Scotland politics

Football Act repeal bid passes first Holyrood vote

Old Firm fans Image copyright Reuters

A bid to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has been backed by MSPs in its first full vote at Holyrood.

All opposition parties want to scrap the legislation, which was passed with SNP votes alone in 2011 in a bid to crack down on sectarianism.

Labour's James Kelly put forward a members' bill to have the act repealed, saying it is poorly written and unfairly targets football fans.

MSPs voted by 65 to 61 to back his bill in principle in its first chamber test.

Ministers said they would respect the vote, but called it a "sad day for Scotland".

The repeal bill will now move on for further consideration at committee level before a final vote of all MSPs.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act was passed in 2011 by the then-majority Scottish government in a bid to tackle sectarianism.

Only SNP members supported the bill at that time, and opposition parties were quick to move to reverse the decision after the government lost its majority in the 2016 elections.

Ministers continue to defend the legislation, criticising opponents for not bringing forward alternatives. Mr Kelly insists existing laws are sufficient, with the Football Act itself not regularly used by prosecutors, and has pressed ahead with his members' bill.

He won the backing of the justice committee, which voted six to five along party lines, and his bill has now passed the first legislative hurdle in the chamber.

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

Mr Kelly said parliament had made a "clear decision to back the repeal of the Football Act", calling it "discredited legislation which has failed to make any progress in tackling sectarianism".

He said: "It is time for the SNP government to listen to the will of parliament and get behind repeal. Instead of continuing to pursue this broken law, it must work to unify parties, anti-sectarian organisations, faith groups and education leaders, and start taking the problem of sectarianism seriously.

"It is not tenable for the one party, the governing party, to continue to argue for a law condemned by legal experts, equalities organisations and human rights groups, which is now without the support of parliament. The Football Act has got to go."

The Fans Against Criminalisation campaign group said they were "delighted" with the vote, calling it "a huge step forward on the road to repeal - we are now within touching distance".

'Not victimless'

Community Safety Minister Annabelle Ewing said the defeat was "clearly disappointing" and "a sad day for Scotland".

She said: "We must respect the will of parliament. It's important now that all parties build consensus on the next steps required to mitigate the impact of this decision on vulnerable communities.

"We will explore all options at our disposal to protect people as best we can from hate crime, as well as continue with our education work which is helping to prevent it happening in the first place.

"While it's a sad day for Scotland, we are resolute in our determination to combat bigotry, homophobia, racism and offensive behaviour targeting people for simply being who they are. It's not acceptable, and we want the people of Scotland to know we have their back."

Ms Ewing said the government was open to amending the act if it is not repealed, something echoed by SNP members of the justice committee who had identified a number of potential changes.

SNP members also backed the Football Act in the chamber debate, with James Dornan calling repeal an "error of massive proportions" and Rona Mackay saying that scrapping the act would send "entirely the wrong message".

However, members from all opposition parties spoke out in favour of repeal.

Conservative MSP Gordon Lindhurst said the act was "an ill thought out reactionary piece of legislation", before adding that it is "unnecessary and unfairly targets a section of society".

He said that "no-one is suggesting there isn't a problem - what we're saying is that this act will not solve it and is not addressing the problem", while his colleague Liam Kerr said the law was "misguided and discredited".

Labour's Neil Findlay said there was a certain class of politicians which has never liked football fans, arguing that sectarianism would be better tackled by investing in education rather than "demonising young working class men".

Scottish Green MSP John Finnie said he supported moves to repeal the legislation "as quickly as possible", saying that police officers were not "at war" with football fans and that fans were generally self-policing.

And Lib Dem Liam McArthur said the "discredited" Football Act should be given an "early bath", suggesting that ministers offering amendments was "a desperate injury-time bid to save face".

In the final vote, all Conservative, Labour, Green and Lib Dem members backed the repeal bill, while all SNP members opposed it.

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