Former justice secretary: Police chief 'must go' even if he's cleared

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He initially stayed on in his post, but that year after a further allegation was made, and has remained off work while. Mr Flanagan had just come from a meeting with Mr Matheson at which he agreed to revisit the decision.

Mr Gormley's lawyer David Morgan wrote to the then SPA's chair Andrew Flanagan saying his client was "concerned that his return was delayed following intervention" by Mr Matheson.

Mr Matheson has been accused of " interfering" in the decision over whether he should return to active duty after the board of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) gave Mr Gormley its unanimous backing to go back to work in November. They said the chief constable was "surprised" by the move and the justice secretary's "apparent intervention", which they advised him was "unlawful".

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".

A Scottish government spokeswoman said: "The position of the chief constable is a matter for the Scottish Police Authority board, who have kept it under review on a four-weekly basis while an investigation is conducted by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner".

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

Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell, who is convener of Holyrood's justice committee, said Mr Matheson's position would be "untenable" if he had intervened.

Michael Matheson made a staunch defence to MSPs about why he had felt compelled to step in and try to prevent Phil Gormley, the embattled chief constable, from returning to work. "In particular, the Pirc had not been asked for her view on whether the chief constable's return at that point could impact on her investigations".

Scottish Conservative shadow justice secretary Liam Kerr said: "This is an almighty mess, and one of the SNP's own making".

Mr Gormley's lawyers also told MSPs that the complaints against him were "entirely denied", and were "vexatious, opportunistic and are being strenuously defended on his behalf".

"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".