JUSTICE Secretary Michael Matheson is under mounting pressure to make a parliamentary statement on allegations he blocked the chief constable of Police Scotland from returning to work.
Phil Gormley has been on leave since September amid a bullying probe, but a Sunday Herald investigation revealed claims Matheson helped overturn a unanimous Scottish Police Authority decision to allow the chief constable to return.
Labour Justice spokesman Daniel Johnson said Matheson “must” appear before Holyrood to explain himself, while the convener of the Parliament’s Public Audit committee said she wanted him to give evidence on the interference allegations.
In another development, the head of the organisation investigating the bullying claims against Gormley has told MSPs the gross misconduct probe would not be prejudiced if he returned to work.
Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC) Kate Frame told MSPs she informed the SPA of Pirc’s view last month.
Five complaints have been tabled against Gormley and his leave of absence was granted to help him prepare for the conduct allegations, which are being investigated by the PIRC.
However, MSPs on the Public Audit and Post-Legislative Scrutiny committee were told before Christmas that the former chair of the SPA, which oversees the force, had backed Gormley’s return.
The Sunday Herald then revealed bombshell correspondence by Gormley’s lawyer which alleged that Matheson had a role in forcing an SPA u-turn.
The police chief’s lawyer, David Morgan, sent PAPLS a copy of a letter by the SPA – dated November 8th – which made clear the board had agreed Gormley’s return.
The board had rescinded Gormley’s leave period at a meeting on November 7th and informed the chief constable he could return imminently. A draft press release was also agreed between the lawyer and the SPA.
However, the media release was never issued and Gormley stayed on leave. In a letter to the SPA, Morgan pointed the finger at Matheson: “My client was pleased with the decision of the Board but concerned that his return was delayed following intervention by the Cabinet Secretary for Justice.”
“I have advised my client that any intervention by the Scottish Ministers to reverse the Board’s decision is ultra vires and unlawful. This decision is solely a matter for the SPA, as the statutory body tasked with the operational deployment of my client as Chief Constable.”
Morgan warned of a legal challenge: “In the meantime, I must reserve my client’s legal rights to challenge any failure to implement the Board’s decision by way of application for judicial review should this be necessary.”
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When approached by this newspaper, a Scottish Government spokesperson put the focus on the PIRC:
“The Scottish Government sought assurances that decisions by the SPA were being made on a fully informed basis including seeking the views of the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner.”
Johnson said: “There are serious questions for Michael Matheson to answer about the government’s involvement in operational decisions made by the independent Scottish Police Authority. He must appear before Parliament so he can be properly questioned and held accountable.
“For months, the Scottish Government has separated itself from the crisis at Police Scotland and the Scottish Police Authority by claiming they are operationally independent. Now we have learned that the Cabinet Secretary has directly intervened, by overturning a unanimous operational decision of the SPA.”
Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur agreed: “Allegations that the Justice Secretary has overruled the SPA creates yet more uncertainty, not least it suggests the Justice Secretary has lost faith in the SPA’s ability to hold Police Scotland to account. Mr Matheson should therefore come to Parliament immediately and provide a statement to explain his actions.”
Jenny Marra, the convener of PAPLS, said: “I’m minded to call Michael Matheson to give evidence. There’s a compelling reason to call him as a witness. Now that he has been named in this, I think the public would genuinely ask me why we weren’t calling him to committee.”
She said: “This goes to the heart of policing. It’s not good for any country to have a situation where the public are losing confidence in the police.
“There has been involvement and we have to get to the bottom of whether that involvement has been appropriate.”
In a letter to a Holyrood committee, Frame has now set out her views on the chief constable’s absence.
She wrote: “Had my views been sought at the outset of these investigations, I confirm that I had real and significant concerns that the PIRC investigations may have been prejudiced, if the Chief Constable had not been suspended.
“Due to the position of power and influence attaching to the Chief Constable’s post, there was a significant concern that those witnesses would not feel free to speak up if the Chief Constable remained in post.”
She continued: “The Chief Constable’s period of leave in England has enabled my investigation to complete interviews of the more junior members of staff, who perhaps had the greatest fear or repercussions and provided them with a safe space to be interviewed without any immediate fears.”
She added that, by the time of the SPA board meeting on 7th November, the concerns about junior members not coming forward if Gormley had still been in post no longer applied.
“I was not advised of the SPA’s meeting on 7 November nor the outcome of that meeting. Had I been consulted in advance of the meeting, I could have confirmed that the investigations had progressed to a stage where most, if not all junior staff had been interviewed.
“The interviews which remained outstanding at that time and currently, are those with a number of senior staff, where the threat of repercussions and damage to career and future promotion prospects is much less than those staff in more junior positions.”
She added: “I advised the new Chief Officer of the SPA on 11 December 2017, that as things currently stand, there would be no prejudice to the PIRC investigations if the Chief Constable was not suspended.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “As was made clear at last month’s Audit Committee, the Scottish Government sought assurances that decisions by the SPA were being made on a fully informed basis including seeking the views of key individuals and organisations, including the PIRC.? The Commissioner’s letter to the Committee confirms that the this had not been done when the Board met on 7 November.”