First Minister opposes parliament ban for former SNP minister who racked up £11k data bill

John Swinney told First Minister's Questions that he would not support the suspension of Michael Matheson
John Swinney told First Minister's Questions that he would not support the suspension of Michael Matheson - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

John Swinney, Scotland’s First Minister, has triggered outrage by opposing the standards watchdog’s suggested parliamentary ban for a disgraced former SNP health secretary he described as a “friend”.

The Scottish Parliament’s standards, procedures and public appointments committee said Michael Matheson should be banned for 27 sitting days after charging the taxpayer £11,000 for roaming charges he racked up on holiday.

He only repaid the money after the Telegraph disclosed the claim last November. As Holyrood sits three days per week, the suspension equates to nine weeks or around two months.

The committee also unanimously recommended that the SNP MSP should not receive his salary for 54 days.

But the committee was divided over the length of the suspension, with its two SNP members insisting the unprecedented 27-day sanction was excessive.

Mr Swinney then told First Minister’s Questions that he would not support the punishment, raising questions over whether it will be approved when it goes to all MSPs for a vote.

He described Mr Matheson as a “friend” and said Annie Wells, a Conservative committee member, had made “prejudicial” public comments attacking Mr Matheson.

Michael Matheson faced calls to resign his Falkirk West seat
Michael Matheson faced calls to resign his Falkirk West seat - Andrew Milligan/PA

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, said Mr Swinney’s stance was “indefensible” and he was the “First Minister who backs his pals”. He said the Tories would bring a motion next week stating Mr Matheson should resign from parliament.

The suspension of 27 sitting days was recommended by Ms Wells and supported by Conservative colleague Oliver Mundell.

Mr Mundell noted that “many in the real world would have faced the very real possibility of losing their job in the same circumstances”.

Although there is no facility at Holyrood for constituents to recall their MSPs, Mr Matheson faced calls to resign his Falkirk West seat.

Bill for parliamentary iPad

Martin Whitfield, the committee’s Labour convener, delivered the casting vote of the 27 days’ suspension. He said it was not his personal view but “the committee would otherwise not have been in a position to make a recommendation”.

However, Mr Whitfield said the sanction reflected the seriousness of Mr Matheson’s breach of the MSP code of conduct.

In a statement, he said: “Had it not been for mitigatory factors, including the impact on the member and his family, the sanctions proposed would likely have been greater.”

Mr Matheson racked up the £10,941.74 bill for his parliamentary iPad over Christmas 2022 during a family holiday in Morocco, which had an outdated EE SIM card.

He then told Holyrood’s authorities the charges were all in respect of constituency work. The parliament allowed him to use his taxpayer-funded expenses to fund £3,000 of the bill and provided the £7,935.74 balance from its own budget.

Mr Matheson paid back the money from his own pocket on Nov 10 last year, two days after the Telegraph disclosed the bill. He told the media there had been no personal use of the device.

However, in a statement to MSPs, he admitted he had found out on Nov 9 that his sons had used the iPad at an internet hotspot to watch football matches.

Mr Matheson finally resigned in February after the Scottish Parliament’s ruling corporate body (SPCB) completed its investigation. He had been informed he would shortly be handed a copy of the report.

Breached code of conduct

The SPCB concluded he breached two sections of the MSP code of conduct –  that members must “abide by the policies” of the SPCB and that “no improper use should be made of any payment or allowance made to members for public purposes”.

The case was then referred to the standards committee, which met behind closed doors last week to decide his punishment.

In his statement, Mr Whitfield said the parliament’s IT department had contacted Mr Matheson in March and Oct 2021 to get his iPad SIM card changed and an appointment was arranged in December that year.

However, it did not go ahead for reasons that had not been explained. Although Mr Whitfield said the parliament should have taken action, such as cancelling the SIM card, he said “the question of data usage for non-parliamentary purposes remains”.

He said that Mr Matheson should have realised the £3,000 “contribution” he made to the bill would be regarded as a claim under the MSP expenses scheme.

Mr Matheson was found not to have “been in a position to offer assurance to the necessary standard” that it was a genuine expense claim, taking into account the queries he made “about potential unauthorised use and that he had been provided with assistance in setting up the hotspot by a family member”.

Mr Whitfield said mitigating factors were that he had reimbursed the public purse and “the significant impact that there has been on his family”, including “significant” media intrusion.

But he said MSPs had a duty to abide by their code of conduct and expenses scheme and the committee had “concerns about the fact that the non-parliamentary usage of the data was not drawn to the attention of the parliamentary authorities, including the Presiding Officer, more timeously”.

Jackie Dunbar and Alasdair Allan, SNP members, disagreed with the proposed length of the suspension, with Mr Allan describing it as “extremely high” compared to sanctions in previous cases.