The crisis engulfing Scotland’s single police service escalated last night as the justice secretary turned on the force watchdog for attempting to reinstate the nation’s most senior officer.
In a statement to Holyrood, Mr Matheson said it was “unacceptable” that the SPA had decided Mr Gormley should go back to his desk when it would mean working alongside those who had made complaints against him.
The SPA reversed its decision to end the Chief Constable’s special leave after Mr Matheson’s intervention at the end of last year. Mr Gormley remains absent from work while investigations into claims of gross misconduct are carried out. Mr Gormley denies the allegations against him.
Mr Matheson’s questioning of the SPA decision has been criticised, with Mr Gormley’s lawyer claiming there was “no lawful basis” for the justice secretary to intervene.
The justice secretary accused the SPA of failing to follow “due process” and said the body had neglected to ask the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) Kate Frame if his return to work would impact on the bullying investigations.
But opposition politicians claimed Mr Matheson’s action had increased the crisis surrounding Police Scotland and accused him of undermining the SPA, which is appointed by the Scottish Government.
Mr Matheson told MSPs said the then SPA chair Andrew Flanagan asked to meet him on 9 November last year.
Mr Flanagan, who has since been replaced by Susan Deacon, said the SPA board had decided to invite the Chief Constable to resume duties the following day. The decision to reinstate him had been taken at a private meeting of the board two days before.
Mr Matheson said he sought assurances that “due process” had been followed. According to Mr Matheson, Mr Flanagan was unable to reassure him that the correct procedures had been followed.
“Key parties had not been consulted. In particular, the Pirc had not been asked for her view on whether the Chief Constable’s return at that point could impact on her investigations,” Mr Matheson said.
“The Chief Constable’s leave of absence had allowed the Pirc to interview staff in a ‘safe space’, helping to minimise any concerns they might have had about being involved.
“I am sure that Parliament will agree that it is difficult to understand how a decision could be made to for the Chief Constable to return without first confirming that doing so would not undermine the independent Pirc investigations, or the confidence of staff engaged in that process.
“Another area of particular concern was that there did not appear to be a robust plan in place to protect the wellbeing of officers and staff who had raised complaints or who may have been asked to play a role in the investigations. A number of these officers and staff were in positions where they could expect to be dealing with the Chief Constable in the course of their work.
“I would also highlight that Police Scotland’s own senior command team had not been told about the decision even at that late stage.”
Mr Matheson added: “I took the view that these clear deficiencies in the process were completely unacceptable. I made clear to the former chair that I could not have confidence in a decision that had been reached without such significant issues having been properly addressed.”
The SPA then reconsidered the issue on 10 November and decided to continue the Chief Constable’s leave.
Mr Matheson said: “To those who wish to criticise my actions, I ask them to consider this – had the Chief Constable returned to work on 10 November and had it then transpired that no consultation had taken place with any of the relevant interests and, further, that I had failed to ask any questions about that, I suspect the criticism would be harsher – and in those circumstances, would have been justified.”
Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr said it was “difficult not to suggest hypocrisy”, saying Mr Matheson had “repeatedly” insisted problems with the police force were “an operational matter”.
Labour’s Daniel Johnson said: “Policing in Scotland is in crisis, centred around governance, leadership and investigations into senior officers.”
He added: “What confidence can the Scottish public have in the independence of the SPA if ministers can so simply and easily intervene in the decisions they make?”
However, Green MSP John Finnie, a former policeman, said he had “zero confidence” in the SPA’s decision to allow the Chief Constable to return to work, and said the actions of the justice secretary were “entirely appropriate”.
Last night Ms Deacon said: “The conduct issues relating to the Chief Constable remain live and ongoing, and it remains inappropriate for SPA to offer public comment.”