MSPs launched a candid and very public attack on Scottish health minister Susan Deacon when the tapes kept rolling during what they believed to be a private session. Colin Wright reports

The Scottish Parliament's health select committee descended from high drama into farce last week as MSPs lined up to attack their convenor and health minister Susan Deacon in what they mistakenly believed was a private session.

Minutes after Ms Deacon left a session of the committee dealing with plans to reform the health service's cash allocation formula, recriminations began to fly as members clashed over her 'evasive and arrogant' approach.

'As far as I am concerned, this meeting was a complete mishmash - a complete joke, ' complained Scottish National Party MSP Duncan Hamilton. Answers had been 'frankly evasive or a complete joke, ' he added.

And there was a unique cross-party consensus as Conservative MSP Ben Wallace sided with SNP health spokeswoman Kay Ullrich to demand 'a little more discipline' from Liberal Democrat convenor Margaret Smith.

Unfortunately for the committee, their 'private session' was still being recorded by the official reporters, who duly published their row verbatim - prompting Ms Deacon to accuse her critics of 'bickering and briefing behind the bike sheds'.

It had been clear throughout that MSPs were unhappy. First, Ms Smith allowed the minister to start a session of less than an hour with a 15-minute statement, then she allocated three of the first four questions to Labour MSPs.

Ms Deacon duly gave them five and six-minute answers each, so that by the time SNP and Conservative MSPs got to take their turn the convenor was rolling three or four questions into one.

When Ms Deacon left, Mr Hamilton complained that the meeting had been 'disjointed and helped no-one'.

'I am concerned about the way that this meeting has been managed, ' he told Ms Smith. 'I am delighted for you to ask questions, but let us be fair. The position of convenor does not entitle you to an additional 10 minutes.'

Ms Smith conceded: 'The minister gave very lengthy answers to our initial questions and I agree that, at one point, her response tended towards being a party political broadcast. Possibly I should have jumped in and stopped her, but it was difficult to do so at that stage in the proceedings.'

Ms Deacon was repetitive. In 50 minutes she managed: 'May I reiterate the point that I made earlier. . .'

'I am bound to say that my answer to that question is very similar to my answers to previous questions. . .'

'I have already said that it will not. . .'

'. . . as I said at the very beginning. . .'

and: 'I will not spend time going into those wider areas again.'

Conservative health spokesperson Mary Scanlon was incandescent. 'I am frustrated to end up with a list of points of which hardly any were adequately addressed.

'I leave this meeting with more questions than answers. I feel not only that she has done a disservice to this committee but that the committee has done a disservice to those who gave us these submissions and who raised their concerns at yesterday's meeting.'

Ms Ullrich was equally irritated.

'Will you convey to the minister the committee's displeasure at the way in which she handled her answers to our questions, which was terribly disrespectful to the committee?

'She made a party political broadcast; she did not answer questions.

'I would like you to convey the committee's view that she indulged in evasive, political stuff, ' she told the convenor.

And fellow SNP MSP Dorothy-Grace Elder argued that the minister had 'got into the habit of talking an ever-rolling stream of waffle'.

'If we can help to cure her of that habit, in the early days, I am sure that she will develop into a very good minister, ' she added generously. 'We will nag at you, convenor, perhaps unfairly, because you, too, are a waffle victim.

You have to come down on her about that.'

There are doubts about Ms Smith's willingness to get tough - some MSPs felt she had 'rescued' Ms Deacon from the few scrapes she got into.

But Ms Smith did 'accept some of the blame for what happened, because I should have come down on the minister harder and earlier'.

Perhaps the committee would like her to invite the minister back the following week, she suggested.

'There is no point, ' snapped Ms Elder. 'She will only waffle on for another three hours.'

Some of those who had sat through the session agreed. And they felt after the meeting that Ms Deacon had been let off easily. 'No wonder she was smiling when she left, ' commented one senior nursing union representative.

Ms Deacon appears before the committee again on 17 November - for three hours - and there is an expectation that this will be a crucial meeting both for the future standing of the committee and for Ms Deacon. It is also clear that Ms Smith's position as convenor is under serious scrutiny.

But, given the publication of this official report, at least everyone knows where they stand and exactly what they think of each other.