, with un-minuted calls, “pulling strings” and acting inappropriately “in a covert manner” which it appears did little except spread confusion about responsibilities as the money was burnt. But was also tacit acceptance his decision to withdraw Transport Scotland’s oversight was a blunder.

That’s bad enough, but most damning of all is his conclusion that Mr Swinney’s integrity must be called into question because of his “lack of candour” about his central role in approving the final deal in 2011 which resolved the tortuous contractual disputes and allowed the project to continue.

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This is the man who was once nick-named “Honest John”, the reliable straight man on whom the SNP could rely when the going got tough. With the personal reputation of Alex Salmond in shreds despite him being cleared of allegations of sexual assault, and Nicola Sturgeon’s arrest and release without charge over allegations of financial misconduct, who’d have thought on the eve of the 2014 referendum that all three of the independence movement’s biggest figures would have their integrity so seriously questioned only nine years on?

Mr Swinney is not alone, with Lord Hardie finding that evidence from former transport minister Stewart Stevenson was “wholly unsatisfactory” because he “often refused to give clear answers to straightforward questions.”

But then denial of responsibility is in the SNP’s DNA, except this time they can’t pin the blame on Westminster. Instead, it’s Lord Hardie himself who’s in the firing line, not just for the length of time it’s taken to complete the report, but because, according to current transport secretary Màiri McAllan, “in some instances the evidence heard does not support the conclusion drawn.”

Maybe John Swinney will try to salvage some of his reputation by giving a statement to the Scottish Parliament in which he holds up his hand. But I wouldn’t bet the price of a tram ticket on it.

Sue Webber is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Lothian

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