JUSTICE Secretary Michael Matheson has said he could not back the return to duty of Police Scotland Chief Constable Phil Gormley because there were “clear deficiencies” in the process followed by the Scottish Police Authority when it gave the go-ahead.

Matheson told MSPs that he informed the body that he could not have confidence in the decision when it had been made “without significant issues having been properly addressed”.

Gormley has been on special leave since September while misconduct allegations against him are investigated. His lawyers, in a letter released by Holyrood’s Justice Committee, earlier this week, claimed Matheson had made an “unlawful” intervention.

However, Matheson told MSPs he discovered on November 9 last year that the SPA had decided at a “private meeting” two days earlier to allow Gormley to return to duty.

Matheson said the body had not informed the Scottish Government or the acting police command team and had failed to ask the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner (Pirc) whether Gormley returning to duty would affect its investigation into the misconduct allegations.

Gormely was reportedly driving up from his family home in England to Scotland to start work the next day when Matheson found out about the SPA’s decision.

Matheson said: “The Chief Constable’s leave of absence had allowed the Pirc to interview staff in a ‘safe space’, helping to minimise any concerns they might have had about being involved in the investigation.

“I am sure Parliament will agree it is difficult to understand how a decision could be made for the Chief Constable to return without first confirming that doing so would not undermine the independent Pirc investigations, or the confidence of staff engaged in that process.

“Another area of particular concern was 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 might have been asked to play a role in the investigations.

“A number of these officers and staff were based at the Tulliallan headquarters in close proximity to the Chief Constable, and were in positions where they could expect to be dealing with the Chief Constable in the course of their work.

“This also raises questions about whether and to what extent those matters had formed part of the SPA’s consideration of the issue.

“I would also highlight that Police Scotland’s own senior command team had not been told about the decision even at that late stage.”

Matheson added: “I took the view that these clear deficiencies in the process were completely unacceptable. I made clear to the former chair that I could not have confidence in a decision that had been reached without such significant issues having been properly addressed.”

Gormley’s lawyers say there was “no lawful basis for the Scottish Government’s intervention. When asked by MSPs if this meant Matheson had exceed his authority by intervening in an operational matter, he said he had simply spoken to then SPA chairman Andrew Flanagan as a matter of governance.

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr said the case was an “almighty mess”.

Green MSP John Finnie, a former policeman, said the Justice Secretary was “right to question whether the SPA had followed the correct procedure, and it clearly hadn’t”.

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 its decisions meet the high standards that should be expected of it.”