Blaming and shaming

DONALD Dewar’s patience finally snapped. The late First Minister’s ambition had been to deliver a breathtaking modern parliament building that would represent a Scotland newly confident in its nationhood.

Instead, by the summer of 1999, it was being dubbed Donald’s Dome. The only truly breathtaking element now appeared to be its cost. After the project, which he promised would cost between 10-40m, had spiralled to 109 million, Dewar summoned the Catalan architect behind the ‘evolving’ plans to his art deco office in St Andrew’s House and read the riot act.

"There must be no more changes", insiders say he bellowed to Enric Miralles. Miralles is said to have listened and then reached into his pocket. "Today," he smiled, "I found this leaf and it has given me an idea for designing the windows." Friends of Dewar who fear Jack McConnell’s inquiry into the Holyrood debacle will scapegoat the ‘father’ of devolution, now unable to defend himself, say the story is symptomatic of the endless frustrations he faced.

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The First Minister, they claim, had tried to regain control of Scotland’s runaway parliament but had been let down by poor advice from colleagues, thwarted by the whims of Miralles and hindered by civil servants who failed to see it coming. Many others certainly don’t see it that way and are adamant that the late politician was largely to blame for having an eye for the vision but scant regard for the detail.

Neither Miralles nor Dewar lived to realise their vision at Holyrood and these days it is the architect’s formidable widow, Benedetta Tagliabue, who has continued to shape the project after her husband’s death.

She is, apparently, infuriating members of the Scottish Executive. Confidential minutes of the secretive group of MSPs and officials overseeing the parliament’s progress reveal that Tagliabue was to be carpeted for recently daring to give a newspaper interview in breach of rules agreed by project staff and the EMBT-RMJM partnership responsible for the parliament, in a sign of simmering tensions at the heart of the Holyrood.

More seriously, the minutes obtained by Scotland on Sunday make clear that four years after Dewar’s stern warning, with just five months to go until the supposed completion date of November, chaos still stalks Holyrood.

As costs soared yet again by 37m to 375m this month, the minutes of the Holyrood progress group meeting of 26 March on the eve of the Scottish election campaign revealed that decisions on matters as simple as choosing the type of stone to use for flooring in the black and white ‘lobby’ corridor had still not been taken. More seriously still, the minutes point to problems with funding, dampness in the 18th Century Queensberry House (which it is understood will soak up 500,000 in increased costs), difficulties with windows which didn’t fit, stairs and landscaping delays, which have accounted for a 600,000 cost rise. And - despite weekend working - contractors’ delays, the minutes reveal, have caused a costly domino effect as other contractors have been held up while the meter continues to run.

But it is paragraphs 14 and 15 of the leaked minutes in a section headed "Cost Report" which this weekend will prove most embarrassing for ministers and the Scottish Labour Party, whose MSP John Home Robertson convenes the Holyrood Progress Report. Insiders say the warnings contained in their March briefing to the progress group must have set alarm bells ringing among MSPs, civil servants and ministers about the possibility of costs shooting up - despite the fact that First Minister Jack McConnell’s aides would go on to insist that he believed the 338m estimate was the likely final bill.

The minutes point out that Hugh Fisher, a representative of the project’s cost consultants, had "expressed concern at the number of claims for additional money which were being submitted by contractors". He further warned that only 363,000 of a 10m acceleration budget assembled to finish the project on time remained unallocated while "only 2.8m" of contingency funds remained unallocated. "The capacity of the budget to deal with any further additional costs was, therefore, very limited and any substantial claims would cause a problem," the minutes state.

MSPs and civil servants who heard this stark warning kept it from the public as parliament officials continued to claim the 338m estimate would hold. Their secrecy came at a time of growing concern among politicians that widespread public disillusionment with MSPs could see turnout in the looming election slump to well below 50%, sparking a crisis about the institution’s mandate.

Among those at the meeting were Labour’s Home Robertson, Robert Gordon, one of the Executive’s most powerful civil servants, the Executive’s chief architect John Gibbons, Sarah Davidson, another civil servant who is project director, the SNP MSP Linda Fabiani and Lib Dem MSP Jamie Stone.

Parliament officials have denied there was a cover up but critics of the Holyrood scandal suggest it is inconceivable that McConnell was not "tipped the wink". This weekend they want to know if the refusal to disclose the likely cost hike - ultimately confirmed earlier this month - was in order to avoid a backlash at the polls. If that is the case, they say it is an all too familiar story.

Even friends of Dewar say the late First Minister knew the true cost of the new parliament would be higher than official estimates but that he did not let on because he feared a huge bill would affect the 1997 devolution vote and damage Labour during the first Scottish Parliament election in 1999.

One said: "Donald told me before the election that the official figure was about 50m but I think he knew it was going to be at least two or three times higher than that. He said it was a sensitive issue at the time. He didn’t want to go into an election with a higher figure."

This weekend, the Scottish Tory leader, David McLetchie, is warning that McConnell’s reputation will be in tatters if he too covered up embarrassing figures to help his own election chances. Voicing grave concerns about the implications of the leaked minutes, he said: "It would be deeply damaging if any information was suppressed because of the election campaign and the First Minister’s credibility would be severely dented if it were shown he was privy to information or speculation and kept it quiet."

Newspaper reports last week were full of fresh allegations of waste on the controversial site, including claims that timber sufficient to build over 100 houses had been wasted and that work was constantly being ripped out and started again until senior staff were happy.

There is also growing concern about costly finishing touches. Scotland on Sunday has learned that 113 fridges are being acquired for each MSP office, ideal for storing sandwiches and Soave if politicians cannot muster sufficient enthusiasm to walk to one of the restaurants. Beneath each of the offices’ expensive desks will be carpets designed by Miralles and sitting on top will be one of more than 500 new computers at a cost of around 1m. The existing IT facilities which have served MSPs for the last four years have been judged insufficiently reliable and fast.

It also emerged yesterday that to keep costs down, workers from Romania have been brought in, raising concerns that language problems are increasing health and safety risks on the project. The construction union UCATT is furious and Holyrood critic Margo MacDonald is to raise questions in parliament.

Supporters of Dewar, preparing to give evidence to the independent Holyrood inquiry to be headed by Lord Fraser, say it is further evidence that the cross-party corporate body of MSPs, which assumed responsibility for the project in 1999, was more culpable than the Scottish ministers who handed it over.

Sam Galbraith, the former Scottish Office and Executive minister who was close to Dewar, suggests that money has been "thrown away" since the project was passed from the Executive to the corporate body - a move he had advised Dewar against.

He asks: "Are there unnecessary things incorporated which might be left out and the money could be saved? Do we need an individual room for every MSP and for every MSP’s assistant? I don’t know but what I do know is that when we handed over the project to the parliament we were talking about 100m. Now it will cost almost 400m.

"It’s an absolute disgrace the way that Donald is being scapegoated. He wanted an extremely modest building of some architectural merit. I wanted something more substantial."

Galbraith stresses that it was MSPs who decided to change the specifications in favour of a much larger building and adds: "It’s a classic example of a public sector in which no one accepts responsibility."

Architectural consultant David Black, a vocal critic of the project, insist that other ministers like Peter Mandelson and ultimately Tony Blair have a role in pressing ahead with the Holyrood project as a modern ‘Cool Britannia’ symbol, instead of supporting more modest plans for a new build at Leith or converting the Old Royal High School at Calton Hill. (Some considered this too resonant of Old Labour and the Callaghan government because of its connections with the failed Home Rule campaign of the 1970s.)

If Blair or other UK colleagues were involved, details may emerge from the forthcoming inquiry. If a strong link is proved, some will argue that the UK government must help pick up some of the costs along with some of the blame, perhaps by waiving VAT for the project.

Others suggest Dewar was partly at fault but that the civil service has more to apologise for. Another source close to him recalls: "After 100 years of campaigning for a Scottish Parliament, and the disappointment of 1979, then more campaigning until 1997, the important consideration was getting the policy right. Hardly any consideration was given to the building. Donald’s mind was not on the building. "Not enough consideration was given to a budget line but that was down to the civil service. It was totally unrealistic."

But civil service mandarins already have their defences prepared if they are called before the inquiry to be headed by Lord Fraser. For his part, Muir Russell, the outgoing permanent secretary, is understood to have argued for the parliament to have been built as a PFI project which would have been almost certain to have come in closer to budget. A letter he wrote on October 24, 2000, passed to Scotland on Sunday, states that the project could have been built at Leith for 40m, including fees, fitting out, furniture, VAT and land acquisition. But he wrote that when Dewar opted for a design competition PFI was ruled out.

But some politicians believe the biggest casualty of the blame game currently being played across Scotland could be the man who has ordered the latest inquiry in a bid to reconnect with a sceptical public. "Let’s remember that Jack McConnell was minister for finance when costs were rising and I can’t remember hearing him say anything about the cost of the parliament, writing anything about it or sending any memos about it."

If Lord Fraser finds any evidence to suggest McConnell was less than frank about what he knew before this year’s election, ‘Donald’s Dome’ could yet prove ‘Jack’s jinx’.

Additional reporting by Brian Brady

Facing the hard questions

SCOTLAND on Sunday contacted those likely to be questioned by Lord Fraser’s inquiry and asked whether they would co-operate.

WENDY ALEXANDER, served as a special adviser to Donald Dewar from 1997 to 1999: "I welcome the inquiry and if required I will of course co-operate fully."

MALCOLM CHISHOLM, Scottish Office minister in 1997: "If asked I will obviously answer any questions. I’m not sure I could add very much, since I was not a minister for all that long at the time."

LORD ELDER, former special adviser to Donald Dewar, 1997 to 1999: "I will fully co-operate with the inquiry. I’m not sure I have all that much to add, but I will answer any questions."

DR JOHN GIBBONS, the Scottish Office’s chief architect. SARAH DAVIDSON, Holyrood project director since 2001. PAUL GRICE, Scottish parliament chief executive.

A spokesman for the Scottish parliament said in connection with all three: "I refer you to the statement by George Reid, the Presiding Officer of the Scottish parliament, in which he said: ‘The parliament will give its full co-operation.’"

SAM GALBRAITH, former Scottish Office health minister: "Not only am I prepared to answer questions, I should be upset if I were not asked. I have questions which I’d like to ask, including why costs have risen since we handed it over to the parliament corporate body.

BENEDETTA TAGLIABUIE, architect on the building, along with Miralles: unavailable for comment.

JOHN RAFFERTY: Donald Dewar’s chief of staff in 1999. No comment.