- By Philip Sim
- BBC Scotland political correspondent
A Scottish government minister who ran up an £11,000 data roaming bill on his iPad in Morocco had been warned almost a year earlier to update his device.
Michael Matheson ran up “huge” charges while on holiday last Christmas because his parliament-issued tablet had not been switched to a new data provider.
BBC News understands Mr Matheson was told via email to swap out the sim card in the device in February 2022.
Opposition MSPs have urged the health secretary to cover the bill himself.
The cost has been met from the public purse, with £3,000 coming from Mr Matheson’s expense budget and the rest being paid by the parliament.
The health secretary has insisted he was using the tablet for official parliament and constituency business, and has been backed by the first minister.
Roaming charges are an expense incurred when using mobile devices abroad.
The parliament’s previous mobile contract with EE came to an end in December 2021, and members were told to switch their devices across to the new contract with Vodafone.
Mr Matheson was emailed by officials in February 2022, and it is thought highly likely he would have also been spoken to by IT staff when he had the sim card in his mobile phone changed later that year.
The parliament has also said Mr Matheson did not notify its IT office that he was travelling to Africa – despite the fact members are told each recess that they should inform officials if they are taking devices abroad.
An investigation was held by senior IT staff, which studied the billing history and found that a very large volume of data had been used.
However it is understood they stopped short of checking the browsing history on the device.
Mr Matheson assured officials that he had been using the iPad for parliament and constituency business, and on that basis it was decided the cost would be covered by the parliament.
The story of Michael Matheson’s roaming bill has caught the imagination, with everyone trying to work out exactly how such a huge bill could have been accrued.
However unless the health secretary decides to volunteer the information – he has offered only that it was used legitimately for official business – we may never know.
It’s understood a huge volume of data was used, but officials didn’t go to the extent of examining the browsing history on the device.
Checking the receipts is one thing, but to actually carry out some kind of forensic audit of the iPad would have suggested that the parliament wasn’t happy with Mr Matheson’s explanation.
They do have to take it on trust that members are being straight with them.
The opposition do not feel such constraints. They are determined to see the Falkirk West MSP cover the bill himself – at the very least.
The health secretary spoke briefly to reporters at the Scottish Parliament on Thursday, and said he was unaware that the sim card needed to be swapped out.
Mr Matheson added: “As the parliament has also stated very clearly, the network provider didn’t provide information around the costs that were being incurred as well.
“So it was something that was unknown to me, and as the parliament have also confirmed, the parliamentary equipment was used for constituency and parliamentary purposes.”
First minister Humza Yousaf also defended the MSP, saying the bill was for a “legitimate parliamentary expense”.
However opposition politicians have called for him to pay back the bill out of his own pocket.
The Conservatives have asked the Presiding Officer to launch an investigation into why the “eye-watering” cost was being covered from the public purse.
And Labour have said “the time has come for Michael Matheson to do the right thing and pay up himself”.
The parliament is examining a new mobile data policy in light of the incident, which would see MSPs be personally liable for such bills if they have not acted in full accordance with IT office requests.
A spokesman said a new mobile contract will also be awarded that will “enhance technical controls to ensure there is no repeat of these substantial data charges”.