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by Kirsteen Paterson
23 May 2024
John Swinney in 'prejudice' claim as he refuses to back Michael Matheson suspension

First Minister John Swinney | Alamy

John Swinney in 'prejudice' claim as he refuses to back Michael Matheson suspension

First Minister John Swinney has refused to back the suspension of expense scandal MSP Michael Matheson, accusing critics of "bias".

The Falkirk West MSP ran up an £11,000 data bill for his parliamentary iPad.

He initially claimed the charges were down to work he undertook during a family holiday in Morocco.

However, he later conceded his children had used the device to watch the football and stepped down from his position as health secretary.

The cross-party Standards, Procedures and Public Appointments (SPPA) Committee has now recommended a 27-day suspension for the SNP politician.

But at First Minister's Question, Swinney said he would not support the sanction against his "friend", accusing committee members of prejudice.

Swinney said: "If a constituent came to me and said they were about to face a disciplinary panel at work and one of its members had made prejudicial comments about them, I would come down on that employer like a ton of bricks. That is the situation that Michael Matheson is facing here, and that is why I will not be supporting this sanction."

Matheson initially claimed the data bill on expenses, but has since repaid the sum from his own pocket.

Former first minister Humza Yousaf defended Matheson as a "man of integrity" and refused to sack him as health secretary.

An investigation by the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body (SPCB) found he had breached the MSPs code of conduct and the SPPA committee has now recommended that he be docked 54 days pay along with the suspension, which is the longest in the history of devolution.

Labour MSP Martin Whitfield, convenor of the SPPA committee, said Matheson had failed to maintain the standards expected of MSPs in being "open, honest and accountable in relation to the use of expenses".

Tory leader Douglas Ross said: "When the scandal came to light the SNP circled the wagons and backed him to the hilt. They said he was a person of integrity and character. The SNP said this matter was closed but they must surely accept the full scale of the deceit and abuse of trust now it's proposed that he has banned from this parliament for 27 days. Now he's still sitting on the SNP benches today. So will John Swinney do the right thing and kick Michael Matheson out of the SNP and does the first minister accept that the SNP were wrong to fully support Michael Matheson?"

Describing Matheson as a "friend and a colleague", Swinney said he had "suffered significant reputational damage and impact on his family as a consequence of losing office". And he said the parliament must "consider seriously the reputational issues that will arise from presiding over an unfair process" to avoid "deep damage" in the eyes of the public.

Swinney said that while Conservative MSP Stephen Kerr had recused himself from the SPPA committee over his own comments about Matheson's conduct, his party colleague Annie Wells had not. The Tory member for Glasgow had said that Matheson's "desperate efforts to justify his outrageous expenses claim have been riddled with lies, cover ups and the need for us all to suspend our disbelief".

Listing SPPA committee members, Ross said: "It is not Annie Wells or Oliver Mundell or Martin Whitfield or Jackie Dunbar or Alasdair Allan that found Michael Matheson guilty, it was the parliamentary corporate body that is represented by members across this chamber."

He went on: "If anyone has brought the Scottish Parliament into disrepute, it's the member who tried to claim £11,000 from the Scottish taxpayer and tried to get away with it.

"The seriousness of this incident and the deep damage the conduct of Michael Matheson has done to public trust in this parliament demands that he must resign but we know from his conduct so far that he is unlikely to do that.

"What will shock and appall people across Scotland is he is now being endorsed by the first minister of this country. So if the SNP are not going to do the right thing for Scotland, then I can announce today that the Scottish Conservatives will seek to bring forward a vote in this chamber next week, our motion will state that Michael Matheson should resign for misusing taxpayers' money and making false statements to the public the press and parliament. Will John Swinney do what he promised he would and lead this government on behalf of the whole of Scotland and support our calls for Michael Matheson to resign, or will he simply support his nationalist friend?"

Labour leader Anas Sarwar said it was "one rule for everybody else and one standard for the SNP", telling the chamber: "If Michael Matheson was a Labour MSP, I guarantee this would not be John Swinney's response. If Michael Matheson was a Conservative MSP, I guarantee this would not be John Swinney's response, because for him, it's party first, country second."

He went on: "People can see right through exactly what is happening here. Michael Matheson should do the right thing. He should stand down and he should allow a by-election."

 

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