SNP MSP Joan McAlpine has apologised for failing to appear in Holyrood today - saying she had “lost track of time”.
Ms McAlpine, a new MSP after the last election, but no stranger to controversy, was hauled before parliament for a severe dressing-down from the Presiding Officer, Tricia Marwick, who reprimanded her for showing “discourtesy” to her fellow MSPs.
Last night, the First Minister said he was standing by his parliamentary liaison officer despite the embarrassment of Ms McAlpine failing to extract herself from his table in the Holyrood members’ restaurant in time for her scheduled appearance in the chamber.
Sitting with Mr Salmond and a government adviser, Ms McAlpine was tucking into smoked venison with a Strathdon blue cheese dressing as a question she had tabled on osteoarthritis neared the top of the agenda in a health debate.
When it became clear some time after 2:15pm that Ms McAlpine was not going to show up to ask the question, Ms Marwick demanded an apology and an explanation from the South of Scotland MSP.
Clearly irritated that yesterday’s no-show was not the first time that Ms McAlpine had failed to turn up for chamber business, the Presiding Officer said: “The member is not in the chamber to ask the question. This is not the first, nor is it the second time that Ms McAlpine has acted in this way, and I will expect an explanation from Ms McAlpine and an apology for the discourtesy to the chamber by the end of the day.”
About two and a half hours later, Ms McAlpine suffered the indignity of having to apologise in front of a packed parliament.
She said: “Presiding Officer, I wish to apologise sincerely for my absence from the chamber at Health and Wellbeing Question Time this afternoon.
“I realise that this is not the first time that I have done this, and I do understand the gravity of the matter. The fault is entirely mine. I’m afraid I completely lost track of time.
“I apologise for showing such disrespect not only to yourself Presiding Officer, but also to parliament and my fellow MSPs. I take this as a salutary lesson which I will reflect on.”
Ms McAlpine’s behaviour was criticised by her opponents. Claudia Beamish, a Labour South of Scotland MSP, said: “The people of the south of Scotland will not appreciate their elected representative passing up an opportunity to voice their concerns in the Scottish Parliament.
“As a newspaper columnist and ministerial aide to the First Minister, representing her constituents is clearly low down Joan McAlpine’s list of priorities.
“Rather than lunch dates and fine-dining with the First Minister, she should be doing the job she is paid to do and standing up for the people she is supposed to represent.”
A Conservative spokesman said: “The Presiding Officer was right to draw attention to the fact that Ms McAlpine treated parliament in this contemptuous manner.”
Mr Salmond made it clear that Ms McAlpine would remain one of his Holyrood aides, praising her “excellent” work.
Ms McAlpine was a senior journalist – including for some time a Scotsman columnist – before entering politics and still earns £20,000 a year on top of her £57,000 MSP salary for a column in a tabloid newspaper.
Last night, Mr Salmond’s spokesman said: “Joan McAlpine offered a full and fair apology to parliament which was accepted by the Presiding Officer, and that draws a line under the matter.”