Justice Secretary Michael Matheson has insisted he did not exceed his authority when he asked police watchdogs to "reconsider" their decision to allow Chief Constable Phil Gormley to return to work while misconduct allegations against him were being investigated.
Mr Matheson has come under fire for the move, with Mr Gormley's lawyer insisting that there was "no lawful basis" for the Justice Secretary to intervene after the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) unanimously agreed to end a period of special leave and allow the top police officer to return to duty.
But Mr Matheson blasted the SPA's handling of the matter, saying key parties - including the independent Police and Investigations Review Commissioner (Pirc), who is currently looking at three claims of gross misconduct against Mr Gormley - had not been consulted.
Mr Matheson said he was told about the SPA's decision to reinstate the Chief Constable by its then chair Andrew Flanagan on November 9 2017 - two days after it had been unanimously agreed by the board and the day before the senior officer was due to return to work.
At this point he said Police Scotland's senior command team had not been informed.
In a statement to MSPs at Holyrood, Mr Matheson said there was a "particular concern" about the impact Mr Gormley's return could have on those who had made the allegations.
He said there "did not appear to be a robust plan in place to protect the well-being of officers and staff who had raised complaints or who may have been asked to play a role in the investigation".
The Justice Secretary insisted there were "clear deficiencies" in the SPA's decision-making process which were "completely unacceptable".
He stated: "To have stood by and allowed the SPA to implement that decision without asking them to revisit the decision ... I believe would not have been acceptable.
"That is why I asked them to reconsider it and they did so."
Mr Gormley, who denies the allegations against him, had already been told he was being allowed to return to duty, and was on his way back to Scotland when he was told the decision had been reviewed.
Mr Matheson said the Scottish Government had not been informed that the SPA had "actually already written to Mr Gormley to invite him to return".
The Chief Constable has been on special leave since September 8 2017, with investigations still ongoing.
In a letter to the Justice Secretary, Mr Gormley's lawyer David Morgan stated: ''There is no lawful basis for the Scottish Government's intervention or interference with the lawful decision of the SPA, as the sole statutory body tasked with the operational deployment of the Chief Constable.''
Mr Matheson said that "even though ministers do not normally become involved" in decisions by organisations such as the SPA, such bodies must still "retain the confidence of ministers".
He insisted: "All the Government's actions have been focused upon ensuring due process and fairness to all parties."
Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr hit out at the minister's "interference" in the matter.
He added that it was "difficult not to suggest hypocrisy", saying Mr Matheson had "repeatedly" insisted problems with the police force were "an operational matter".
The Conservative MSP stated: " Now it seems the test for whether Michael Matheson gets involved is not whether it is an operational matter, but whether it is in the political interest of Michael Matheson."
Meanwhile, Labour's Daniel Johnson said the Justice Secretary had increased the "crisis" in Scottish policing and had also undermined public confidence in the watchdog body.
He said: "Policing in Scotland is in crisis, a crisis centred around governance, leadership and investigations into senior officers.
"The actions of the Justice Secretary have turned that crisis into nothing short of a shambles.
"His intervention has effectively overturned an operational decision about the employment status of the Chief Constable, and by doing that he has not only embroiled himself in the shambles he has authored its latest chapter."
Mr Johnson insisted the decision over whether the Chief Constable should be allowed to return to work was "in law the independent SPA's to make".
He asked: "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".
Mr Finnie said: " The Justice Secretary was right to question whether the SPA had followed the correct procedure, and it clearly hadn't when it attempted to allow the Chief Constable to return to work.
"Complaints about alleged gross misconduct must be taken seriously and the brave individuals who came forward deserve assurances that their well-being will be protected."
Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur said that the competence of the SPA was now "in real doubt".
He said: " Mr Matheson's sharp criticism today of the SPA board's unanimous decision back in November to sanction an immediate return to work by the Chief Constable raises further questions.
"This was a collective failure by the SPA board and the Justice Secretary appeared to have no confidence in those who were responsible for it."
New SPA chair 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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