NICOLA Sturgeon and Jeane Freeman were accused of buying “burner phones” at the start of the Covid lockdown in a story which broke just hours before the former first minister was due to give evidence at the UK Covid Inquiry.

A burner phone is a cheap mobile phone intended to be used for a short period of time to maintain privacy.

We told how the SNP slammed the claims as “grossly misleading” and “desperate”, and refuted that there had been any wrongdoing relating to the devices that Sturgeon and Freeman had claimed on expenses.

But where did the claims emerge from, what were the phones bought for, and what has Sturgeon said about the row?

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Holyrood expense claims

The Scottish Express first reported the allegations that Sturgeon and Freeman had purchased “burner phones” and that they had been “buried” in expense claims.

The entries for both former ministers, and every current and former MSP, are publicly available on the Scottish Government’s website.

It took The National around 90 minutes to sift through the expense claims from 2019-2020 and 2020-21, and we discovered that eight MSPs claimed for mobile handsets at the outside of the pandemic in early 2020, including Sturgeon. Elsewhere, 29 MSPs claimed for either mobile handsets or credit top ups in 2020-2021.

This included Sturgeon as well as various SNP, Labour, and Tory MSPs.

See the full list of MSPs who claimed for devices during the pandemic.

Why were the phones not declared under office expenses?

Rather than office expenses, the claims made by the 29 MSPs for mobile phones and associated top-ups for sim cards were claimed on expenses for “Incidental and Ancillary Employment Cost Provision”.

The National understands that when there was a requirement for MSPs and their staff to work from home during the pandemic, Scottish Parliament officials agreed to provide additional mobile handsets to meet costs so that staff didn’t have to use their personal mobiles.

As this was above the four devices MSPs can claim through office costs, officials allowed MSPs to claim the additional handsets as “equipment” during the pandemic.

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Basically, because the pandemic created extenuating circumstances and staff needed to have devices on which to work, rather than access to landlines, the parliament allowed the claims to be made under this heading until the home working rules were lifted.

Scottish Tory MSP Murdo Fraser, who retweeted the Express story, was one of the MSPs named in our findings who claimed a mobile phone in early 2020.

When we contacted Fraser regarding this, he said: “This phone was bought by my office for a member of staff, to enable them to work from home during the pandemic.”

The National:

What has Nicola Sturgeon said about it?

Sturgeon was challenged on the purchase of the £18.16 Nokia mobile phone from Amazon, along with £18 in sim card top-ups, at the UK Covid Inquiry during a marathon evidence session.

She told the probe: “They were purchased certainly through my expenses, on my authority. I didn't personally purchase them. They were also not for use by me.

“Many MSPs, I believe, did the same when the pandemic started and my constituency office staff could no longer work …

“They were the phones that my constituency office landline were diverted to in the homes of my constituency office staff,” she added.

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“I have never to the best of my knowledge, seen, held and certainly not used any of these phones.”

So did Sturgeon and Freeman buy “burner phones”?

No, is the short answer. While the ministers bought the devices, and made publicly available expense claims for them, the insinuation is that the “burner” phones were used to hide communications relating to decisions during the pandemic.

However, MSPs who were not ministers made similar claims, and it appears the mobiles were instead bought to allow staff to work from home.