SNP will not back Matheson ban over £11,000 iPad bill

Michael Matheson
Michael Matheson resigned from the government in February following a scandal over his expenses [Getty Images]

The SNP will not back a parliamentary ban for ex-health secretary Michael Matheson, it has emerged, after First Minister John Swinney sparked confusion over his party's position.

The standards committee had recommended that Mr Matheson be banned from parliament for 27 sitting days and have his salary withdrawn for 54 days after an £11,000 bill was racked up on his parliamentary iPad.

BBC Scotland News understands the SNP will call for a review of the complaints process, arguing it was open to bias and prejudice, and will not back the final motion when it comes to the vote at Holyrood later.

However, all other Holyrood parties are expected to vote in favour of the sanctions. If all 65 opposition MSPs vote in favour, Mr Matheson would face the full 27-day ban.

Mr Swinney - who describes Mr Matheson as a friend - initially said he would not vote for the sanction due to concerns the process had been "prejudiced".

He faced losing the vote when the Scottish Greens confirmed they would back the proposed sanctions against Mr Matheson and oppose any attempt to reduce them.

SNP deputy first minister Kate Forbes subsequently lodged an amendment that complained about the process but did not attempt to change the sanction.

On Wednesday morning the first minister told BBC Scotland News his opinion had not changed.

“I won’t be supporting the sanctions that are put in place," he said.

"Our position will be put to parliament today and parliament will hear all about that.”

Mr Matheson, who quit the cabinet in February, is also the subject of a Scottish Conservative motion calling on him to resign from Holyrood.

The SNP amendment is critical that a Conservative member of the Standards Committee, Annie Wells, made “public pronouncements” about Mr Matheson previously.

It expresses regret at leaks to the media and calls for parliament’s corporate body to conduct an independent review of the complaints process.

Referring to Ms Wells, Mr Swinney told the BBC: “I think the integrity of the Scottish Parliament has been damaged by the way this process has been handled.

“In no other walk of life would it be acceptable for a disciplinary panel to have in its membership someone who had prejudged the case.”

Opposition MSPs outnumber the SNP group by 65 to 63, meaning the first minister would have been unable to prevent parliament from endorsing the punishment if they had all backed it.

The first minister previously described Mr Matheson as a "friend and colleague" and said parliament’s reputation could be damaged if the issue was not addressed “properly”.

The former health secretary also said he believed the fairness of the process had been compromised.

A spokesperson for the SNP Holyrood group called for a review of the complaints process to "restore integrity" and "ensure we are never again in a position where politics is put before process and prejudice is put before parliament".

MSPs
[BBC]

The Scottish Greens backed the sanctions against Mr Matheson but raised similar concerns about the process.

The party's amendment said the committee had not applied a "consistent" approach to the recommended punishment, that the case had potentially been pre-judged and that draft proposals had been leaked.

A spokesperson for the party said: "It remains correct that Mr Matheson is held accountable for his actions, and our MSP group will vote for the sanctions excluding him from parliament and sacrificing his salary."

The Scottish Conservative motion calling for Mr Matheson to quit will be debated afterwards.

It accuses Mr Matheson of misusing taxpayer funds and making misleading statements.

It is non-binding and is unlikely to pass after the Greens said they would not support it.

Mr Matheson has repeatedly said he will not stand down as an MSP.

If agreed by MSPs, the ban and salary penalty would come into force from Thursday.

Mr Matheson but would be barred from all proceedings in the chamber and committees, but not from the parliamentary estate.

That sanction, applying only to sitting days, would last until early September, when MSPs return from summer recess.

iPad scandal

A £10,941.74 bill was racked up on his parliamentary iPad during a family holiday to Morocco between December 2022 and January 2023.

It was agreed with parliament that the bill would be paid out of the public purse, including £3,000 from his own office cost allowance.

When details of the bill were first reported in November 2023, Mr Matheson blamed the bill on an out of date sim card and insisted the device had been used exclusively for constituency work.

Following days of speculation he told parliament his sons had used the iPad to set up a wifi hotspot. He apologised and agreed to pay the bill personally and in full.

He quit as health secretary in February after more than nine years in cabinet ahead of the publication of a report by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB), which found he had breached the MSPs code of conduct.

The SPCB report was then considered by the cross-party standards committee. Labour MSP Martin Whitfield, the committee convener, said the proposed sanctions reflected the seriousness of Mr Matheson’s breach of the MSP code of conduct.

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

Douglas Ross
Douglas Ross sent a message to the first minister during a visit to Michael Matheson's constituency [Getty Images]

After the committee's findings were announced last Thursday, the first minister raised concerns about the integrity of the process.

Mr Swinney revealed he had repeatedly written to Mr Whitfield referencing comments from committee member Annie Wells, who had initially recommended the 27-day suspension.

In a letter sent in March, Mr Swinney highlighted a post on X in which Ms Wells said Mr Matheson had "misled parliament and lied to the media repeatedly".

The 27-day suspension was backed by Tory colleague Oliver Mundell but SNP committee members Jackie Dunbar and Alasdair Allan disagreed with Mr Allan describing it as "extremely high" compared to sanctions in previous cases.

The deciding vote in favour was made by Mr Whitfield, who did not express a "personal view" but said the committee would otherwise have been unable to reach a recommendation.

By-election demands

Unlike at Westminster, where MPs can be removed by constituents if they are suspended for more than 10 days, there is no recall mechanism at Holyrood.

Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross tabled the motion declaring Mr Matheson should quit parliament and said a by-election could be held on 4 July, the same day as the general election.

During a visit to Mr Matheson's constituency, he said the first minister had "staked his reputation" on the former health secretary, who he said had lied to parliament, the presiding officer and the public.

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar accused Mr Swinney of “trying to defend the indefensible”. "It's completely and utterly unacceptable,” he added.

Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton told BBC Scotland News that Mr Matheson should stand down and trigger a by-election having "lost the trust of the general public and the media".