Historic moment at Holyrood as controversial Act ‘puts Scotland behind UK in protection of religious hatred’

The Scottish Government has warned that police and prosecutors face being “compromised” following the scrapping of controversial legislation aimed at tackling sectarianism at football matches.

Mar 15, 2018
By Nick Hudson

The SNP said the removal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act puts Scotland behind the rest of the UK in terms of protection against religious hatred. Onlookers broke into applause as MSPs voted to repeal the legislation at Holyrood on Thursday (March 15) afternoon – by a majority of just two.

The move marks a significant milestone for MSP James Kelly’s bid to get rid of the 2012 legislation he branded “a complete failure”, flawed, unnecessary and unfair to football fans.

The approval of his Member’s Bill is the first time an Act has been scrapped in its entirety – with no legislation to replace it – since the Scottish Parliament was reconvened in 1999.

The Scottish Labour MSP said he was “delighted” at the result, adding: “Since the SNP government used its previous parliamentary majority to force the legislation through, it has been repeatedly criticised by legal experts, fans’ groups and equalities organisations.

“The law was a simplistic attempt to solve a complex problem. Sectarianism is a problem in Scotland that goes back generations. It can’t be solved in 90 minutes on a Saturday. The way to fix it is in classrooms and community groups.

“Now the Football Act has been repealed, I hope all parties can get behind the need to support proper investment in anti-sectarianism initiatives, which have seen their funding cut under the SNP.

“Opposition parties have united to defeat the SNP and repeal the Football Act – it is now essential every party unites to tackle sectarianism at source.”

The public gallery witnessed applauding and hugging by fans’ groups as opposition parties united to defeat the SNP. It was the first piece of legislation passed at Holyrood with no cross-party support, and its repeal marks the first major reverse of any SNP legislation since it came into power in 2007.

Responding to the repeal of the legislation, Community Safety Minister Annabelle Ewing described the vote as a “deeply disappointing and worrying decision”.

She added: “This move sends out an appalling signal, suggests that the law is going to be soft on antisocial conduct by bigots and bullies and will compromise the ability of police and prosecutors to charge people for unacceptable behaviour.

“The removal of the section 6 offence also puts Scotland behind the rest of the UK in terms of protection against religious hatred. “The Scottish Government will, of course, respect the will of parliament but will also continue to work towards ridding Scottish society of the scourge of religious bigotry and prejudice and I look forward to Lord Bracadale’s review of hate crime, due in the coming months.

“However, it’s a great pity that we must proceed without this additional tool to hold perpetrators of sectarian hatred to account.” Ms Ewing said sectarianism continues to be a problem in Scottish football, but “despite this completely unacceptable behaviour, those opposing the Act continue to bury their heads in the sand asserting that that it is better to repeal legislation than either reforming it or replacing it.”

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