MSPs recommend repeal of Offensive Behaviour at Football Act

A move to scrap a controversial law to assist policing crack down on sectarian behaviour at football matches and improve law enforcement’s relationship with fans has taken another step forward.

Jan 18, 2018

A move to scrap a controversial law to assist policing crack down on sectarian behaviour at football matches and improve law enforcement’s relationship with fans has taken another step forward. MSPs have backed efforts to repeal Scotland’s Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act – insisting the legislation is flawed and unnecessary. A majority of Holyrood’s Justice Committee threw their weight behind MSP James Kelly’s Member’s Bill seeking to get rid of the law, which came into force in 2012. Its introduction followed a notorious Old Firm “shame game” in 2011 which saw three red cards, several confrontations and more than 200 arrests. The then-Celtic manager Neil Lennon was later sent bullets and a parcel bomb in the post. Justice Committee convener Margaret Mitchell said that whether the law was finally repealed or not, “the message that came through from the vast majority of witnesses was that this legislation needs to be changed”. She said: “While there is disagreement over the best way to proceed, the committee is united in its desire to have laws that help the police and prosecutors to clamp down on unacceptable behaviour. “However, it is vitally important that our laws actually improve relationships between various groups within society, including law enforcement and sports fans.” The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has come under heavy criticism since its introduction, with lawyers arguing it has “not been fundamental to tackling sectarianism”. The legislation criminalises behaviour that is “threatening, hateful or otherwise offensive at a regulated football match including offensive singing or chanting“. Mr Kelly has previously said there was now “more friction” between police and fans, with a need to rebuild trust if the new law is scrapped. He said: “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.” Mr Kelly’s Bill will now progress through parliament, before a final debate and binding vote at some point in the next few months. Annabelle Ewing, minister for community safety, said a poll commissioned by the Scottish government previously found 80 per cent of respondents directly supported the 2012 Act. She added: “The evidence in this report clearly sets out 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.” She added: “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.” Since Mr Kelly lodged his Bill in Holyrood, anti-sectarian football laws have been branded “unusual” and almost unparalleled anywhere in the world by academics linked to a review of hate crime. Countries that have witnessed disorder between supporters linked to regions with a history of ethnic tension, such as Croatia, Serbia, Russia and Ukraine, have not gone as far as Scotland in creating a specific offence, researchers found. The Scottish government appointed Lord Bracadale to conduct a review of the country’s hate crime legislation after opposition parties called on the SNP to repeal the controversial Act. Lord Bracadale commissioned Professor James Chalmers and Professor Fiona Leverick from the University of Glasgow to produce a comparative analysis of hate crime legislation around the world. They said it is difficult to find any jurisdictions that have adopted similar measures to address football-relat

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