Pressure mounted on Justice Secretary Michael Matheson when Holyrood’s two main opposition parties demanded his resignation over claims of political interference in the policing system.
After Mr Matheson was forced to Holyrood to answer questions about recent controversies Labour issued a statement saying he should quit his Cabinet job.
Labour’s justice spokesman Daniel Johnson took the step after Mr Matheson faced repeated Conservative calls for his resignation in the Scottish Parliament.
Mr Matheson was hauled in front of parliament after it emerged that one of his most senior civil servants sought to delay the publication of a report into the Scottish Police Authority by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (PIRC). E-mails published at the weekend revealed that Scottish Government official Don McGillivray suggested that PIRC Kate Frame could hold back publication of the report into SPA complaints.
The suggestion was rejected by the Commissioner who stated: “My perception of your remarks is of governmental interference with my independence.”
The emails came to light after former SPA chair Andrew Flanagan told MSPs felt he had no choice but to block the planned return to work of sidelined Police Constable Phil Gormley after Mr Matheson intervened in the process.
Addressing MSPs, Mr Matheson said he had first heard of the emails on last Thursday on January 25th when he was advised that an article based on them was to be published in the press.
Mr Matheson claimed there had been “no instance” of governmental interference.
But he said: “What I do recognise is that aspects of the email from my official of the 30th November could be perceived as government interference with her independence.
“I also recognise there should be no room for ambiguity in communications. I fully support the independence of the Polices Investigations and Review Commissioner.
The aim of the email was to identify risks for the PIRC to consider. Officials were aware of a number of ongoing complaints against senior officers, but had no knowledge of the content of the Audit report when the email was sent on the 30th of November.
“PIRC, the member will recognise, has made clear there was no interference in the publication of the report. I’m clear the decisions of the timing of the report remained with the commissioner at all stages and it was for her whether the points raised were relevant or not.
“She decided it was appropriate to proceed as planned. I fully support her independent decision making in these matters.”
In Holyrood chamber Conservative Shadow Justice Secretary Liam Kerr repeated his party’s call for Mr Matheson to go.
Mr Kerr said: “Michael Matheson can stand there and say the report wasn’t delayed and there was no interference. But it is no defence to say the government tried to stop it and failed. An attempt at interference is still interference. We now know there is a deeply embedded culture of secrecy and central interference. That tone is set from the tone.”
Mr Kerr said the Justice Secretary had fallen short of the standards expected of high office adding he did not have the “moral credibility” to do his job.
He added: “When will he do the honourable thing and resign?”
Mr Matheson replied that he would continue to do “the honourable thing and that is to do my job properly”.
After Mr Matheson’s appearance in parliament, Mr Johnson issued a statement saying: “Last week, evidence from Andrew Flanagan contradicted Michael Matheson’s previous statement to Parliament and over the weekend it became clear that Mr Matheson’s department attempted to interfere in the publication of a PIRC report. “The Justice Secretary and his department have now repeatedly shown a callous disregard for the independence of policing and external bodies. “The Cabinet Secretary had to be dragged to Parliament to answer our questions and quite frankly, failed to provide any justification for his actions. “It is clear that Michael Matheson has over-stepped his authority and is no longer fit to serve in the Scottish Government Cabinet as Justice Secretary. He must now do the right thing and stand down.”