14 May 2004
Senior civil servants in Scotland are bracing themselves for criticisms of their handling of the controversial Holyrood parliament building project when public inquiry chair Lord Fraser of Carmyllie reports in the autumn.
At the conclusion of the evidence-gathering sessions of the inquiry into the £432m project in Edinburgh last week, Fraser gave a clear indication that he is likely to rule that civil servants withheld vital information from ministers about soaring costs.
It has been claimed that, in 1999, the project team of civil servants told the late Donald Dewar, former secretary of state for Scotland and first minister, that the construction cost of the building at that time had risen from £50m to £62m. However, it is alleged he was not advised that a cost consultant had estimated the construction cost would go up to £89m.
Dewar quoted the £62m figure to the Scottish Parliament in June 1999 and the MSPs voted by only a narrow majority to continue with the building, the management of which had been transferred from the former Scottish Office to the new parliament.
Fraser said: 'It looks rather as though those who were involved in this were determined to keep the figure down as low as possible, even to the point of concealing it from the parliament in the hope that the project would go ahead.'
Questioning Dr John Gibbons, the project's chief architectural adviser, Fraser said: 'Would it not have been appropriate to put the secretary of state in the position that he could tell parliament that the figure he had in front of him of what it was going to cost was £89m?'
He said he believed Dewar had referred to the £62m in 'good faith', unaware of the additional £27m. He told Gibbons: 'It doesn't look very good, does it?'
Gibbons insisted there was no attempt by anyone to hide the cost. He said the project team had removed the extra £27m figure because it believed it could be 'managed out'. 'There was firm cost control and we were definitely trying to reduce the cost of the project,' he said.