Meghan Gallacher: Michael Matheson case shows it's time to follow Westminster with Recall Act of our own

Scottish Tories deputy leader Megan Gallacher writes about the need for a Recall Act in the wake of the iPad bill furore surrounding former health secretary Michael Matheson

Even those with a passing interest in Scottish politics are familiar with the Michael Matheson iPad scandal.

As soon as the story broke that the erstwhile health secretary had billed the taxpayer £11k for roaming charges racked up on a family holiday to Morocco almost a year earlier, he was in trouble.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Everyone could see straight away there was something iffy about a bill that high and that Mr Matheson’s original excuse – that it was all accrued doing parliamentary work – didn’t stack up.

Michael Matheson can choose to remain as an MSP until the next Scottish Parliament elections despite calls for him to quit: Picture: Pete Summers/PA WireMichael Matheson can choose to remain as an MSP until the next Scottish Parliament elections despite calls for him to quit: Picture: Pete Summers/PA Wire
Michael Matheson can choose to remain as an MSP until the next Scottish Parliament elections despite calls for him to quit: Picture: Pete Summers/PA Wire

But, as with most political scandals that end in a ministerial resignation, it was the cover-up and deceit, as much as the initial misdemeanour, that made his downfall inevitable.

When the original explanation didn’t pass the smell test, we got the dragged-out confession that the bill had actually resulted from his sons streaming the Old Firm game – something which their football-loving dad, so we’re told, had no idea was taking place.

The fact that Mr Matheson had repeatedly misled the press and the public over what he knew and when ought to have sealed his fate there and then.

But, with the First Minister’s unequivocal and unquestioning support, he chose to cling on to his cabinet job and attempted to buy time by submitting himself to an investigation by the Scottish Parliament’s corporate body.

Last month, apparently after getting wind of its findings, he belatedly quit as health secretary.

The investigation’s findings were finally made public last Thursday, several days later than originally expected, amid speculation that this delay was down to Mr Matheson challenging the damning conclusions.

To the surprise of no one – except presumably Humza Yousaf and his former minister – the parliamentary inquiry found that the member for Falkirk West was guilty of two breaches of the MSP code of conduct.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

The corporate body has now referred the matter to parliament’s standards committee to determine what sanctions should be meted out.

My party have called for Mr Matheson to do the honourable thing and step down as an MSP. He had no justification for billing the taxpayer for these exorbitant charges in the first place, then lied and covered up when his actions were exposed.

But the reality is that no matter how strong a punishment the standards committee dish out, the disgraced former minister can choose to remain as an MSP until the next Scottish Parliament elections, which are still more than two years away.

That’s because – unlike at Westminster – there is no mechanism in place for disgraced members of the Scottish Parliament to be removed between elections.

This is wrong – and it has to change.

The Recall of MPs Act 2015 allows a Westminster by-election to be triggered if 10 per cent of a member’s constituents sign a petition to that effect following their suspension from parliament.

We have seen several examples of this power being exercised in the current parliament, including here in Scotland. Last year’s Rutherglen and Hamilton West by-election was triggered by a petition signed by constituents which ultimately led to the removal of Margaret Ferrier for an egregious breach of Covid restrictions.

The Scottish Conservatives’ 2021 manifesto contained a commitment to introduce recall powers at Holyrood and, since then, my colleague Graham Simpson has put forward a member’s bill to this effect.

The need for it was highlighted by the scandalous case of Derek Mackay in the previous parliament. After being forced to resign as finance secretary following newspaper revelations that he had sent inappropriate messages to a schoolboy, the former SNP MSP effectively went into hiding and ceased to act on behalf of his constituents. Yet, despite going AWOL, he continued to take his parliamentary salary until the next Holyrood election 15 months later.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

It was unacceptable for the people of Renfrewshire North and West that they were stuck with a constituency MSP who had effectively downed tools – and yet they could do nothing about it.

In this context, it’s worth noting that since resigning as health secretary on February 8, according to parliamentary records, Mr Matheson has not voted at Holyrood.

While legislation dating back to 1973 allows for the removal of Scottish councillors who fail to attend town hall meetings for six months without good reason – such as ill health – there is no similar provision for MSPs.

Graham Simpson’s bill seeks to change that.

It would also remedy another ridiculous anomaly – namely that, at present, MSPs are only automatically removed from office if sentenced to more than 12 months in prison.

That bar is far too high and could mean that members who commit serious offences remain in office; all the more so at a time when the SNP seem intent on emptying Scotland’s jails of all but the very worst criminals.

Bill Walker, a former MSP, was convicted of 23 charges of assault and one of breach of the peace in 2013, yet was sentenced to just a year in prison.

Had he chosen to brazen it out rather than resigning, parliament would have had no power to remove him, and his Dunfermline constituents would have been saddled with an MSP stuck behind bars.

This needn’t and shouldn’t be a partisan political issue. MSPs of all parties should be able to see that this is about the integrity of the Scottish Parliament and the basic accountability of its members.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Yes, we are all held to account every five years by voters in time-honoured tradition via elections. But in exceptional circumstances – where there has been clear personal wrongdoing and/or an MSP is unwilling to carry out the most basic functions of their job – there ought to be a mechanism for them to be got rid of.

This would happen in any other form of employment – and it applies to MPs.

Why should MSPs be treated any differently?

- Meghan Gallacher is deputy leader of the Scottish Conservatives and shadow secretary for constitution, external affairs and culture



Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.