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Scottish Parliament refuses FoI request over Michael Matheson’s £11,000 data bill

Scottish Health Secretary Michael Matheson is under pressure to resign
Scottish Health Secretary Michael Matheson is under pressure to resign - Ken Jack/Getty Images

Holyrood’s “secretive” authorities have refused to publish details of their dealings with Michael Matheson over the £11,000 roaming charges bill he charged the taxpayer because it would breach his rights.

The Scottish Parliament rejected a series of Freedom of Information requests by The Telegraph about its communications with the SNP Health Secretary over the bill he racked up on holiday in Morocco last Christmas.

It admitted it held some of the information requested, including key discussions over its decision to allow Mr Matheson to use the public purse to fund the bill rather than finding the money from his own pocket.

Holyrood also confirmed that it held documents assessing whether the usage by Mr Matheson of his parliamentary iPad was consistent with his claim at the time that the roaming charges related solely to parliamentary business.

But the Scottish Parliament refused to hand over the information, saying the public interest in disclosure would be “overridden by the rights of Mr Matheson MSP whose personal data fall within scope of the request”.

The parliament also claimed that making the information public would “prejudice substantially” any investigation by its ruling corporate body, the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body (SPCB) into the scandal, which is due to report back in the new year.

There was a “real risk” that disclosing the information “could restrict the willingness of individuals to cooperate with an investigation of this nature”, it told The Telegraph.

The parliament also argued that it would be “damaging” for the information to be released “in circumstances where it is expected that the investigation process will be conducted confidentially”.

Holyrood allowed Mr Matheson to use his taxpayer-funded expenses to fund £3,000 of the bill and provided the £7,935.74 balance from its own budget.

The Health Secretary paid back the money from his own pocket on Nov 10, two days after The Telegraph disclosed the bill. His annual salary is £118,511.

In a statement to MSPs, he claimed he had only found out on Nov 9 that his sons had used the iPad as an internet hotspot to watch football matches.

False story to media

But it later emerged he had falsely told the media on Nov 13 that nobody else had used the device and there was no personal use.

Neither the Falkirk West MSP nor the parliament have explained how they thought he had run up the bill on constituency business.

The roaming charges were made on Jan 2, the day of the Old Firm match between Rangers and Celtic, but this was a public holiday.

Stephen Kerr, a Scottish Tory MSP, said: “The public will rightly conclude the Scottish Parliament is being secretive but the public has a right to know.

“Michael Matheson’s reputation for truth telling has already gone up in flames and with it the credibility of Humza Yousaf and the SNP Government.

“But it shouldn’t be forgotten that the Scottish Parliament agreed to pay his £11,000 iPad data bill and the longer this sorry story goes on the more the reputation of the Scottish Parliament itself is being besmirched.”

In its reply to The Telegraph, the Scottish Parliament said: “The SPCB is required to conduct its investigation independently against the backdrop of a high degree of political sensitivity.

“As a matter of due process, there is a need to ensure that there is, and is seen to be, a fair and impartial investigation into these matters that respects the rights of the member subject to the investigation.

“The SPCB’s investigations are being conducted confidentially to preserve the fairness and integrity of the process.” It said releasing some of the information about his roaming charges would breach data protection rules.

Series of exemptions

The Scottish Parliament also refused to release the documents by using a series of exemptions under the Freedom of Information Act.

They included one that dealt with “prejudice to a public authority function to ascertain whether a person is responsible for conduct which is improper”. It also argued that publishing the information would harm “the effective conduct of public affairs”.

Rejecting a request for details of its communications with EE, the mobile provider that billed the parliament for the charges, it argued this would damage its “commercial interests”.

Releasing further details of EE’s charges would mean commercial pricing information could be released into the public domain”, the parliament argued.

Although it admitted its contract with EE had expired, it said there remained “a few legacy voice and data connections” that meant the information was still commercially sensitive.

The SNP said it was a matter for the Scottish Parliament and for Mr Kerr to take up with Jackson Carlaw, the Tory member of the SPCB.

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