The Edinburgh Tram Inquiry is a “Pandora’s Box” that will “undoubtedly” take years to conclude and could potentially cost £2 million, according to a senior figure who investigated the troubled construction of the Scottish Parliament building.
Amid criticism of the pace and cost of the process, it has been claimed that further delays are “inevitable” as the probe wrestles with 65 lines of inquiry and sweeping powers that could bog the process down in legal red tape.
One critic has claimed that the inquiry is a “complete waste of money” that should be shut down entirely, but the process has been staunchly defended by supporters, who say it is the only way of getting to the truth of what happened to the Capital’s ill-fated £1 billion tram network.
The tram inquiry has drawn unfavourable comparisons with the 2004 inquiry into the Scottish Parliament building at Holyrood, a project which cost ten times more than the original estimated budget and was delivered over a year late.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie held public hearings and reported back within 14 months of being named to head the investigation by First Minister Jack McConnell, at a cost to the public purse of just over £700,000.
In contrast, the tram inquiry has yet to call a witness despite it being almost a year since former Lord Advocate Andrew Hardie was appointed to lead it, and run up a bill of just under £900,000.
Now, in an interview with the Evening News, a senior figure from within Lord Fraser’s inquiry into the Scottish Parliament debacle has questioned whether the tram probe needs to take so long, claiming that a “readable”report could be produced at a “reasonable cost” and suggesting that Lord Hardie’s remit should be narrower and more focused.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the inquiry expert said his former boss, Lord Fraser, a former Conservative MP, demanded quick results from his inquiry team, exerting iron discipline over the Holyrood inquiry’s structure and work rate..
The Scottish Parliament inquiry source said here were factors outside their control which were now working against Lord Hardie and his inquiry team, such as the exponential rise in the use of e-mail in the years between the Holyrood project and the construction of the trams, which has created a vast mountain of evidence needing to be considered.
And while the statutory powers to compel witnesses and evidence handed to Lord Hardie’s inquiry would result in a more complete report, it would also mean a longer, more expensive investigation, the senior source said.
“If we had been given full statutory powers, it would undoubtedly have led to a longer, more expensive inquiry. Once you give an inquiry powers to call for witnesses and documents, then you’ve got to give people the right to a response,” the senior investigator said.
“I think if you put ten lawyers in a room, it’s inevitable that it will take longer. You’re paying people to be there, and look after their corner for you. They’re not going to sit there quietly and not ask any questions – that isn’t in the make-up of most lawyers.
“It’s a bit of a Pandora’s Box. If you do open the box, then you have a problem closing it down again.”
Lord Fraser was said to be determined to produce a quick, cost-effective report that could be read and understood by as wide a section of the population as possible.
The source added: “A lot depends on the chairman. He [Lord Fraser] was very hard-working. He used to get quite cross if we weren’t delivering stuff on time.
“The other thing that Lord Fraser said was, ‘I’m not writing more than 250 pages’. He had been a politician and he reckoned that he ought to produce something the public could read, not that would prop up a piano.
“Lord Hardie is a distinguished former judge and advocate, so he presumably has an investigative mind, in the sense that he knows which stones to look under.
“It is a public inquiry, meaning the person who’s leading it has got to have in mind that he’s writing something for the public, and I think with reasonable cost you can do that.”
Lord Hardie looks set to produce a much more in-depth report than that produced by Lord Fraser, which was criticised in some quarters for not delving deeply enough into the failings of the Holyrood project.
The Edinburgh Tram Inquiry took the unprecedented step of publishing a detailed list of lines of inquiry, covering 65 subjects ranging from the structure of contracts to the skills of project board members. A public appeal has also been issued asking Edinburgh residents to suggest even more areas for the inquiry to look at.
But in a clear criticism of the way the inquiry is being conducted, the Scottish Parliament inquiry ource said that keeping the inquiry remit narrow was essential if it was not to “lose sight of the big question”.
“There was a very clear determination [in the Holyrood inquiry] from the outset that we weren’t going to have a long inquiry, and that we were not going to get into the number of bricks and the number of widgets. We were only going to look at the general procurement process, which was all we were asked to do.
“That will absolutely have an impact on the length of the inquiry. The narrower the remit, the less time it’s going to take. I think I would be concentrating on the big picture.
“Here was a contract for a major piece of infrastructure involving on the one hand a consortium that was very skilled at construction, and at making sure it was recompensed, and on the other hand you had an arm’s-length body that was quite the reverse. It [was] certainly no match for the contractor.”
The rising costs has led Lothians MSP Cameron Buchanan to call for the inquiry to be abandoned in order to draw a line under public spending on the trams.
He said at the weekend that the inquiry was “a complete and utter waste of money” and should be scrapped.
However, his call has not been backed by his party colleagues, with Joanna Mowat, transport spokeswoman for the council’s Conservative group, backing the inquiry.
She said: “I don’t agree that the tram inquiry should be scrapped. We all think we know the reasons why it went wrong and are keen to point the finger at ‘other’ parties, but it is important that an independent third party looks at how this project went so badly wrong.
“We need to find out what the appropriate controls are that need to be in place when commissioning such large projects in the future.”
A spokesperson for the Edinburgh Tram Inquiry said: “Lord Hardie’s remit is to conduct a robust, efficient and effective inquiry to get the answers the public wants to ensure lessons are learned for future major infrastructure projects.
“The Edinburgh Tram Inquiry is continuing to make good progress in line with the agreed terms of reference and the published order of events.”
How the inquiries match up
Chair: Lord Fraser of Carmyllie
Announced: July 2003
Staff: One secretary, two lawyers, plus support staff
Final report: September 15, 2004
Duration: 14 months
Called to investigate why the new home of the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood was delivered more than £360m over budget and more than a year late. Report criticised all aspects of the complex procurement process, and the failure to properly calculate or control costs.
Chair: Lord Hardie
Announced: June 2014
Powers: Statutory (upgraded)
Cost: £898,652 and counting
Staff: One secretary, four lawyers, plus support staff
Final report: Not expected until after May 2016
Duration: Anyone’s guess
Ordered after the fiasco of the Edinburgh Tram project, which saw a fraction of the originally planned network delivered at a massively inflated cost and several years late. Labelled “comatose” and a “complete waste of money” by MSPs from different parties. Hearings yet to be scheduled