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Chamber and committees

Meeting of the Parliament

Meeting date: Thursday, November 16, 2023


Personal Statement

The next item of business is a personal statement by Michael Matheson.


Michael Matheson (Falkirk West) (SNP)

I thank the Presiding Officer for the opportunity to make a personal statement to Parliament.

I want to address the significant level of interest in the data roaming charges associated with my parliamentary iPad during a family holiday in Morocco between 27 December 2022 and 3 January this year.

First, I want to apologise to the chamber for the cost of the roaming charges. As I set out in my public statement on Friday, I accept that the charges have come about as a result of my not updating the SIM card in my iPad to that of the new contract provider. I also recognise that I should have informed the Parliament’s information technology department in advance of travelling of my holiday plans and of the fact that I would be taking two devices. That was my responsibility and I accept it in full.

I therefore think that it is important to set out to the chamber all the facts of what happened and, in particular, exactly how the charges came about. I travelled to Morocco with my family—my wife and two teenage boys—on 27 December. On the first day of the holiday, 28 December, I contacted the Parliament’s IT department and told it that I was out of the country and that my parliamentary phone was not working but that my iPad was working. In the course of two phone calls, after an initial effort to get the phone working, the Parliament’s IT department advised that it had checked with the network operator, which explained that my data package was suitable for use in Morocco. It also advised that I should try to remove and replace the SIM card from my phone, as the problem might be a fault with the SIM card. Nothing in those discussions led me to believe that there was any risk in using my iPad while in Morocco.

I want to be clear with colleagues that I did not knowingly run up the roaming charges bill; quite the reverse—I checked what I should do before I used my iPad. My mistake—I wholly accept this—was not to have sorted all that out long before I went to Morocco.

In January this year, I was informed of the high data charges that had accrued to my iPad. Of course, I queried the charges and Parliament confirmed that it had contacted the provider for more information. At that time, I handed my iPad over to the Parliament for it to be checked. It is important to be clear that, throughout this time, I was not clear what had caused the high charges. I had not used the iPad for any purpose other than parliamentary and constituency business and could not understand how the costs could be so high. Parliament confirmed that the network provider was unable to give further details of what had led to the charges. In the absence of a clear explanation of how such a large bill could have happened, I thought it appropriate to make a contribution, through office allowances, of £3,000 towards the cost. Following the publication of my expenses last week, there was significant media coverage of the charges.

It was at that point—last Thursday night—when I returned home that I was made aware by my wife that other members of our family had made use of the iPad data. That was the first that I knew that the data had been used by anyone else. I had previously checked that, but the truth emerged only after the story had been in the news. I should have pressed harder; perhaps I should have been less willing to believe what I had been told. Presiding Officer, I need to be very clear with you and my colleagues that the responsibility for the iPad is mine. The responsibility for the data usage is mine. That is why my wife and I made the immediate decision to reimburse the full costs to the Parliament.

I contacted parliamentary authorities the next day to make clear arrangements to reimburse the full costs of the roaming charges and to issue a personal statement to explain that decision. In my statement, which was issued last Friday, I made no reference to the use of data by my family. As a parent, I wanted to protect my family from being part of the associated political and media scrutiny, which is something that I believe any parent would want to do. I am a father first and foremost. I can see now that it is just not possible to explain the data usage without explaining my family’s role. The simple truth is that they were watching football matches.

On Tuesday, I told the First Minister that members of my family had made use of the iPad data. Yesterday evening, I provided him with a full account of the matter and of my intention to inform the Parliament.

Disclosing the information about my family has been extremely difficult. Mistakes have been made by me and by my family, and mistakes have been made in the way in which I have handled the matter. I should have sorted the SIM card and I should have investigated what happened more thoroughly. I accept that, take responsibility and apologise unreservedly. That is why the costs have now been fully reimbursed to the Parliament. That is why I have referred myself to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body under section 7 of the MSP code of conduct, so that it can consider whether to investigate the matter further to address any remaining questions to the Parliament’s full satisfaction. I take very seriously the reputation of the Scottish Parliament, of which I have always strived to be a diligent member since its restoration in 1999. My wish is that I can now focus fully on the vital duties that I have as MSP for Falkirk West and as health secretary. I hope that members will accept my explanation, my self-referral under the code of conduct and my unreserved apology.

The Presiding Officer

Given the Parliament’s decision to suspend rule 13.1.4 of standing orders, I will allow a period of around 10 minutes for questions. Any members who wish to put a question should press their request-to-speak button now.

Douglas Ross (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I am grateful to Michael Matheson for the personal statement that he has just provided. I can fully see the difficulty that it has caused him. However, questions remain. During his statement, Michael Matheson said that he could not understand how he had racked up so many data roaming charges. He went on to say that he could not explain the data usage—but, of course, he did explain it. He told the Parliament, when he claimed for expenses, that it was a legitimate expense. He promised the Parliament that it was a legitimate expense. He gave the Parliament written assurances that it was a legitimate expense.

If, as has now transpired, his son was watching football, why did he claim that he was doing parliamentary work? If he could not understand at the time or could not explain the data usage, how could he say with 100 per cent certainty to the Parliament, when claiming £11,000 of taxpayers’ money, that he was doing parliamentary work? The two stories do not align. It seems that Parliament was misled when he made that claim. Does Michael Matheson agree with that?

He also said in his statement that he looked for £3,000 to be taken out of his office cost allowance. Was that his only request, or did he seek more money and more support out of available budgets?

He said that he made the immediate decision, on hearing from his wife, to repay the money, but in the statement that he made to the media and the Scottish public, he said that the issue was a direct consequence of using an outdated SIM. Did he mislead the Scottish people by using that argument, rather than what we now know to be the case?

The health secretary has belatedly been forced to be honest about the circumstances, but we cannot ignore or forget the fact that, months ago, he wanted the Scottish taxpayer to pay £11,000 for his roaming bill. That roaming bill was accrued not due to parliamentary duties, which he claimed, and, therefore, he falsely claimed that money. Will the health secretary accept that?

Michael Matheson

In my statement, I was clear that, at the time when I was notified of the high charges associated with my iPad, the Parliament’s IT department contacted the network provider to try to find out more details about how the costs had been associated with my iPad. Unfortunately, the network provider was unable to provide that information to the Parliament, and, therefore, we were unable to identify how the costs of the roaming charges associated with my iPad had been accrued.

At that time, I passed my iPad to the IT department to consider whether there was an issue with it and for it to look at the device. I also made a contribution of £3,000 to help meet the costs associated with the Parliament’s IT department in meeting the overall costs. That was something that I volunteered to make to the Parliament directly.

The member referred to my statement last Friday, when I made no reference to the fact that that data usage had occurred through members of my family. As I set out in my statement, this has been a very challenging and emotional time for my family. I chose not to provide details of that in my statement on Friday, because it would implicate my children in this issue. I chose not to provide that information in order to try to protect them from the inevitable media scrutiny and political interest that that would generate. I did that as a father, to protect them.

Jackie Baillie (Dumbarton) (Lab)

I thank Michael Matheson for his personal statement. I think that anyone who has had teenage children will understand what has happened, but what people will not understand is the cover-up. That has only had the effect of heightening the media scrutiny, which understandably he did not want for his family.

I regret to say that the failure to replace the SIM card, despite reminders over several years, is wholly negligent; I regret that the failure to keep the iPad secure is equally negligent; and I regret that, on repeated occasions, the cabinet secretary gave assurances to this Parliament and made statements in the press that were wholly incorrect.

There is a serious question of judgment here, but while the cabinet secretary was focused on this mess of his own making, accident and emergency waiting times have gone up this year to the highest level, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde was named as a suspect in a corporate homicide case and 820,000 patients are waiting too long on national health service waiting lists for treatment.

Does Michael Matheson not believe that, as a result of this serious question of judgment, people will understandably have lost confidence in his ability to do his job as the Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care? I have to ask why he did not investigate the use of data when the issue was consistently raised with him by parliamentary authorities. Why is it only now that he asked his family what actually happened?

Michael Matheson

I wholly accept that the data usage and the cost associated with it are my responsibility. That is why, last Thursday, we as a family made the decision to reimburse the Parliament for the full costs associated with that.

My use of the iPad when I was on holiday was purely for constituency and parliamentary purposes. That was my understanding of all that had happened with the iPad when it travelled with us. However, it is clear that things have changed as a result of the information that I now have.

I will be very clear with Jackie Baillie. I asked for, and the IT department sought to get, further details from the network operator on exactly what the iPad had accrued the charges for, but the network operator was unable to provide that information. I also discussed the matter with my family, and I received assurances at that time. Had I known that my family made use of the data at that time, I would have met the costs associated with that. However, I did not know that. That is why, at that time, I could not understand how the costs had been accrued. When it became apparent that we had accrued the costs as a result of actions in my family, we took the immediate decision to reimburse the full amount to the Parliament. I hope that Jackie Baillie will take my reassurance that, as soon as that became apparent to us, we as a family decided to ensure that Parliament was reimbursed for the full costs associated with that.

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s statement. Has he engaged with the Parliament on data capping on parliamentary devices in the future?

Michael Matheson

I am aware that the Parliament is undertaking a review of the existing arrangements that it has in place. With my own painful experience of the matter, I am more than happy to engage with it to offer it any assistance that I can from that experience in order to ensure that no other member experiences this type of difficulty at some point in the future.

Meghan Gallacher (Central Scotland) (Con)

For a family member to access the cabinet secretary’s iPad, passwords would need to be shared. Can the cabinet secretary confirm whether he has shared his device’s passwords with anyone? Does he accept that that goes against general data protection regulation rules, given the sensitive information that is held on parliamentary devices? When did he first share with the First Minister that his family members used his iPad during his family holiday in Morocco?

Michael Matheson

I set out the information that I provided to the First Minister in my statement.

When I engaged with the Parliament’s IT department on the difficulties that I had with my phone not operating, the advice that I was given was that I could use the iPad for hotspotting purposes. I had not used a hotspot before. My son helped to facilitate that provision. That is how there was the ability to access the data that was provided within the iPad during our holiday period.

Martin Whitfield (South Scotland) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for his statement.

Yesterday, we spoke in the chamber about the Nolan principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. We have seen across the chamber and outside it the challenge that the statement has been. I respect that.

In MyExpenses, which we use in the Parliament to authorise payments out of the budget that is provided by the Parliament from the taxpayer, we certify that the expenditure arose and was appropriate. That was not correct in this case, was it?

Michael Matheson

The cost was accrued to the Parliament’s IT provision, not through my office allowances, and it was funded centrally by the Scottish Parliament. Therefore, there was no claim for the £11,000 through my parliamentary office. I volunteered to make a contribution to the cost, given the costs that the Parliament faced as a result of the high roaming charges.

Does the cabinet secretary agree with me that standards in public office are very important and that it is therefore right that he has referred himself to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body?

Michael Matheson

I have been in the Parliament for 24 years and have always sought to maintain the high standards of the Parliament in how I conduct myself—not just as a minister, but as an MSP—in how my constituency office operates in supporting constituents, and in how we utilise the public resources with which we are provided in order to undertake our job. They are standards that I have always sought to apply and that I will continue to seek to apply. I have acknowledged the errors that have been made in this instance and have described the actions that I took, as soon as those errors became apparent to us, to address them by fully reimbursing the Parliament for the costs.

That concludes the personal statement.

Douglas Ross

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. We have had a short time to question the health secretary. I wonder what opportunities there will be for further questioning, particularly given the referral to the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body. On Monday, in his role as a Government minister, Michael Matheson responded to a journalist’s question whether there had been “any personal use”. He said:

“No. As I made very clear—”

et cetera, et cetera.

We have just heard from Michael Matheson that he knew on Thursday evening that there had been personal use. Will the investigation by the corporate body look into the conflicting statements that Michael Matheson has given to the Parliament today, what he said in his role as a Government minister on Monday and the apparent revelation from his family on Thursday evening?

Secondly, the First Minister refused to answer questions about the issue at First Minister’s question time today—in particular, my question whether he still believed that the claim was legitimate. I can only assume now that he does not. When did he become aware of the matter, however? Michael Matheson said in his statement that he spoke—

Members: That is not a point of order.

Michael Matheson said in his statement that he spoke to the First Minister last night, advising—

Members: This is a question.

Douglas Ross

He advised that he would be making a personal statement. Between Thursday evening last week and yesterday, when did he inform the First Minister that he had found out that the device had been used for personal reasons?

Finally, Presiding Officer—

The Presiding Officer

Mr Ross, questions to other members are not points of order. Points of order are intended to question whether proper procedures are being or have been followed. They relate to matters that are covered in the standing orders. I ask you to conclude very quickly.

I prefaced my remarks by asking how Parliament can get those answers, given that we have had a very tight timescale today. I was also asking about the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body investigation.

The Presiding Officer

All members will be aware that, where there are matters to be pursued further, they should liaise with their business managers, who can pursue those matters with the Parliamentary Bureau at its meetings. The corporate body shall, of course, consider any referral.

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. My colleague Meghan Gallacher asked Michael Matheson a very important question to do with the security of parliamentary devices—

The Presiding Officer

I will stop you at that point, Mr Kerr.

As I have just said, if you want to avail yourself of the standing orders and look at them with regard to points of order, you will see that points of order are to cover whether or not proper procedures are being or have been followed in the chamber in the course of our parliamentary business. This is not, I suggest, the most appropriate venue for raising the question that you now wish to put.

We will move on to the next item of business, which is portfolio questions. I will allow a moment for those on the front benches to arrange themselves.

Stephen Kerr

On a point of order, Presiding Officer. While respecting what you have just said from the chair—that this is not the appropriate forum for asking about the security of parliamentary devices, which is an issue that will very much be of concern to the public—I ask your advice as to what the appropriate public forum is for that question to be properly addressed. What we have heard this afternoon is a clear transgression of the general data protection regulation. It is a very serious matter, indeed.

The Presiding Officer

Your comments are on the record, Mr Kerr. I will look at them, I will review them and I will be back in touch with you. I, or the most appropriate person with regard to the issues that Mr Kerr raises, will be in touch with him.