The Justice Secretary has been accused of “interfering” in the decision over the return of Scotland’s top police officer to active duty.
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A series of documents obtained by the Sunday Herald reveal the board of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) gave Chief Constable Phil Gormley its unanimous backing to return to work in November.
But the newspaper published extracts of a letter from Mr Gormley’s lawyer David Morgan to the SPA’s then chair Andrew Flanagan saying his client was “concerned that his return was delayed following intervention” by Michael Matheson.
Mr Gormley remains on special leave he was placed on in September amid an investigation into allegations of gross misconduct, which he denies.
A letter sent from the SPA to the chief constable on November 8 confirmed the board was rescinding his leave period.
It said: “I would like to take this opportunity to advise you that your return to full duties has the unanimous backing of the board of the Scottish Police Authority. I would be grateful if you could advise by return of your intention, or otherwise, to resume your full duties as chief constable on Friday 10 November 2017.”
A draft SPA press release confirmed the decision, stating: “Mr Gormley has now confirmed to the chair of the SPA, Andrew Flanagan, that he has had sufficient time to prepare himself for the conduct allegations made against him at this time, and that he is ready and fit to return to work.
“Having previously agreed that a period of leave was an appropriate measure to address the investigative and welfare issues for all parties involved, the board of the SPA has agreed that it is now in the interests of the service, the public, and best value that he take up his duties as quickly as practicable.”
The letter from Mr Morgan to Mr Flanagan on November 14 states: “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.”
It added that any intervention by Scottish ministers to reverse the board’s decision was “unlawful” as it was “solely a matter for the SPA”.
The issue was discussed at Holyrood’s Public Audit Committee last week, when director general of the Scottish Government’s justice department, Paul Johnston, told MSPs: ‘’There have been points at which (in recent weeks) that the view of the former chair was that it may have been suitable for the Chief Constable to return.’’
In a further letter to the committee Mr Morgan said: “My client was travelling back to Scotland in order to resume his duties when he was contacted by the former chair of the SPA, Andrew Flanagan, and told not to continue the journey. My client was told that this followed a meeting between Andrew Flanagan and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice earlier the same afternoon.”
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Scottish Police Authority Board has kept the position of the Chief Constable under review on a four weekly basis while an investigation into complaints is conducted by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner.
“It is entirely appropriate for the Scottish Government to seek assurances that due process is being followed by the Board.
“As was made clear at this week’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 the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner.”