Labour plan to scrap controversial anti-sectarian law

Old Firm fans The law was introduced in an attempt to tackle football-related sectarianism

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Laws to clamp down on sectarian abuse at football matches will be scrapped if Labour wins the next Holyrood election, its deputy Scottish leader has said.

Anas Sarwar described the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act as "ineffective and unpopular".

He said a renewed focus should be put on "prevention not politics".

However, Community Safety minister Roseanna Cunningham said most people supported the legislation.

The act, which was introduced amid controversy in March 2012, gave police and prosecutors powers to tackle sectarian songs and abuse at and around football matches, as well as threats posted on the internet or through the mail.

Ordinary supporters

It created two distinct offences that are punishable with a range of penalties up to a maximum of five years in prison and an unlimited fine.

At the time, Labour, the Tories, Lib Dems and the Scottish Greens said the bill was "railroaded" through by the SNP.

And earlier this month Celtic Football Club called for a review of the law, saying there was "already sufficient evidence of the act's unhelpfulness and negative impacts" to justify such a move.

Some fans claim the law has caused problems for ordinary supporters.

Mr Sarwar said sectarianism was "a blight" on Scottish life but criticised the Scottish government's efforts to tackle it.

'Renewed focus'

He added: "The decision to impose [the act] despite the legislation being opposed by every opposition party and leading anti-sectarianism charities, has damaged much of the progress.

"It has proved to be an ineffective and unpopular law, not least because sectarianism runs far beyond our touchlines and terraces.

"We will never underestimate the effects of sectarianism and indeed will give it a renewed focus.

"That's why the next Labour Scottish government will repeal the act, review the existing framework and, working with others, ensure that the police get the support they need, and the well-meaning majority of football fans are respected, so creating confidence in knowing the government is focused on education and prevention, not politics."

'Strict liability'

The Scottish government spokeswoman said it would look again at the legislation, but not until a Stirling University study had reported on its effectiveness.

Community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham added: "There is no place for sectarianism in Scotland, around football matches or anywhere else - and we introduced this legislation in response to Scotland's police and prosecutors when they told us they needed greater powers to take a hard line on sectarianism.

"Opinion polls show that the majority of the Scottish public support that approach."

Dave Scott, directory of anti-sectarian charity Nil by Mouth, said: "The debate surrounding this law often produces more heat than light and we should remember that there are alternatives to legislation including investment in proper, diversionary, rehabilitation and restorative justice models.

"We'd also like to see clubs falling into line with Uefa and revisiting the 'strict liability' proposals brought forward by the SFA last summer which would see Uefa's disciplinary code of conduct introduced in Scotland.

"Uefa have taken tough action against clubs for sectarian behaviour and this model is much more effective than what we currently have in place."

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