MINISTERS were so anxious to distance themselves from the trams that they told council chiefs: don’t tell us what you’re doing with our £500 million.
Documents released after a freedom of information request show that top officials from Scottish Government agency Transport Scotland repeatedly told bosses at TIE they did not want to see the paperwork circulated for board meetings.
Transport Scotland was removed from the board of TIE in 2007, soon after the new SNP minority government was defeated in its bid to scrap the trams. Finance Secretary John Swinney said he would fund the project to the £500m agreed, but not a penny more.
Labour today claimed the revelation that Transport Scotland deliberately asked to be excluded from the circulation list for board papers proves it ignored the ill-fated project at a critical stage.
Last year, Labour sought to obtain documents relating to the decision to remove Transport Scotland from the TIE board, but the city council initially responded to the party’s freedom of information request by saying it no longer held the relevant material.
Labour accused the council of shredding key documents prior to a promised public inquiry into the project.
But after the story appeared in the Evening News, council officials said they had made a mistake and some of the requested papers did exist – but refused to release them, saying it would be too costly to trawl through the archives.
In the meantime, Transport Scotland responded to a parallel request for the information with 17 pages of documents almost completely blacked out.
Now, after a Labour appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner, the council has handed over a series of letters and e-mails dating to August and September 2007.
They show Bill Reeve, Transport Scotland’s director of rail delivery, e-mailing the then TIE chief executive, Willie Gallagher, on August 21, telling him: “Transport Scotland will not in future attend meetings of the TIE board and no longer requires to receive copies of the papers for TIE board meetings.”
On September 10, the message was echoed by Malcolm Reed, chief executive of Transport Scotland, in a letter to Mr Gallagher: “I understand that Bill Reeve confirmed via e-mail that Transport Scotland will not in future attend meetings of the TIE board and no longer requires copies of the papers for TIE board meetings.”
Lothians Labour MSP Sarah Boyack said: “No wonder the last administration at the council tried to keep this paperwork secret. I am pleased that the new councillors are taking a more transparent approach.
“This shows astonishing incompetence from John Swinney. He wrote a cheque for half a billion pounds, but his officials didn’t even want copies of the paperwork.
“Earlier, we were told that ministers were kept fully up to speed with all the developments on the trams. Clearly that is nonsense. No wonder the Scottish Government are dragging their heels on calling a public inquiry. There should be no more delay.
“We need accountability. This was a crucial project, it was badly mismanaged and the Scottish Government took a hands-off approach. Edinburgh taxpayers deserve to know what went wrong.”
A Transport Scotland spokesman said: “The parliament vote in 2007 was clear that responsibility for delivering the tram project lay with Edinburgh City Council. Transport Scotland, however, continued to receive monthly detailed progress reports and also requested confirmation, on a quarterly basis, that grant conditions were being met.”
June 27, 2007: SNP bid to scrap trams project defeated by other parties. John Swinney agrees to fund the project at £500m – but not a penny more. Transport Scotland withdrawn from tram board soon afterwards.
Feb 3, 2011: Audit Scotland recommends Transport Scotland takes a more active role.
Sep 14, 2011: Scottish Government announces it is stepping in to rescue the trams, Transport Scotland staff drafted in to help.
Nov 10, 2011: Council says it no longer holds correspondence on Transport Scotland’s withdrawal from the TIE board. Labour claims they have been shredded.
Nov 15, 2011: Council admits it does have relevant material after all, but refuses to release it.
Nov 23, 2011: Transport Scotland releases 17 pages of papers – almost all blacked out.
Apr 12, 2012: Ruling says council breached law and should release correspondence.
July 10, 2012: Council releases documents showing Transport Scotland asked to be left off the circulation list for tram board papers.