Sectarian bill defended by minister Roseanna Cunningham

Scotland's community safety minister has defended government plans to pass emergency laws on tackling sectarianism related to football games.

Roseanna Cunningham said people expected the laws to be in place before the start of the new season in July, following previous trouble at matches.

She was being grilled by Holyrood's justice committee, which is concerned the legislation is being rushed.

The bill proposes tough new jail terms to crack down on sectarianism.

Parliament is voting on the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill for the first time on Thursday, despite it only being introduced last week.

The justice committee is spending the next few days quizzing police, church, legal and football representatives.

The bill aims to stamp out abusive behaviour from football fans whether they are watching matches in a stadium, in the pub or commenting online.

It would raise the maximum jail term from six months to five years.

The new legislation comes in the wake of several high-profile football-related incidents.

These include trouble at Rangers and Celtic games and the recent appearance of two men in court after suspected bombs were sent to Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two other high-profile supporters of the club in March.

Ms Cunningham welcomed the committee's decision to take evidence on the bill, but said there was an expectation for the new laws to be put in place urgently.

She said: "Football is our national game - millions of people are passionate about it.

"But we really can't tolerate the complete corruption of that passion into hate - whether it is mass sectarian chanting or bullets and bombs in the post, we all know that it must stop."

The minister added: "The government is committed to putting this new legislation in place in time for the new football season.

"It is essential to make clear the scenes of last season must never be repeated and we do believe the bill sends a clear message to the people of Scotland - which they do expect, I think, in response to what was witnessed over the past few months."

Ms Cunningham added: "I acknowledge a much greater amount of time is always going to be ideal and I don't rule out the possibility in a few years' time of revisiting the situation with legislation.

"We have two new offences, only two, and to do those in the short timescale is not only feasible, it is desirable."

The minister went on to tell the committee that singing Flower of Scotland or God Save the Queen would not be considered offensive behaviour under the legislation.

However, she said each case would depend on individual circumstances and cited an example of having seen Celtic fans making signs of the cross to Rangers fans in an "aggressive" manner, which may potentially be construed as offensive.

Labour MSP Graeme Pearson, a former Strathclyde Police officer and head of the Scottish Crime and Drug Enforcement Agency who sits on the justice committee, questioned whether the legislation was needed.

He asked the minister: "What flaws were out there that you decided you required the current legislation to be offered to parliament for consideration?"

Ms Cunningham said the problems during the last football season had shown current laws could not tackle the issue properly, adding that there were concerns over the effectiveness of the charge of "breach of the peace" is cracking down on sectarian behaviour.

Also giving evidence to the committee, Strathclyde Police Assistant Chief Constable Campbell Corrigan said police would not be wading into a football crowd trying to take out large numbers of fans.

And Les Gray, chairman of the Scottish Police Federation, told MSPs he thought more resources would have to be made available as current cost estimates related to the bill were "way off the mark".

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