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17 November 2023

Michael Matheson must go

A Scottish health secretary needs authority and credibility – not questions around his £11k iPad expenses bill.

By Chris Deerin

Wherever I am in the world, I will usually find a way to watch the football, especially if Man Utd or Celtic are playing. There will almost always be a dingy bar showing the game. If not, the wi-fi in the hotel will hopefully be good enough.

I’ve never managed to ring up an £11,000 bill while doing so, though. This is the bizarre case of Michael Matheson, the Scottish health secretary who is facing demands he step down after trying to claim said amount on expenses. Yesterday, after days of intense pressure, we finally got what Matheson says is the “simple truth”: his two teenage sons used his parliamentary iPad to watch football matches while the family were holidaying in Morocco last Christmas. He didn’t know this until his wife informed him last Thursday.

Matheson told Holyrood that he had kept quiet until now because he was a “father first and foremost” and wanted to “protect” his children from “political and media scrutiny”. “That was a mistake and I am sorry.” He had previously insisted the charge was to cover parliamentary work.

He has promised to repay the sum, but is refusing to resign his post, and Humza Yousaf is refusing to sack him. Jackie Baillie, Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, who rarely misses when it comes to a well-timed pun, has described the affair as a “phenomenal own goal”, but the truth is that because the SNP and Greens have a parliamentary majority, a vote of no confidence by the opposition parties is unlikely to force the issue.

Of course Matheson should go. It belies belief that a senior politician thought such a gargantuan expenses claim was reasonable, or that it would go unnoticed, or that he didn’t need to understand what had caused the swollen bill. It exposes either a lack of judgement or extraordinary arrogance, or both, by the man who is in charge of the nation’s NHS. 

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And it will further tarnish an already grubby SNP. The party’s well-worn tactic of simply refusing to allow erring ministers to take a fall, whatever the circumstances, may have worked when the party sat atop the moral high ground – but those days are long gone. Given the morass of scandals and mistakes that have occurred over the past year, yet another circling of the wagons just looks like a desperate attempt to avoid the latest body blow to an ailing devolved government.

It also matters that Matheson is responsible for health. Of all the policy areas that lie within Holyrood’s remit, this is among the most important. The system is in a critical state and in serious need of reform. It needs a cabinet minister with authority and credibility.

This week, my think tank Reform Scotland launched a major policy review of Scottish healthcare, and will be working in partnership with experts and interested parties across the coming months to examine how the NHS might be saved. If “saved” seems a strong word, it’s one that various high-powered medics have used in conversation with us over recent months.

As Paul Gray, chief executive of NHS Scotland between 2013 and 2019, wrote in the series’ opening article, “We are now at the point where it is widely recognised that the current approach to providing health and care services is not sustainable in its present form. It is not sustainable for the people it is intended to serve; it is not sustainable for the people providing the service; and it is not sustainable in terms of continually increasing demand on the resources available to fund it. This is not the same as saying that it is beyond repair, or that it is fundamentally unfit for purpose. But the need for change and development is obvious and the moment is not near, but now.”

Or, as Dr Iain Kennedy, the chair of the doctors’ union BMA Scotland, told us: “The NHS in Scotland simply cannot deliver what is expected of it under its current limitation. It is a system bursting at the seams, with a workforce running on empty – there are not enough of us to give our patients the time and care they need and deserve. The time for platitudes has long passed – we need action, and we need it now. We are in a year-round crisis with our NHS.”

The BMA and other professional bodies have for some time been calling for a “national conversation” – a government-run consultation – on the future of the NHS. Something similar has been happening on education. So far, Yousaf, a former health secretary himself, has refused to do this. He told me recently in the New Statesman that he found the case for a national conversation “very persuasive”, and that he had asked Matheson to speak to the BMA about it. But the First Minister added that “there never seems a right time to have that conversation, given the pressure on the NHS. We’ve just come out of a really tough summer with Covid cases rising and we’re heading for a really tough winter.” To my ears, this only makes the case for getting on with a frank and honest debate about reform stronger.

If Scotland’s NHS is to be rescued, Michael Matheson hardly resembles its shining knight.

[See also: Rishi Sunak’s fiscal brag]

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