John Swinney to be quizzed at Edinburgh tram inquiry

John Swinney. Picture: PA
John Swinney. Picture: PA
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DEPUTY First Minister John Swinney is to be quizzed by the tram inquiry when it resumes public hearings later this month.

As Finance Secretary when the SNP first won power at Holyrood in 2007, Mr Swinney warned there would be “not a penny more” of government funding for the trams beyond the £500 million already agreed.

And he also withdrew Transport Scotland from direct involvement in the project after the SNP’s failed bid to scrap the scheme.

The inquiry has heard from several witnesses that the withdrawal of the government’s transport agency meant the project lost valuable experience which could have helped tackle some of the later problems.

Richard Jeffrey, former chief executive of the council’s tram firm TIE, said he found it “bizarre” that the organisation putting up 80 per cent of the cost of the project did not want to be represented on any of the boards running it.

And a former Transport Scotland employee claimed the move served as a green light for contractors to be awkward, though he also claimed it was designed to make the city council “step up” and take more responsibility for the project.

The inquiry, chaired by former Lord Advocate Lord Hardie, is looking at why the tram project ended up three years late, vastly over budget and with a curtailed route.

Former TIE chairman David Mackay told the inquiry Mr Swinney had intervened when a dispute with contractors Bilfinger Berger in 2009 saw work halted on Princes Street and told him to “get it sorted”.

And retired council chief executive Tom Aitchison described how in 2010 he and council leader Jenny Dawe were invited to a meeting with Mr Swinney who “was growing increasingly frustrated at the lack of progress and constant media and political turmoil”.

Mr Aitchison said he told Mr Swinney they were considering mediation and Mr Swinney had said if they needed assistance from Transport Scotland he was prepared to make that available.

The Scottish Government announced in September 2011 that a team of officials from Transport Scotland were being drafted back in to help deliver the troubled project.

The inquiry adjourned over Christmas but the public hearings, which began in September, are scheduled to start again on January 23 with evidence from former Transport Minister Stewart Stevenson.

Mr Swinney is due to appear the following day.

Allegations of corruption emerged at the final evidence session before the Christmas break. Former Lothian Buses boss Neil Renilson was asked by inquiry counsel Jonathan Lake QC: “Do you have information to the effect that there were employees or agents of TIE soliciting or receiving corrupt payments?” Mr Renilson answered: “Yes”.

Lord Hardie said he wanted investigations made before any details were made public.