Scotland politics

Parties urge SNP to 'think again' over bigotry bill

Scotland's opposition parties have urged the SNP government to "think again" about its anti-bigotry bill.

During a debate at the Scottish Parliament, Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Greens all said they could not support the proposed legislation.

The SNP's Roseanna Cunningham said she hoped "common purpose" could be found.

Amendments to the legislation have been forwarded as a way of clarifying the offences, but opposition politicians have remained unconvinced.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill, which passed to its second stage after receiving narrow backing from the Justice Committee, would create two offences relating to behaviour deemed to "incite religious, racial or other forms of hatred" in and around football grounds and on the internet.

Those convicted could spend as long as five years in prison and be banned from football grounds.

Labour's community safety spokesman James Kelly said the bill lacked clarity and focused too narrowly on sectarianism in football.

He added that Community Safety Minister Ms Cunningham had been "perhaps badly prepared" when she appeared before the committee to give evidence, resulting in confusion over what would constitute an offence.

Mr Kelly said: "That undermined the credibility of the bill. That was one of the main reasons why the timetable had to be extended.

"I feel the Lord Advocate allowed himself to be drawn too far into the political process. He fronted the bill. He came to the committee. Essentially, the second time he came to the committee, he came to look after the minister to make sure she didn't get into further difficulty. The process, at that point, was undermined."

The politician questioned why the new legislation was needed when the current one appeared to work effectively.

Ms Cunningham said Mr Kelly had offered nothing constructive to the debate.

She said: "It is worth reminding ourselves that this bill gained majority support at stage one in June. As a parliament we did agree the principles of this bill, which means accepting that there is a problem infecting Scottish football and wider society that must be tackled.

"The task for us now is not to question whether action is necessary but rather to set out what we need to do and how we need to do it to deliver on the commitment made to Scotland in June."

Ms Cunningham said the overwhelming majority of people in Scotland backed the ambition to tackle the problem.

She added: "I still hope we can find common purpose. I do believe that coming out against this bill before a single amendment is laid is premature."

The Scottish Labour Party put forward an amendment backed by all the opposition parties.

Part of it read: "The Scottish government have failed to make the case for the requirement for new offences contained in the bill; that it lacks clarity, would lead to confusion, be difficult to enforce if implemented and cannot be supported."

The motion was defeated by 64 votes to 53.

In a joint statement released afterwards, the opposition parties and the independent MSP Margo MacDonald urged the Scottish government to "take a step" back and find consensus across the political spectrum.

It read: "Our fear is that the government's response is driven by a desire to be seen to do something, not by any evidence that this plan would actually work.

"We believe a more effective response to dealing with the problems in relation to Scottish football would include greater consideration to the use of existing laws, to working with football authorities and promoting positive interventions in communities and the education system."

The proposed legislation is supported by the police who believe they need the new law to tackle disorder and songs of "hatred, religion and terrorism".

However, the bill has attracted criticism not only from politicians but from fans' groups and clergymen.

First Minister Alex Salmond had to win over the Roman Catholic Church's Bishop of Paisley Philip Tartaglia with a promised clause on freedom of speech. The Church of Scotland had also called for such a clause.

'Clear warning'

Before the debate, Scottish Tory MSP, John Lamont, said he believed the government had "totally failed" to make the case for new legislation.

He added: "This slapdash bill needs to be thought through more carefully because in its current form there is a distinct possibility of negative, unintended consequences that we simply cannot allow to happen."

The Liberal Democrats called for the bill to be withdrawn.

The party's Alison McInnes said: "The SNP government have not made the case for this bill and the lack of any kind of consensus should act as a very clear warning sign that the bill is seriously flawed."

The Scottish Green Party urged the government to pause on the legislation and talk to other parties, to the clubs and to the "many others concerned about these proposals".

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