Scotland politics

Minister criticises police board over chief constable row

Michael Matheson
Image caption Michael Matheson told MSPs there were "clear deficiencies" in the SPA's decision

Scotland's justice secretary has criticised the Scottish Police Authority over its attempt to bring the chief constable back to work.

Phil Gormley is currently on special leave while allegations of gross misconduct are investigated.

His lawyers accused Michael Matheson of making an "unlawful" intervention to stop him coming back to work.

But Mr Matheson told MSPs that he had simply questioned "clear deficiencies" in the decision-making process.

He revealed that he only discovered on 9 November that the SPA had decided at a "private meeting" two days earlier to allow Mr Gormley to return to duty.

He said the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) had not been consulted as to whether this would affect the investigation into the complaints, nor had the acting police command team been informed that Mr Gormley was due to return to work the following day.

The justice secretary said in light of these concerns he asked the SPA to review its decision, which he said was "simply unacceptable and could not be defended".

Allegations against Mr Gormley first surfaced in July 2017, although he initially stayed on at work after a complaint made about him was referred to Pirc.

The chief constable then went on "special leave" in September that year after a further allegation was made, and has remained off work while a series of other complaints emerged.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Phil Gormley was on his way back to Scotland to go back to work when he was told not to return

However, on 8 November Mr Gormley received an email from then-SPA chief executive John Foley - since published by Holyrood's public audit committee - which said his "return to full duties has the unanimous backing of the board".

Mr Matheson told MSPs that when he was told about this the following day, he had "sought assurances" from then-SPA chairman Andrew Flanagan that they had "followed due process" in the decision. He said that "unfortunately", Mr Flanagan "was unable to give me those assurances".

Mr Gormley's lawyers said he was travelling back to Scotland to return to work when Mr Flanagan contacted him to tell him not to come. They said the chief constable was "surprised" by the move and the justice secretary's "apparent intervention", which they advised him was "unlawful".

Both Mr Flanagan and Mr Foley were on their way out of office at that point, with both choosing to step down following heavy criticism from MSPs.

The board is now chaired by former Labour MSP Susan Deacon, who said improvements had to be made in leadership and governance.

'Clear deficiencies'

In his Holyrood statement, the justice secretary listed a series of "clear deficiencies in the process" which he said were "completely unacceptable".

He said "key parties had not been consulted", including investigators, and said 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".

Mr Gormley's lawyers claimed in further correspondence shared with MSPs that there was "no lawful basis for the Scottish government's intervention or interference with the lawful decision of the SPA".

But when pressed on this by opposition members, Mr Matheson denied intervening in an operational matter or exceeding his authority.

He said he had not used any formal powers but had spoken to the chair about the case as a matter of governance, something Mr Flanagan had subsequently acted on.

Image copyright Getty Images

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr said the case was an "almighty mess", and "one of the SNP's own making".

He said: "Michael Matheson may want a pat on the back for intervening at this late stage, but the fact is the SNP has presided over a single police force in crisis, and people are quickly losing trust in the police authority and ministers' ability to oversee it."

Scottish Labour's justice spokesman Daniel Johnson said Mr Matheson's actions had "enhanced" the "crisis" engulfing Scottish policing.

He said: "Michael Matheson's actions have seriously undermined the confidence the Scottish public can have in the independence of the SPA, if a minister can simply overrule them."

However Green MSP John Finnie, himself a former policeman, said the justice secretary was "right to question whether the SPA had followed the correct procedure".

And Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur said the single police force established by the SNP put a "heavy onus on the relationship between the justice secretary, chief constable and SPA chair", questioning whether it was possible for Mr Matheson to have a "functional working relationship" with Mr Gormley should he return.

In the letters published at Holyrood, Mr Gormley's lawyers stressed that the allegations against him are "entirely denied", and complained that the probe had "already taken an inexplicable length of time".

Pirc boss Kate Frame has since told MSPs that she was not consulted by the SPA over the decision, but said Mr Gormley's return at this point would not prejudice her ongoing inquiry.

Speaking following today's Parliamentary statement and questions, SPA Chairwoman Susan Deacon said: "The conduct issues relating to the Chief Constable remain live and ongoing, and it remains inappropriate for SPA to offer public comment.

"The SPA is taking action to strengthen further its governance, advice and engagement to ensure that SPA decisions meet the high standards that should be expected of us."

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