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Scotland’s health secretary was under pressure to resign on Thursday after admitting that his children had helped run up an £11,000 roaming bill watching football on his work tablet during a week-long family holiday last winter.
Michael Matheson’s admission on Thursday came after previous denials that his official device had been used for non-work related tasks while he was on holiday in Morocco.
The controversy threatens to derail first minister Humza Yousaf’s attempts to stabilise his scandal-hit Scottish National party, which has been reeling from a police investigation into its finances.
Scottish Labour said it was “unfathomable” that Matheson could keep his job.
The health secretary, who was appointed to the position after Yousaf replaced Nicola Sturgeon as first minister in March, has been under intense pressure since it emerged last week that the £11,000 roaming fees he incurred in Morocco were charged to taxpayers.
Initially, he agreed to pay £3,000 of the bill from his expenses budget, with the Scottish parliament paying the rest after accepting that the iPad had been used for work purposes.
Matheson told parliament on Thursday that he had been made aware last week that members of his family had used the iPad’s data while they were on holiday, and that he had reimbursed the money in full.
“In my statement issued last Friday, I made no reference to the use of data by my family,” he added, saying he wanted to protect them.
He had also denied, when questioned by journalists this week, that the large bill was incurred through personal use.
“As a parent, I wanted to protect them from being part of the political and media scrutiny associated with this, something I believe any parent would want to do . . . That was a mistake and I am sorry,” he told MSPs on Thursday.
Yousaf, who has been battling to stabilise the pro-independence SNP after it was plunged into crisis by a police investigation that led to the arrest of Sturgeon in June, on Thursday said he had “absolute confidence” in Matheson.
“Honest mistakes do happen,” the first minister said, describing Matheson as a “man of honesty, and indeed integrity”.
James Mitchell, professor of public policy at Edinburgh university, said lack of transparency had made the controversy a bigger political problem than it needed to be.
“An open and honest admission of what had happened, accompanied by Michael Matheson accepting he should pay for the data roaming charges at the outset . . . would have settled matters,” he said.
Scottish Labour deputy leader Jackie Baillie said the focus on Matheson’s conduct, rather than the Scottish NHS, meant that “he is no longer fit to hold his role”.
Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross said Matheson and Yousaf “still have many questions to answer.”
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