Alex Salmond announces sectarianism bill delay

New anti-sectarian legislation has been delayed by six months, the first minister has announced.

Alex Salmond said he had listened to concerns that the new law was being rushed through parliament.

He said he would set a new timetable to ensure it was passed by the end of the year.

Church, football figures and opposition parties, who had expressed concern at the original timescale, welcomed the move.

The bill was introduced to parliament just last week and ministers had wanted to see it passed by the end of the month, in time for the start of the new football season in July.

The Scottish Parliament's justice committee expressed concern over the speed with which the bill was to go through.

Mr Salmond announced the delay to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill during first minister's questions, at Holyrood.

He told parliament more time was needed to take a range of evidence and views on the proposals.

Mr Salmond said: "I accept, and I think everybody accepts, we have a majority in this chamber - but we need consensus.

Sectarian displays

"I hope, because what we say in this place on this issue has huge ramifications across society, that we can allow for the probability, the certainty, that each and every single one of us wants to eliminate sectarianism and sectarian displays from Scottish football.

"Each and every one of us wants to eliminate sectarianism from Scottish society.

"I hope that parliament will accept there is a huge, genuine urgency in this matter, and also accept that this government wants to achieve the consensus within parliament and throughout Scottish society."

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.

Consistent enforcement

These include trouble at Rangers/Celtic games and the sending of suspected bombs to Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two other high-profile supporters of the club.

A Rangers spokesman backed Mr Salmond's move, saying: "As a club, we are at pains to point out that we are in favour of the greater and more consistent enforcement of existing legislation and will support new legislation that takes things forward and helps eradicate the type of behaviour that afflicts football.

Cameron Ritchie, president of the Law Society of Scotland, also backed Mr Salmond's decision, adding: "On such an important issue as this, we need effective law that is both workable and not open to challenge."

Scottish FA chief executive Stewart Regan, said: "Ultimately, we expect new legislation from the Scottish government to be practical and enforceable - it is important the necessary groundwork is undertaken to ensure this is the case."

The Scottish government's move met with approval from opposition parties.

Labour leader Iain Gray, said: "The first minister and SNP's incompetence had undermined the credibility of the bill and they have now had to climb down from their attempt to rush it through."

The Lib Dems' Willie Rennie, who thanked the first minister for his decision, said: "Scores of questions still remain over the bill and we will work constructively with the Scottish government to explore these issues."

Civic Scotland

Annabel Goldie, the Conservative leader, added: "The Scottish government has showed some much needed common sense and humility in acknowledging the wide ranging concern about this bill as currently drafted, the lack of consultation and the clear possibility of negative, unintended consequences."

The Rt Rev David Arnott, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, said: "I am pleased the government have heeded advice from ourselves and others not to be hasty.

"It is important that civic Scotland gets the chance to be part of proper democratic scrutiny on what is a crucial cultural issue."

Meanwhile, Two Christian organisations - the Christian Institute and Care for Scotland - said they were dropping legal action which aimed to force the Scottish government to take more time over the legislation.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill has now passed its first hurdle at Holyrood, with the SNP and Labour voting for it, the Liberal Democrats voting against and the Tories and Greens abstaining.

The legislation will now move forward to the next stage of parliamentary scrutiny.

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