Police watchdog warned government to 'back off'

Kate Frame Image copyright Pirc
Image caption Kate Frame felt her independence was challenged in an email from an aide of Michael Matheson

The head of a police watchdog warned a Scottish government aide against interfering with her independence.

Emails obtained by the Sunday Post show one of the Justice Secretary's staff suggested the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) delay publishing a report.

The suggestion happened against the backdrop of misconduct allegations against Chief Constable Phil Gormley.

The Scottish government denied any interference in the report.

Kate Frame replied saying she perceived the remarks to be governmental interference and the report - which criticised the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) - was published as planned.

The suggestion to delay was made by Donald McGillivray, deputy director of the Scottish government's police division, to Ms Frame in November.

Image copyright Sunday Post
Image caption One of the emails obtained by The Sunday Post

In an email to Ms Frame referencing Mr Gormley's lawyers, he said: "I'm conscious the CC's (Chief Constable's) lawyers are very active at the moment.

"Is there a risk that publication of a report that has some connection to the points that his lawyers may be considering could increase the risk to the whole process?"

He added: "I know the new regime at SPA has an open door to improvement around the complaints process and wonder if influencing through that route might carry less risk until the CC issue has moved on a bit, especially if the content of the report crosses over with points his lawyers are raising."

Ms Frame responded: "I was more than a little surprised at your terms of your reply of 30th November querying the timing of its release and suggesting that I may wish instead to delay its release until 'the issue of the CC had moved on a bit'.

"My perception of your remarks is of governmental interference with my independence."

The report, published on 29 December, concluded that the SPA's procedures for handling complaints about senior police officers, and its own staff and board members, were "neither effective nor efficient".

A spokeswoman for the Pirc said: "During the second half of 2017, the Pirc audited and examined the SPA's complaint handling procedures for the period between 1 April 2015 to 31 March 2017.

"The Pirc was committed to publishing her independent audit report by the end of 2017 and adhered to this schedule.

"This independence was emphasised to the Scottish government in an email on 23 December 2017.

"The comment by the commissioner in the e-mail was made to allay any potential for perception that the government were attempting to interfere in her position of independence.

"There have been no incidents of government interference and the release of the audit document went ahead within the planned timescale."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Mr Gormley is on "special leave" while the complaints against him are investigated

The Scottish government said there had been no involvement from ministers in the exchange, and it had become clear the report did not overlap with the time period of complaints relating to Mr Gormley.

A spokesman said: "Pirc is an independent body and has made clear that there has been no interference in the publication of this report.

"The Scottish government has no role in either the timing or content of its reports.

"It is part of the normal role of the sponsorship function to support public bodies to consider their role in the wider context of public services."

'What's going on?'

The emails were published at a time when Justice Secretary Michael Matheson is facing criticism over his role in the SPA reversing a decision to allow Mr Gormley, who denies the allegations, to return to work.

Ben Macpherson, SNP MSP and a member of Holyrood's justice sub committee on policing, told the BBC's Sunday Politics Scotland: "What's absolutely clear from the story in the Sunday Post and the statement made by the Pirc is that no incidents of government interference have taken place.

"Those are the Pirc's words, not mine."

Scottish Labour's justice spokesman Daniel Johnson said his party would be raising the matter at Holyrood.

He added: "The independence of policing is a fundamental point of principle and of law.

"Michael Matheson must take responsibility for his actions and those of his department. This is just the latest evidence in a series of actions compromising the independence of the bodies that run policing in Scotland.

"It is hard to conceive how Mr Matheson can justify these actions, but Labour will be demanding he comes to Parliament and attempts to, and if he cannot, he must resign."

Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr called for a full public inquiry into the Scottish government's conduct in the matter:

"I want an inquiry into transparency," he said. "I want to know what's going on here."

A spokesman for Mr Gormley's legal team, Burness Paull LLP, said: "The revelation today about Scottish government interference in the working of the independent police watchdog (Pirc) underlines our belief that the present police complaints and conduct system is not for fit purpose at many levels."

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