Michael Matheson’s roaming charges may be the least of Humza Yousaf’s worries – Murdo Fraser

Hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted by the Scottish Government, which faces a growing hole in its finances of more than £1 billion

In more than 16 years of the SNP running the Scottish Government, I cannot recall a worse couple of weeks for them than the ones we have just had. The front pages of newspapers like this have been dominated by the sorry tale of Michael Matheson’s Moroccan iPad roaming charges, where he shamelessly tried to pass blame onto his children for a mistake which he could easily have avoided.

It does Humza Yousaf little credit to be standing by a Health Secretary who has now been left with zero credibility with the media, due to his having patently given them false information about his knowledge of how these charges to the taxpayer were racked up. Had this been Westminster, the SNP would be shrieking for the head of a Conservative minister in similar circumstances.

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Yet the supine SNP backbenchers at Holyrood have nothing to say on the matter, other than muttering behind their hands to each other, and to the occasional friendly journalist, about how disgracefully both Yousaf and Matheson have behaved. It is little wonder that their colleagues in the House of Commons, many of whom face electoral oblivion next year, are aghast at what is happening in Edinburgh.

But that was not where the bad news ended for Yousaf’s administration. The Scottish Conservatives forced a vote last Wednesday where we demanded that he and his deputy, Shona Robison, referred themselves to an independent reporter for breaches of the Ministerial Code, in relation to misleading parliament around the dates that WhatsApp and other messages were demanded by the UK Covid Inquiry. Relatives of those who died in care homes are rightly demanding answers from the Scottish Government as to why decisions were taken, and these answers will not be provided without full transparency, which requires all relevant material to be delivered to the public inquiry.

We also saw last week that the Scottish Government had finally accepted that they had misled the country for more than a decade about Scotland’s offshore wind potential. For years, ministers such as Angus Robertson had claimed that Scotland had 25 per cent of Europe’s offshore wind potential – a figure which was repeated ad nauseum in government speeches and publications. The only problem with it is that it simply wasn’t true, and the real figure is less than seven per cent.

It was thanks to solid work by the pro-UK group These Islands, which has tenaciously pursued the issue for years, that the Scottish Government was finally forced to admit that they had got this wrong, and had misled parliament and the Scottish people for years. My colleague Liam Kerr MSP raised the matter in a point of order at Holyrood, but was treated with the usual disdain by SNP ministers for whom lying has become so commonplace that it is no longer deemed worthy of an apology.

But perhaps the most serious issue for the Scottish Government to address came not in relation to any of these matters, but in the form of the Auditor General’s comments accompanying his Audit Report on the Scottish Government’s accounts. Stephen Boyle and his team have done a sterling job over the years in exposing the flaws in the Scottish Government’s approach to the public finances, and their latest publication makes even more worrying reading for anyone concerned about the future of taxation and spending.

There was a particular issue highlighted by the Auditor General around the SNP’s intervention in Scottish industry. We have seen the SNP step in to nationalise Prestwick Airport, Ferguson Marine, and BiFab, at a cumulative cost to the taxpayer of more than £340 million. Yet the current valuation of these assets in the latest Scottish Government accounts comes to just £94 million – a staggering loss of just under a quarter of a billion pounds. And the bills continue to rise, as we see at Ferguson Marine.

These figures don’t even include the support being given for the Lochaber aluminium smelter. Its operator, GFG Alliance, is described by Audit Scotland as being at significant risk of financial instability. The figure in the Scottish Government accounts put aside as provision in the event that all this goes wrong is £135 million.

We can add to that the £60 million that has been spent in compensation for the malicious prosecutions of those associated with the financial collapse of Rangers, and numerous other areas of spending where there have been substantial overruns. It all points to a woeful track record of financial mismanagement in a Scottish Government budget which benefits from a record block grant from Westminster, and revenues from citizens who are now the highest taxed of any within the United Kingdom.

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These financial challenges are potentially much more serious and damaging to the Scottish Government than the events that have been exposed over the past week. The public might well have become blasé about lying politicians, but when they see public services being slashed, and taxes hiked, due to financial incompetence, they are unlikely to take such a sanguine view.

There is already a black hole in the Scottish Government finances for the coming year of more than £1 billion – a gap projected to expand to nearly £2 billion by 2027 even on today’s figures. Raising taxes still further is likely to drive behaviourial change and may end up being counter-productive by raising less money than is collected at present, whilst more cuts in spending will be widely unpopular.

Without any idea from the SNP how they are going to square this circle, it may be that defending a Health Secretary telling untruths about his iPad use will be the least of Humza Yousaf’s worries.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife



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