The cavalier streak of 'cautious' Dewar

DONALD Dewar earned a reputation throughout his life for being cautious and careful, particularly with money.

However, as the inquiry into the Holyrood fiasco found out yesterday, there was another, surprising, side to the former first minister’s character which appears to have been central to the way the Scottish Parliament building project developed.

Senior civil servants who gave evidence to Lord Fraser revealed Mr Dewar could be impetuous, even rash, and made key decisions without following the proper protocols. Indeed, so keen was the then Scottish secretary to "endow" the nation with a physical building as well as delivering the machinery of devolution, that he chose Holyrood as the site for the parliament without commissioning a proper economic appraisal.

John Campbell, QC, the counsel for the inquiry, asked Mark Batho, a civil servant closely involved in financial planning for the parliament in 1997-8: "Were you concerned about the possible conflict between achieving value for money and the ministers’ desire for speed?"

Mr Batho replied: "Yes. We were concerned about the potential tension between those two objectives right from the outset. In our view the assessment for value for money required a proper economic appraisal of various options that would take time and delay the project and would mean the building would have to be delivered later."

Mr Campbell then asked: "What is an economic appraisal?" Mr Batho replied: "It is the process whereby one can devise reasonable assessments of cost ... so that there has been some due process and not just sticking your finger in the air."

Mr Batho stressed later that he was happy a full assessment had been done on the Holyrood site after it had been selected.

But the clear implication from his evidence was that Mr Dewar had been so keen to drive Holyrood through that he did not give his civil servants the time to commission the type of full economic analysis before it was selected.

Mr Campbell showed the inquiry several memos from civil servants from 1997 and early 1998 revealing ministers were advised to consider using a private finance deal for the Parliament building but seemed to ignore the advice.

John Graham, who was then the principal finance officer at the Scottish Office, said officials were very aware of the cost overruns which had plagued Portcullis House, the new office accommodation for MPs in London built under conventional methods. "We knew about what happened there and we were keen to avoid a repetition," he said.

The Labour peer, Lord Sewel, who steered the devolution legislation through the House of Lords, had earlier said Holyrood emerged as "an answer to all our prayers" given the problems with the other sites.

He also claimed it was a key ambition of Mr Dewar to deliver a Scottish Parliament.

"I would think he saw part of that as delivering a physical building as well," he added.

Sir Russell Hillhouse, who was the permanent secretary at the Scottish Office at the time when the crucial decisions were taken, said he had approached Mr Dewar and urged him to take more time and possibly postpone the crucial decisions until the new parliament was up and running.

But, from an exchange which revealed much about the then Scottish secretary’s state of mind, it emerged Mr Dewar insisted it was his "duty" to deliver a parliament building.

Sir Russell said: "I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to go for a temporary solution and let the parliament decide?’

"He said, ‘That, of course, is correct in principle, but my fear is that unless we get ahead and do something now the parliament will find it extremely difficult to get round to it. I think it’s my duty to endow them with a really good building which will fit the purpose and enable them to work effectively.’"

Sir Russell revealed he had been forced to withdraw from the discussions over the site at a particularly crucial time because he owned a house near the Old Royal High School site and was worried about a potential conflict of interests.

The loss of Mr Dewar’s top civil servant at such a time just added to the impression that the project of choosing a site for the parliament was in turmoil.

Sir Russell also admitted it would have been better to leave out any estimates of the cost of the new building in the 1997 devolution white paper.

The document estimated costs at between 10 and 40 million.

He said: "In hindsight it might have been better if we hadn’t put the figures in at all."

McConnel refuses to act

JACK McConnell, the First Minister, has once again refused to intervene to force BBC Scotland to release potentially vital taped evidence to the inquiry.

Mr McConnell said it would be wrong for ministers to step in to assist Lord Fraser’s inquiry - despite calls from opposition politicians.

"When we established an inquiry it was to operate independent of government and it would be wrong for government to intervene," the First Minister told MSPs yesterday.

Both the Tories and the SNP accused Mr McConnell of reneging on a promise to parliament that he would intervene if the inquiry had difficulty in getting information.

However, he insisted the inquiry had sufficient powers to get any information it required - if it had the "co-operation of everyone involved".

He went on to reveal that the Executive is to hand over to Lord Fraser its own video footage of conversations involving Donald Dewar and the Holyrood architect, Enric Miralles - two of the subjects of the contested BBC Scotland tapes.

The footage, shot by an Executive official, was discovered this week after an official’s memory was jogged by reports into the BBC controversy.

The developments emerged at a heated First Minister’s Question Time, with Mr McConnell coming under increasing pressure to step into the furore over the BBC’s stance, which has been taken on the grounds that it was not their policy to release untransmitted material.

Urging the First Minister to step in, John Swinney, the leader of the SNP, said: "It is absurd for the BBC and its film producers to know at first-hand the views expressed on this issue by Mr Dewar but for the Fraser Inquiry and the people of Scotland to rely on the second-hand opinion of former ministers and former advisers."

Mr Swinney suggested that if the BBC was allowed to "get away" with refusing to hand over interviews, firms involved in the project might think they could also refuse to co-operate. "Lord Fraser has requested documents and information from the BBC, but he doesn’t have them," he said.

David McLetchie, the Tory leader, accused Mr McConnell of undermining the inquiry. "You are actually letting the inquiry down and damaging its credibility in the eyes of the people in Scotland.

"Mr McConnell has confirmed that he is washing his hands of the issue - he has not been in touch with the BBC, he is not going to get in touch and he signally failed to advise us just how Lord Fraser is going to compel the BBC to co-operate," he said.