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by Louise Wilson
10 November 2023
What is the Michael Matheson iPad row about?

The cost is being met within the Scottish Parliament’s budget – and therefore ultimately the taxpayer | Alamy

What is the Michael Matheson iPad row about?

Health Secretary Michael Matheson now agreed to pay back an £11,000 bill for mobile data use while abroad. Holyrood breaks down the issue…

What exactly did he do?

While on holiday in Morocco last year, the SNP MSP racked up roaming charges totalling £10,935.74 on a parliament-issued iPad.

Roaming charges outside of Europe can, of course, be substantial – but questions have been raised about how such a huge bill is possible in the space of just a week. Part of the reason was because Matheson was using an old SIM from parliament’s previous provider, so it was not part of any contract nor did it include a roaming package.

That cost was met within the Scottish Parliament’s budget – and therefore ultimately the taxpayer. Naturally, that had caused significant discontent, particularly at a time when household finances are being squeezed.

What has parliament done about it?

The huge bill was investigated by a senior member of the parliament’s IT office in January this year, the month after Matheson’s holiday.

That included a review of data volume, daily charges and the application of tariffs by the mobile company. However, it is understood it did not go into the detail of Matheson’s browsing history.

The continued use of an outdated SIM card was discovered as part of this investigation. That SIM card was part of parliament’s previous contract with EE – which came an end in December 2021, a whole year before Matheson’s holiday.

The investigation also confirmed Matheson had not notified the IT office before travelling of his intention to use the iPad abroad.

Officials did try to challenge the bill with the provider – and Matheson himself partly blames the provider for not providing a warning – but was unsuccessful.

If Matheson is partly at fault, why did the parliament pay for it?

Under the parliament’s expense policy, any member is entitled to be reimbursed for expenses incurred while carrying out parliamentary duties.

“Senior officials accepted Mr Matheson’s assurances that all costs incurred were for parliamentary purposes,” a parliament spokesperson said.

Of the £11,000, £3,000 will be paid for from Matheson’s expenses budget and the remainder will be paid for by parliament.

What has Matheson said about it?

The health secretary has now agreed to reimburse the parliament for the bill.

In a statement, he said: “While the parliament agreed to pay the bulk of this sum as a legitimate expense, with the rest being met from my office allowance, I have reflected long and hand, and accept that the SIM card on this device should have been replace at an earlier stage.”

He added: “It is my decision to reimburse these costs in full, which I believe in all the circumstances to be the right one.”

What were other parties saying?

MSPs had been calling on Matheson to repay the bill.

Labour’s Jackie Baillie said that, given the parliament had told all MSPs to replace outdate SIMs on numerous occasions, “the responsibility for this lies with him”. “The time has come for Michael Matheson to do the right thing and pay up himself,” she said.

And Conservative Craig Hoy has urged the parliament to further investigate the matter. He says the bill is not a “legitimate expense claim” because information from the parliament in 2018 previously set a limit on how much could be claimed for roaming charges.

That communication states: “Where possible you should turn off data roaming unless you absolutely require it… Please not that BIT [the Business Information Technology Office] will only cover roaming costs up to £200, and the individual will be responsible for anything beyond this”.

Hoy said: “The health secretary must pay the exorbitant fees he racked up out of his own pocket.”

What happens next?

Going forward, officials are keen to ensure this type of situation does not happen again. Senior management agreed in September that there would be a policy review of mobile data usage. That review will be competed before the end of March (the end of the financial year).

A spokesperson confirmed: “The policy review will include consideration of the potential for members to be personally liable for costs where they have not acted in full accordance with IT office requirements.”

A new mobile contract is due to be awarded shortly too, which the spokesperson said would “enhance technical controls” to prevent such data charges occurring.

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