Scotland politics

Changes agreed to bigotry bill after bishop meeting

Bishop Tartaglia
Bishop of Paisley, Philip Tartaglia, met Mr Salmond in Edinburgh

The Catholic Church has backed the Scottish government's bill on tackling bigotry and football-related violence, after changes were agreed.

First Minister Alex Salmond agreed to strengthen freedom of speech rights in the legislation and release data on sectarian incidents.

The move came after a meeting between Mr Salmond and Philip Tartaglia, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Paisley.

The bishop previously branded the government bill a "distraction".

The Scottish government's Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill has moved to its final stage of parliamentary scrutiny, but opposition parties have refused to support the legislation.

It aims to stamp out abusive behaviour, whether fans are watching matches in a stadium, in the pub or commenting online, by bringing in new jail terms of up to five years.

But confusion has also surrounded exactly what would constitute a sectarian offence.

Following the meeting in Edinburgh, Mr Salmond said a clause guaranteeing freedom of speech would be inserted into the legislation, while details of past sectarian-related incidents would be published. He said this would continue on an on-going basis.

He added: "The cordial and friendly discussions allowed me to hear the church's concerns directly and explain to them the aims behind our efforts to stamp out sectarianism.

"This legislation was never meant to stop freedom of expression in Scotland - it is about bearing down on sectarianism and other offensive behaviour in Scotland, and stopping the expression of bigotry and hatred that the overwhelming majority of people in this country wish to see come to an end.

"I think we are now mature enough and strong enough as a society to take on this appalling behaviour and ensure our beautiful game of football is not tainted by the actions of a mindless minority."

Bishop Philip Tartaglia, said; "I share the concerns of the Scottish government that sectarianism should be eradicated from Scottish society.

"Fears that the wide remit of the 'offensive behaviour bill' might impinge on the freedom to hold and express otherwise inoffensive views appear to have been recognised and are being addressed.

"I particularly welcome the first minister's commitment to track and analyse sectarian crime on an on-going basis using all data relating to Section 74 of the Criminal Justice Scotland Act 2003. Clearly, we cannot tackle a problem without first measuring it."

The bishop expressed his concerns about the bill in a letter to the first minister, in which he also said the church was "dismayed" over the government's consultation on gay marriage and warned of a "serious chill" in church relations with SNP ministers.

But Bishop Tartaglia said the issue remained unresolved, adding: "Our discussions also afforded me an opportunity to reiterate the Catholic Bishops' publicly stated commitment to strenuously oppose any moves towards same sex marriage."

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