Officers should tell the truth or face penalty - Iain Whyte

Those who remember or watch reruns of the BBC’s Yes Minister will know that civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby considers that “There are some things it is better for a Minister not to know”.
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

Last week, in real life, as Lord Hardie’s report into Edinburgh’s Tram fiasco landed with an almighty 1,000-page thud it became clear that an even more extreme version of this culture existed in the City Council and its arms-length transport company tie.

Not content with leaving councillors with limited information on which to take decisions Lord Hardie has confirmed that information provided to councillors was blatantly inaccurate. Worst was the myth that the original tram contract was “95% fixed price”.

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This claim received a great deal of public and private scrutiny back in 2007. It was the basis on which many councillors felt able to agree to the project because it ensured the Council had the necessary funds provided by Government grant. Critically, if true, it would have transferred the risks of construction to the contractor.

My Conservative colleagues wanted even more assurance and ensured that additional evaluations were made and reported to Council. All of this was to no avail as the reports gave the project a clean bill of health. But nothing could be further from the truth when Lord Hardie has identified that reassurance councillors were given about the contract couldn’t have been true as the drafting wasn’t even complete at the time!

That the City was badly served, and its councillors and others misled, is not a surprise. Nor is it that there may still be lessons to learn, despite assurances otherwise over the latest tram line construction to Newhaven. However, the biggest lesson goes much further than the tram project and lies in the last five recommendations which apply across everything the Council does.

Lord Hardie specifically recommends that council officers must tell the whole truth. He even calls on the Scottish Government to legislate for a duty of disclosure like those we all sign up to in private life with insurance companies. Effectively, he is saying that any bad news – political, financial, or otherwise – must be presented to councillors as part of the public decision-making process.

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Councillors are bound by a Code of Conduct to “project a positive image of the Council and avoid making any public comments that could bring it into disrepute.” We also “should not raise any adverse matters relating to the performance, conduct or capability of employees in public.” Given these restrictions candour from officers is paramount if we are to scrutinise them properly on behalf of the public.

This is why I will be calling for the Council to act immediately. We don’t need to wait for legislation. We should be ensuring that council officers, our arms-length companies and contractors tell the truth right now. There should be severe disciplinary or contractual penalties as with public money at stake anything less is unacceptable. If officers or politicians resist this, what is it that they fear?

Lord Hardie took many years and millions of pounds to report the detail of what was already blatantly obvious. But don’t discount his recommendations. They could make a hugely meaningful change in the culture of our public bodies and bring the candour we need to serve the public better.

Iain Whyte is councillor for Craigentinny/Duddingston

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