Police yesterday began examining the allegations against Derek Mackay – and appealed for anyone who could help with inquiries to ‘come forward’.
The force said it had not received a complaint, but officers were ‘currently assessing’ available information, including messages published yesterday which set out the former Finance Secretary’s online interaction with a schoolboy.
Assessment of a case involves sifting through the initial detail before deciding whether to launch a full-scale investigation. This could generate a report for the Crown Office, which would decide on possible prosecution.
A Police Scotland spokesman said: ‘We have not received any complaint of criminality. However, we are currently assessing available information from media reporting and would encourage anyone with information to please come forward.’
It is open to police to begin looking at claims of possible criminality without an official complaint if this is judged to be in the public interest.
The SNP’s Joanna Cherry and Scottish Tory leadership candidate Jackson Carlaw both described Mr Mackay’s actions as ‘grooming’.
The NSPCC children’s charity defines this as ‘when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them’.
It adds: ‘Children and young people who are groomed can be sexually abused, exploited or trafficked.
‘Anybody can be a groomer, no matter their age, gender or race. Grooming can take place over a short or long period of time – from weeks to years.’
Anti-grooming legislation introduced 15 years ago was aimed at stopping child sex predators who target youngsters online.
The Protection of Children Bill made it an offence to set up meetings with under-16s via internet chatrooms, with those who break the law facing a maximum ten-year prison sentence.
On passing the legislation, the then Labour Justice Minister Cathy Jamieson said: ‘The sexual abuse of children is an appalling crime. The physical harm that it can do to children is horrific.
‘But even once the physical wounds have healed, the emotional and psychological trauma can continue for years to come.’
The Crown has to prove that a reasonable person would consider the intended activity to be sexual, taking into account all of the circumstances of the case, including the nature of past commun- ications.
Detectives are able to assume the role of the child in order to continue contact with a potential offender.
The legislation relates to children under the age of 16 targeted by adult groomers.
At Holyrood yesterday, Scottish Conservative interim leader Mr Carlaw read out the definition of grooming, referring to the NSPCC’s interpretation, while putting questions to First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
The website makes reference to an ‘authority figure’ using ‘social media networks and text messaging’, adding: ‘Whether online or in person, groomers can use tactics like: pretending to be younger; giving advice or showing understanding; buying gifts; giving attention, and taking them on trips, outings or holidays.’
On Twitter, Mr Carlaw posted a screen-grab, saying: ‘Derek Mackay’s behaviour is completely unacceptable and I believe that he has no option other than to resign as an MSP. Nicola Sturgeon should show clear leadership and join those calling for him to go.’
Last night, NSPCC Scotland declined to comment on Mr Carlaw’s intervention.
On Twitter, Miss Cherry, QC, SNP Edinburgh South West MP, said: ‘Grooming behaviour is totally unacceptable and must be condemned without fear or favour.
‘The First Minister was right to accept Derek Mackay’s resignation and suspend him. The party’s disciplinary procedures must now take their course.’
A criminal law expert, who asked not to be named, said last night: ‘People who send messages to children online, picking someone at random, are likely to have selected multiple targets.
‘There is then a question over whether anyone else they have contacted in the past might be under 16, although clearly there is no evidence of that in this case.
‘Without formal charges being brought forward, there would be no legal obligation for someone in Mr Mackay’s position to hand over devices such as their mobile phones to police, allowing for scrutiny of previous online exchanges.’
A police source told the Mail: ‘On the basis of what’s in the public domain, it doesn’t look like a crime has been committed. Police won’t ‘go fishing’ without a reason.’
Yesterday, Mary Glasgow, chief executive of the Scottish charity Children 1st, said: ‘By resigning, Derek Mackay has acknowledged that his behaviour was inappropriate.
‘Children 1st has always been clear that children and young people are vulnerable in situations where there is a significant difference in age, power and status between them and another person. Society should recognise by now that it is never acceptable to exploit that vulnerability.’
Clinical psychologist Dr Mairead Tagg said there are often two reasons why powerful figures risk their reputation by engaging in private online chats with children.
The Glasgow-based expert explained: ‘The first is they think, ‘It’s not going to happen to me’. The second is that they think they are untouchable. There is often a sense they can talk their way out of it.
‘An adult who wants to contact a child in this way should really do it via the parents.
‘Even if their intentions are absolutely innocent, it’s not a good idea to leave yourself wide open to allegations you have misused your position to contact a child.
‘Say it’s an MP or an MSP, and the child is interested in politics or wanting to talk about climate change, or is quite happy to have a conversation that’s clearly on a particular topic, that’s one thing.
‘But if the conversation is intimate or personal, perhaps breaking a few boundaries, that’s clearly not OK.’