Scotland politics

MSPs recommend repeal of Offensive Behaviour at Football Act

police Image copyright Getty Images

MSPs on Holyrood's justice committee have recommended the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.

A majority of members on the committee backed Labour MSP James Kelly's members bill, while stressing that they strongly condemn sectarian behaviour.

SNP members do not want the legislation repealed, but are outnumbered by MSPs from opposition parties, all of whom are in favour of scrapping it.

The first vote on the repeal bill will take place at Holyrood next Thursday.

The Scottish government said repeal would "send entirely the wrong message" and would "put Scotland behind the rest of the UK in terms of protection from incitement to religious hatred".

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act came into force in 2012 after the SNP used its majority to push through the legislation.

Opponents of the law say it is poorly written, unnecessary in light of existing legislation and unfairly targets football fans - a position now endorsed by Holyrood's justice committee.

Each of Holyrood's opposition parties campaigned on manifesto pledges to scrap it in 2016, and with the SNP now a minority government have moved to do so via Mr Kelly's members bill.

'Unacceptable behaviour'

Justice committee convener Margaret Mitchell said the group was "united in its desire to have laws that help the police and prosecutors to clamp down on unacceptable behaviour".

She added: "Whether the act is finally repealed or not, the message that came through from the vast majority of witnesses was that this legislation needs to be changed.

"It is vitally important that our laws actually improve relationships between various groups within society, including law enforcement and sports fans. The bill will now proceed to its next stage, with a majority of members supporting it."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Celtic and Rangers supporters groups have been vocal in their opposition to the sectarianism laws

Opposition parties were almost denied their majority on the justice committee after Orkney's Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur was unable to make it to parliament due to weather disruption on the day the group signed off their report.

However, his Shetland colleague Tavish Scott was able to step in as a substitute member, giving the opposition an edge of six to five over SNP MSPs.

While there was division over whether to endorse repeal, all members agreed that the Football Act should at least be changed, with the five SNP MSPs who opposed repeal saying the government should "revisit the 2012 Act and bring forward constructive amendments".

The report itself said the committee "unanimously condemns sectarianism, hate crime and offensive behaviour and considers it unacceptable".

They said that should the Football Act be repealed, it would be "important that the Scottish government and relevant stakeholders clearly communicate that offensive behaviour at football and threatening communications can still be tackled and prosecuted using other legislation and common law".

Many witnesses and supporters of the Football Act had urged MSPs to delay consideration of the repeal legislation until an ongoing review of hate crime legislation by Lord Bracadale concludes in the spring. However, the committee report said it "would not be appropriate to delay consideration while Lord Bracadale concludes his work".

Image caption James Kelly put forward a bill to repeal the Football Act

Mr Kelly said he was pleased his bill had the backing of the committee, saying this had happened due to "the weight of evidence against the Football Act".

He added: "From day one, the Scottish government pushed through this botched legislation to make it look like ministers were taking action on sectarianism, despite it being made crystal clear at the time that the Football Act was not a viable law.

"The unfortunate reality is the Football Act has completely failed to do anything ministers promised. Its only achievement is breaking down trust between fans and the police."

'Wrong message'

Community safety minister Annabelle Ewing said the majority of people who responded to polling commissioned by the Scottish government had backed the Football Act.

She said: "The evidence in this report clearly shows that a range of organisations have highlighted real concerns to MSPs about depriving our law enforcement agencies of this legislation completely without putting a viable alternative in place.

"We share those manifest concerns that repeal will send entirely the wrong message, leaving vulnerable communities feeling exposed to abuse and prejudice and putting Scotland behind the rest of the UK in terms of protection from incitement to religious hatred, currently provided by section six of the Act.

"Singing songs about terrorism, mocking incidents involving loss of life and being hateful towards some of our most vulnerable communities with no regard for the impact of their wilful behaviours is not acceptable in a modern Scotland."

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