A TOP police officer in charge of a unit behind an illegal spying mission on suspected journalists’ sources is to be summoned to Holyrood to explain the single force’s unlawful conduct.

The Justice Committee has agreed to call Police Scotland deputy chief constable Neil Richardson – a contender to take over from Sir Stephen House - to attend a hearing this month.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who yesterday promised to protect police spending, also increased the pressure on the force by describing the breaches as “unacceptable”.

The Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) last week confirmed that Police Scotland had broken new rules on the use of surveillance powers to flush out suspected whistleblowers who may have spoken to journalists.

Since March, police officers have required judicial approval before using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) for this purpose.

The IOCCO found five “reckless” breaches affecting four individuals, all of whom are believed to be either serving or former officers.

The illegal spying occurred after the force’s Counter Corruption Unit (CCU) tried to find the sources of a Sunday Mail story in April into the botched police investigation into the murder of sex worker Emma Caldwell in 2005.

BACKGROUND TO A SCANDAL

HeraldScotland: Emma Caldwell

Picture: Emma Caldwell

At Holyrood yesterday, Justice Committee members lined up to back an inquiry into the scandal.

Liberal Democrat MSP Alison McInnes said: “The Commissioner said that he’d uncovered reckless behaviour. I think it’s pretty outrageous really that the police force has acted above the law.”

Tory MSP Margaret Mitchell said: “I think it is absolutely essential that we have some transparency and accountability on this.”

The Committee will call Mr Richardson, Justice Secretary Michael Matheson and representatives from the IOCCO and the Scottish Police Authority to the session on December 15.

One policing source said MSPs had a “great opportunity” to “shine a light” into the operations of the CCU, for which Mr Richardson has responsibility.

A decision on Sir Stephen's replacement is expected soon.

However, John McLellan, the director of the Scottish Newspaper Society (SNS), said the Committee should widen its remit to include potential spying abuses from before this year.

He said: “We have been trying to get information on police snooping that predates the new rules, going back to the pre-Police Scotland era.

"The SNS thinks the Committee should broaden the remit beyond the IOCCO report, because this report may only be scratching the surface. There’s an opportunity for full disclosure here.”

At a press conference yesterday, Ms Sturgeon said of the IOCCO report: “I think the findings there are serious and – as Michael Matheson said last week and I will say again today – breaches of this nature are unacceptable.”

BACKGROUND: THE FIRST MINISTER HAS KNOWN OF THE ALLEGATIONS FOR 5 MONTHS

She also said the Government had been in contact with the force to ensure it had the "capacity" that would be required to deal with a Paris-style terror attack, adding: “Given the security situation that we face I am confirming today that the police budget will be protected. We will increase the revenue budget of the Scottish Police Authority in real terms in order to deliver that protection.”

HeraldScotland: Handout photo issued by the Scottish Government dated 10/10/14 of Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon as Scotland's political parties are due to submit their proposals to the commission tasked with agreeing more powers for the Scottish Parliament follow

Meanwhile, at a separate committee hearing yesterday, Mr Richardson said he would welcome “flexibility” when considering whether the country still needed over 17,000 police officers.

The SNP has delivered 1,000 extra officers on top of 2007 levels, but critics say the policy has made balancing the books more difficult.

Mr Richardson said: "I absolutely want as much flexibility as I can. I think the debate is in the wrong place. The numbers part is less important than the money part, and I'm more interested in what settlement I can secure and from that how best to deliver the necessary policing services across Scotland."

Justice Committee Convener Christine Grahame said: "The Committee is clear that the IOCCO's findings raise significant concerns and throw up serious questions.

"The Committee has therefore agreed to call Deputy Chief Constable of Police Scotland Neil Richardson, the IOCCO, an SPA representative, and the Cabinet Secretary of Justice to give evidence at its meeting on 15 December."