DONALD Dewar deliberately misled the House of Commons over the cost of the Holyrood parliament, it was claimed last night.
The accusations came after it emerged the late Scottish secretary had told the Commons immediately before the 1999 elections that the cost of the new building would be 50 million when he knew privately it had already topped 60 million.
Mr Dewar stated in a written parliamentary answer on 31 March 1999 that the construction cost of the Holyrood building was 50 million. A week later Mr Dewar launched the first Scottish election campaign with the public cost of the project still officially pegged at 50 million.
But the Fraser Inquiry into the Holyrood scandal was yesterday shown an internal Scottish Office minute, from the week before Mr Dewar’s parliamentary answer, which recorded an official request from senior civil servants for an increased budget of 60 million and a warning that there was no way it could now be built for 50 million.
Opposition politicians said last night that it appeared Mr Dewar had deliberately kept the cost increase from the Commons and from the public for political reasons, particularly as the election was a few days ahead.
David McLetchie, the Tory leader, said: "It is becoming clear that the Scottish people were misled and increasingly they will believe they were deliberately misled."
He added: "For the first time we have evidence that ministers were told the 50 million budget was not achievable, yet Donald Dewar was still maintaining in public, and to the House of Commons, that the official construction cost was still 50 million."
Mr McLetchie said it was "likely" that Scottish Labour chose to ignore the warning "because of the election".
Fergus Ewing, for the SNP, said: "This reveals that Donald Dewar covered up the truth from the people of Scotland during the first Scottish parliament election in 1999."
Mr Ewing claimed the late Scottish Secretary kept the 60 million figure from the public "for the next five weeks before the election on May 1 1999".
And he added: "The inquiry must now seek out the truth from civil servants and Labour advisers and politicians."
The inquiry was also shown evidence that the 60 million figure which civil servants passed on to ministers in March 1999 was a gross underestimate of the real figure, which the civil servants knew was climbing almost every month.
The official cost consultants, Davis, Langdon and Everest, submitted regular estimates to the Scottish Office through 1998 and 1999, setting out how the cost of the project was spiralling out of control because of delays and increased demands for space.
These were shown to the inquiry and they revealed how the official, but confidential, cost had risen from 63 million in February 1999, to 87 million in early March 1999 and to 88 million by the end of March 1999.
But the civil servants, led by Barbara Doig, the project sponsor, apparently failed to pass any of these on to ministers.
Mrs Doig asked for the budget increase to just 60 million on March 23 1999, effectively ignoring advice from the cost consultants who told her the price had already topped 89 million.
The picture that emerged from the inquiry yesterday was of cost consultants setting out definitive projections of the rising cost as they analysed the detailed designs coming from the architects and as they made more accurate assessments of the space required.
These projections were given to Mrs Doig and to the officials on the project team, but Mrs Doig then only asked for a budget increase to cover a fraction of the increase, apparently because the officials thought they might be able to make savings later.
It is not clear whether the official estimates from the cost consultants were passed on to ministers and ministers chose to ignore them, or whether they were kept from ministers by civil servants.
But, whoever it was who took the decision to ignore the advice from the cost consultants, it was clear from very early in the project’s life that the cost was increasing rapidly and this was being kept from the public and from Westminster.
Hugh Fisher, a partner at cost consultants Davis, Langdon and Everest, told the inquiry: "The client was exercising his prerogative to do what he likes with the advice, but that prerogative carries risk."