Scottish parliament to suspend ex-minister who claimed £11,000 roaming bill on expenses

<span>Matheson quit as health secretary in February after admitting his sons had used his work iPad to watch football while on holiday.</span><span>Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA</span>
Matheson quit as health secretary in February after admitting his sons had used his work iPad to watch football while on holiday.Photograph: Jane Barlow/PA

Michael Matheson, Scotland’s former health secretary, is expected to lose his salary for 54 days and be suspended as an MSP after wrongly claiming £11,000 in expenses for streaming football matches on holiday.

Holyrood’s standards committee said the sanctions – the most serious ever imposed on an MSP – were necessary because Matheson had breached a number of rules on expenses and parliamentary conduct.

It said on Thursday that Matheson had not been “open, honest and accountable” after he claimed £10,941.74 in expenses for mobile data for his parliamentary iPad, run up largely because his sons used the data to stream football matches during a holiday in Morocco.

But the SNP leader, John Swinney, backed Matheson, his “friend and colleague”, fully during an angry session of first minister’s question and said he would not support the sanction, claiming the process that decided it was “prejudiced”.

Swinney was accused of “demeaning himself and the office of first minister” by the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, after he claimed that Scottish Tory members of the standards committee had “pre-judged” the issue and that this was bringing the parliament into disrepute.

Pressed on the matter by Douglas Ross, Swinney said: “Michael Matheson has made mistakes, he resigned from the cabinet, he lost his job as a member of the cabinet and he paid the roaming costs in question. There was no cost to the public purse and as a consequence of the issues that have been raised here about the conduct of this process I do not believe that this is a sanction that can be applied.”

Ross said Swinney’s response was “shocking” and “defending the indefensible”, threatening to bring forward a motion next week calling for Matheson’s resignation.

Ross said: “In the real world [Matheson] would have lost his job for what he did and what he claimed.”

In a split decision that was opposed by Scottish National party MSPs on the committee, it decided Matheson should be suspended from Holyrood for 27 days. However, committee members unanimously agreed he should lose his MSP salary for 54 days. Both sanctions must now be endorsed by a full parliamentary vote.

Matheson quit as health secretary in February after he admitted his sons had used his work iPad to watch football while on holiday in Morocco. He initially claimed the full bill on expenses and had repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.

Martin Whitfield, the committee’s chair, said it had upheld the findings of an earlier investigation by the Scottish parliament corporate body (SPCB), which has overall authority over Holyrood’s rules and its code of conduct, that Matheson had not met the standards expected of MSPs.

“The obligations all members have under the code, the expenses scheme and relevant SPCB policies are of paramount importance in upholding the integrity of the scheme and the ethical standards framework [that] underpin the conduct of parliamentary duties,” Whitfield said in a statement.

“Any failure to meet those obligations has an adverse impact on the reputation of the expenses scheme, members and the parliament as a whole.”

Oliver Mundell, a Tory MSP on the committee, said he would have supported a longer suspension. Ordinary voters “would not look kindly on a short suspension when many in the real world would have faced the very real possibility of losing their job in the same circumstances”.

The SPCB ruled in March that Matheson had breached two parts of the MSPs’ code of conduct in four ways, and it upheld three complaints against him. He had made an improper claim for expenses; failed to ensure his iPad hotspot was not used for non-parliamentary purposes; failed to investigate why his claim was so large in the first place, and then failed to tell parliament that he knew the claim had been illegitimate for seven days.

The Daily Telegraph revealed in early November that Matheson had made the claim while on a family holiday in Morocco in December 2022 and January 2023. He had told parliament officials it was legitimately incurred from carrying out parliamentary business.

It emerged he had been using an out-of-date EE data contract, which meant he was paying the highest possible rate for mobile usage. After protracted discussions about that charge, Holyrood agreed to pay £8,000 from its expenses scheme and to allow him to foot the remaining £3,000 using his office expenses.

The standards committee said that while Holyrood officials should have ensured Matheson had an up-to-date sim card fitted to the iPad, Matheson had failed to get clearance to use it overseas.

Most importantly, it added, he was entirely responsible for how the iPad was used. He admitted a “family member” had helped him set up a hotspot using the iPad on holiday.

After days denying he had done anything wrong, Matheson quit as health secretary and repaid the £11,000 in full six days after his wife said his sons had streamed football matches using the hotspot. He had been backed fully by Humza Yousaf, the then SNP leader and first minister, who said Matheson was a man of integrity.