FERGUS EWING: We want the truth, whole truth and nothing but the truth on A9 dualling
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It was the Alex Neil show. At the Petitions committee last week, continuing our inquiry into the A9 dualling, the former cabinet secretary gave his evidence. The universal verdict: it was a tour de force.
Alex had been the cabinet secretary in charge of the project in 2011-12. During that time, he asked his officials for details of how quickly the A9 could be dualled, and to set out a detailed programme showing when each of the various sections would be done.
He told the committee that under his leadership, there was a plan and a budget. And the project could be completed by 2025. The money was there. The plans for each section were set.
He said that the available budget – not otherwise committed was around £14 billion, but the total combined costs of the A9 and the A96 dualling was £6 billion – so only about 40 per cent of the available funds.
Before he gave his evidence to the committee, he was given access again to all the papers – the government papers at the time – which set all this out.
Its worth noting that had he not given evidence, these truths may never have seen the light of day! However, he was not given access to the documents after he left his post in 2012.
I had in June, asked Transport Scotland to provide all these documents. That did not happen. So it required Alex Neil’s evidence to get access to their contents and the committee still has not been given the documents themselves.
When the head of Transport Scotland gave evidence to us in June he said that the completion of the project by 2025 was “aspirational”. He gave us the impression that this deadline was never realistic.
We must get to the bottom of what happened to halt progress on the A9 dualling plan made by Alex Neil. What happened to halt its delivery? Its time that we learn the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
I put this point to Alex. He replied that this was total rubbish. He explained that he did not order officials to come up with a plan to complete the project by 2025. Rather he asked them to provide a plan showing by what date it could be done in full. So the plan was, according to officials, achievable, it was funded and it was, then at least, on track.
He went on to say that he remained in the Cabinet until 2016 but was reshuffled to health in around 2012 but that the cabinet during that further four year period did not hear of any change in plan – any change to the 2025 deadline.
On being asked what went wrong and why so very little progress has been made, he argued that his successors, who include Nicola Sturgeon, must have “taken their foot off the accelerator.”
Obviously I shall now urge the committee that we must obtain and hear evidence from Nicola and all the other cabinet cecretaries who had , after she became First Minister, responsibility for the delivery of the infrastructure plans including the A9 and A96.
I shall also argue, following up Alex Neil’s recommendation, that the committee must get access to ALL the Scottish Government papers including advice to ministers from their officials and Transport Scotland.
And that must include some documents that have been withheld from Freedom of Information requests.
If the Scottish Government decline to produce all such documents, it won’t just be me that will be asking what it is they have to hide. It will I suspect be the vast majority of people in the HIghlands.
Such disclosure of all documents was made to the Holyrood inquiry into the costs of the Parliament building , and to the Salmond Inquiry into the Government handling of allegations of harassment - allegations that of course led to Alex Salmond acquittal on all charges.
There is one difference between these two previous instances where documents have been made available , and the A9
No one has lost their lives on the Holyrood Project, or the other inquiry. We must get to the bottom of what happened to halt progress on the A9 dualling plan made by Alex Neil. What happened to halt its delivery?
Its time that we learn the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.