Justice secretary treads carefully amid Police Scotland storm

Michael Matheson Image copyright PA
Image caption Challenging times for Justice Secretary Michael Matheson

It is generally wise, when facing a particularly tricky challenge, to proceed carefully.

Such is additionally the case when you are a minister facing tough questioning about the handling of issues on your patch.

Michael Matheson, the justice secretary, pursued such tactics at Holyrood when confronting questions from opponents over the running of Police Scotland.

Overall, he performed well, with a carefully modulated response.

The basics are known.

The Chief Constable is on special leave.

Four officers, including his assistant chief, have been suspended and two others are on restricted duties.

The Scottish Police Authority has a new chair.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Five complaints have been made about the conduct of Chief Constable Phil Gormley, who is on special leave

Two temptations arose for Mr Matheson. He could dismiss the issues as minor. Nothing to see here, move along please. One or two of his backbenchers, indeed, seemed to suggest that path, indicating that the complaints had been over-blown, no doubt by the wicked media.

The alternative temptation was to turn upon his political opponents, to castigate them for, in some way, over-stating the case or exaggerating their concerns.

Wisely, Mr Matheson did neither. He did not in any way hype up the problems: for example, he repeated reassurances regarding the continuation of day-to-day policing.

But, equally, he conceded more than once that there had been problems, that there were understandable anxieties.

And he took pains to attempt to respond to the points raised by opponents. He departed a little from this moderate tactic when he chided Liam Kerr for allegedly undermining the temporary command structure now in place, and the officers forming that structure.

Image caption ACC Higgins was suspended on Friday alongside three other officers

To my hearing, Mr Kerr did not do that. Indeed, he praised serving officers. Rather, he sought reassurances that no major police initiative had been undermined by the evident problems.

That is, arguably, rather different.

But, more generally, Mr Matheson was emollient. Willie Rennie of the Liberal Democrats traced the problems back to the creation of the single force in Scotland. Mr Matheson demurred, but modestly.

Challenged more than once over the absorption of British Transport Police into Police Scotland, the justice secretary said there were differences of opinion, that the issue was under constant review and that any practical problems would be heeded and addressed.

Image caption Susan Deacon is the new chairwoman of the Scottish Police Authority

So this was, in principle and in detail, a consensual effort by the justice secretary, determined to reassure the public but also seeking to convince parliament that every action was being taken to stabilise matters.

In which regard, he attached considerable significance to the appointment of Susan Deacon as the new chairwoman of the Scottish Police Authority. He said the former Labour minister, latterly a business and academic leader, had proven skills in bringing people and organisations together.

She'll need them.

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