Fraser Inquiry: a costly investigation

Poking around in the foundations of the Holyrood building will undermine the Scottish Parliament even further.

Penny Lewis

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Topics Politics

The Fraser Inquiry (otherwise known as ‘McHutton’), the investigation into the spiralling costs of the Scottish Parliament building, began three weeks ago – and already it seems to have lasted three weeks too long. Lord Fraser, a leading QC and a legal team will spend the next few months at the Scottish Land Court pouring over details of the construction project.

The Holyrood project is very late and seriously over budget – but is it a scandal? Original estimated costs were £40million; the total cost of the project is likely to be over £400million. So far we have learnt that the late Donald Dewar pushed forward the decision on the Holyrood site because he believed that it was the best option – and apparently civil servants colluded with him. Dewar also understated the likely cost of the project. Bad judgements have certainly been made, but this is hardly the stuff of the Profumo affair.

In the coming weeks and months, similarly dramatic revelations will be picked over. The Members of Scottish Parliament (MSPs) demanded more and more space, which doubled the size of the building; cost consultants never really got a grip on the project; the architects, Enric Miralles in particular, resisted pressure to cut costs; civil servants consistently released figures that focused on construction costs while ignoring fees, VAT and other payments.

The reasons that the project is over-budget are not complicated – they could be quite adequately described on the back of a postcard. Yet we are to be subjected to months of this bizarre theatre, in which witnesses will be cast as victims or villains in the Holyrood plot.

Some commentators, however, are putting their faith in Fraser. ‘Lord Fraser’s Inquiry into the Follywood fiasco has been the only good thing to come out of the whole sorry saga. Lord Fraser has achieved more in two weeks than the Scottish Parliament and its committees achieved in four years of investigating the Holyrood Project’, wrote Iain McWhirter in the Sunday Herald. ‘The walls of secrecy that surround the civil service have been penetrated by a new form of quasi-judicial inquisition’, he added.

Far from being good for the Scottish Parliament, picking over the Holyrood accounts is more likely to undermine existing democratic institutions. Just as with the Hutton Inquiry, confidential and informal discussions between civil servants, politicians and consultants will be held up to scrutiny by a Tory peer. Instead of a more democratic Scotland, Fraser will yield a paranoid civil service – as well as politicians who are constantly watching their backs, and shying away from ambitious projects for fear of ending up in the dock.

Fraser is becoming Scotland’s morality play on the question of good government. The lesson of this is that government will be less about driving policy than about behaving correctly and following procedures. Before long, we may find that the main function of the Scottish Parliament is to scrutinise its own activities, checking that its representatives have left no box unticked. In comparison to this bureaucratic navel-gazing, Donald Dewar’s determination to push the Holyrood project through to a conclusion looks positively admirable.

According to the inquiry’s QC John Campbell, ‘the public deserves and expects the truth’. It is certainly true that the parliament is the butt of jokes: according to opinion polls, the public thinks that the project was a waste of money, and during the May 2003 election Holyrood was seen as symbolising the failings of the Scottish Parliament. However, if you exclude construction professionals and a handful of political anoraks, the intricate details of building procurement have not gripped the popular imagination. Four observers (two MSPs and two chartered surveyors) turned up to court for the first day of the inquiry, and since then public interest seems to have dwindled further.

The only group that really seems to be benefiting from this inquiry is the press. The Scottish media have put up a good show (the head count was 29 on the opening day), and the inquiry is generating reams of copy for the increasingly understaffed newspapers. From the comfort of the inquiry room, journalists can re-report the news of 1997, rather than having to carry out their own investigations into the affair. While this creates the illusion that the media are reporting secret and significant events, in reality they are merely watching while Fraser digs up old news.

Penny Lewis is editor of Prospect, the Scottish architecture magazine.

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