Anti-sectarian football laws likely to be scrapped

18 January 2018, 07:26

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A Holyrood committee has backed a Bill to overturn a controversial law aimed at tackling sectarian behaviour at football.

A narrow majority of members of the Justice Committee gave their support to Labour MSP James Kelly's Bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act.

The majority of committee members found existing laws generally cover behaviour the Act criminalises.

The law came into force in 2012 after the SNP used its majority in the last Parliament to pass it despite a lack of support from other parties.

In a report, the committee said it "unanimously condemns sectarianism, hate crime and offensive behaviour".

Convener Margaret Mitchell said: "Whether the Act is finally repealed or not, the message that came through from the vast majority of witnesses was that this legislation needs to be changed.

"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The committee also made recommendations to apply whether or not the Act is repealed, including that the Scottish Government creates a legal definition of sectarianism.

Mr Kelly said: "The reason for the committee backing repeal is the weight of evidence against the Football Act.

"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."

Community Safety Minister Annabelle Ewing said repeal would "send entirely the wrong message, leaving vulnerable communities feeling exposed to abuse and prejudice".

"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," she said.

"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."

Six committee members from across the opposition parties united to back the general principles of the Bill while the five SNP members withheld support.