Minister ‘could work with police chief Gormley again’
The justice secretary has said he would have "no objection" to the country's chief constable returning to work if it was shown to be the right thing to do.
Police Scotland chief Phil Gormley is on special leave while gross misconduct claims against him are investigated.
He has accused Justice Secretary Michael Matheson of blocking his return to work in November.
But Mr Matheson insists his concerns were purely over the processes that were followed in making the decision.
Mr Matheson told MSPs on Wednesday that he only discovered on 9 November that the Scottish Police Authority (SPA) had unanimously decided at a private meeting two days earlier to allow Mr Gormley, who denies the allegations against him, to return to duty.
He said he had sought assurances from then-SPA chairman Andrew Flanagan that the board had followed due process in the decision, but that Mr Flanagan had been unable to give that assurance.
The decision to allow Mr Gormley to return to work was then reversed, with Mr Matheson saying he had asked Mr Flanagan to "reconsider these matters because the process they have to have in place is one ministers have to have confidence in".
Speaking to the BBC's Good Morning Scotland programme on Thursday morning, Mr Matheson was asked whether he could work with Mr Gormley again in the future.
He replied: "Of course. If the Scottish Police Authority decide that they wish the chief constable to return to work, and they have a very clear, defendable, robust process in place in making that decision, I will have no objection to that whatsoever.
"This is an ongoing investigation and in my view I would like to see it taken forward as quickly as possible to allow all of this issue to be resolved as early as possible."
He also said would be happy for any minutes of the meeting between himself and Mr Flanagan to be released, and said he would check with officials whether they existed.
Mr Gormley's lawyers claim there was no lawful basis for Mr Matheson's "intervention or interference" with the SPA's decision to allow the chief constable to return to work, but Mr Matheson denies that he exceeded his authority.
The justice secretary insists that his concerns were purely over the procedures followed by the SPA rather than the decision itself, saying that the SPA had failed to inform Police Scotland's senior command team and the independent Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc).
And he has highlighted his "particular concern" about the potential impact of Mr Gormley's return to work to those who had made complaints about him.
Mr Matheson said: "I accept public bodies don't always get these things right and it is appropriate that, where ministers are aware of that, they take appropriate measures in order to address it."
'Depart with dignity'
Mr Matheson's predecessor as justice secretary, Kenny MacAskill, has said that Mr Gormley should leave his post even if he is cleared of the allegations against him.
Writing in the i newspaper, Mr MacAskill praised Mr Matheson's intervention, and said the chief constable cannot be allowed to "hang around" Police Scotland's headquarters at Tulliallan "like a bad smell".
He added: "It's now suggested that investigations have exonerated Phil Gormley. But while his conduct may not have constituted a disciplinary offence, serious questions remain over his leadership style, given that the complaints came from senior colleagues.
"He should be allowed to depart with dignity, even if it means buying out the remainder of his contract. But go he must, for the good of the service, as having a harmonious senior command team is fundamental. He cannot provide that."
Mr Matheson said Mr MacAskill was "perfectly entitled to his own opinion, and I respect that".
The situation has been branded a "shambles" by some opposition MSPs, with Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie calling for a full review of Police Scotland to be carried out.
Mr Rennie said: "It does call into question something that we've been questioning for a long time, which is the whole structure of the Scottish Police Authority (SPA), the centralised Police Scotland, because this is not the first of the problems that we've seen with Police Scotland.
"We've seen a myriad of issues and it's about time we had a root-and-branch review of Police Scotland to make sure we can avoid these kind of problems happening in the future."