HUMZA Yousaf has completely rejected claims by his former boss that he asked to skip Holyrood's gay marriage vote because “of pressure he was under from the mosque.”

The frontrunner in the contest accused Alex Neil - a supporter of main rival Kate Forbes - of trying to “destabilise” his campaign. 

On Friday, we reported claims from the SNP stalwart that Mr Yousaf had arranged a ministerial meeting 19 days in advance of the vote as “cover.”

Mr Neil told The Herald: "The truth is he asked to be 'skipped' because he was under pressure and he then arranged a ministerial meeting, and that was his cover for not voting, and if he says anything different it’s not true." 

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The ex-health minister then repeated the claims on Times Radio, telling host Baroness Ruth Davidson that “the meeting was arranged deliberately to give him cover for the timing of the vote.“

He said: “There was a request from Humza, because, in his words, of pressure he was under from the mosque for him to be absent from the vote. And Alex Salmond, the first minister, gave him permission to do that. 

“And a ministerial meeting was arranged to take place at exactly the same time as the vote in Glasgow to give Humza cover for not being there. 

“Now, I'm not saying Humza was against the bill or anything like that because he wasn't, he had voted at stage one, but because he had voted in stage one, in his words, he was put under pressure by the leaders of the mosque in Glasgow about the possibility he might vote for it at stage three, and he requested to skip and he was skipped and the meeting was arranged deliberately to give him cover for the timing of the vote.“

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The MSP for Glasgow Pollok voted in favour of the principles of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Bill at Stage 1 in November 2013, but was the only minister to miss the final Stage 3 vote on 4 February 2014.

At the time, Mr Yousaf was the minister for external affairs. 

His diary records show that on 14 January 2014, he was asked by the then minister for parliamentary business, Joe FitzPatrick, to attend Holyrood for the gay marriage vote.

But 48 hours later, Mr Yousaf himself requested a meeting with the Pakistan Consul General in Glasgow on the same day as the vote, thereby creating a diary clash.

A week later, on 24 January, Mohammad Ashgar, a 69-year-old Scot with a history of mental illness, was sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan.

Mr Yousaf was in Pollokshields for a campaign event on Friday. However, his team only invited a handful of media, snubbing most print journalists. 

Nevertheless, The Herald and a number of other newspapers turned up anyway to quiz the minister on the claims of his ex-colleague. 


“I don't know why Alex Neil is saying what he said,” Mr Yousaf said. 

“I was in an unavoidable meeting. I've given details of what that meeting was. It was a meeting with the Pakistani government, about a Scot who was on death row for the issue of blasphemy. 

“It was part of a series of meetings that we were having to try to release this individual so he could come back home to the family. I'm pleased actually eventually, that was the outcome.”

Asked why Alex Neil would claim otherwise, Mr Yousaf replied: “I don't know. You'd have to ask Alex Neil why he decided to get involved and say what he has said. 

“I can only give you my account of what happened. And I've been up-front. I don't think there's anybody that can look at the record that I've stood on on inequality and think that I have done anything more than support, not just equal marriage but further protection of our minority groups including the LGBT community. "

Asked if Mr Neil was lying, he replied: “That's for Alex Neil to justify why he's saying what he's saying.”

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Asked explicitly if he deliberately arranged a meeting so he could miss the Stage 3 vote, Mr Yousaf said: “No, that was not done. It was an unavoidable meeting that was arranged.

"And look, I know it's been resurrected nine years on, and I understand why you're asking the question, you've got every right to do so, but it's not been raised for nine years, it's clearly being raised nine years on in the midst of a leadership campaign to try to destabilise my leadership campaign.”

Asked if he had a conversation with Alex Salmond to ask to skip the vote because of pressure from religious leaders, Mr Yousaf was unequivocal. 

“No, I've told you very, very clearly. I do not remember any conversation with Alex Salmond about the equal marriage vote. 

“I'm sure we spoke about equal marriage just as I would have spoken, I'm certain with other government ministers, Alex Neil included, Joe Fitzpatrick included, who was a minister for parliamentary business who has said categorically, explicitly that there was a number of MSPs that raised the issue of equal marriage with him, I was not one of them because I have supported equal marriage, supported it at Stage 1, support it now, would have supported it back then.”

Mr Yousaf said he did "not think there was any particular pressure put on me because of my faith."

Asked about the timing of the meeting, given that it was organised before Mr Ashgar was sentenced, Mr Yousaf said: "He was in prison. He'd already been attacked in prison. He was in prison for blasphemy.

"He was going to be sentenced to death and his family were worried about his death and were worried about the fact that he'd been attacked and worried about the fact, I mean, you must know what happens to people who are in prison for blasphemy in Pakistan.

"It can be, you know, to say challenging would be putting it mildly."

Asked if he found Mr Neil an honest man during their time working together in government, Mr Yousaf did not answer the question directly.

"I dealt with Alex Neil and enjoyed working with Alex Neil and I'm not sure why he's intervened in the way that he has." 

"How well do we know anybody that we work with?" he added.