Opposition parties unite to call for repeal of 'illiberal' Offensive Behaviour at Football Act
Scottish Labour, Conservatives, Greens and Lib Dems have issued a joint call for the repeal of the Scottish Government act
Football supporters - Image credit: Flickr
All four opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament have issued a joint a statement today calling for repeal of the SNP government’s Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.
The statement, signed by the justice spokespeople for the four opposition parties, criticises the act as “an illiberal law” that was rushed through the Scottish Parliament and “has proven to be unworkable in practice”.
It also pledges cross-party support for a member’s bill by Labour MSP James Kelly’s to repeal the act, which is being formally lodged in the Scottish Parliament today.
Today’s joint statement has been issued by Kelly, Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson Douglas Ross, Scottish Green co-convener Patrick Harvie and Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur.
The statement reads: “As opposition parties in the Scottish Parliament we endorse the final proposal in James Kelly MSP’s Football Act (Repeal) Bill to repeal in total the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act.
"The act was rushed through the Scottish Parliament in 2011 against the will of all the opposition parties.
“It is an illiberal law that targets football fans and has proven to be unworkable in practice. It has caused division between football fans and police and confusion in the justice system.
"Following the vote in parliament last month, it is clear that a majority of MSPs in parliament support the repeal of the Football Act.
“It is now time for the government to support moves to repeal the act as quickly as possible.
"We utterly condemn sectarian language, acts and behaviour. That is why we remain committed to working constructively with the government and others to tackle sectarianism and other forms of hate crime.
“We also support initiatives that promote a positive atmosphere around football grounds.”
The first part of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act, which came into force in 2012, legislates against behaviour in relation to a football match that would be “likely to incite public disorder” and is threatening, expresses hatred of a particular group or “a reasonable person would be likely to consider offensive”.
It was aimed at tackling sectarianism at football matches, but critics have complained that it is discriminatory and criminalises behaviour that would be lawful at other sporting or non-sporting events.
A submission from the Celtic Trust says: “It is claimed that it was introduced to deal with sectarianism yet that word does not appear anywhere in the wording of the act and in fact there is ample pre-existing legislation in place to tackle the problem of sectarianism.
“By singling out football it compounds the myth that sectarianism is limited only to football when all the evidence points to the fact that this a problem deeply embedded in Scottish society.
“It is also discriminatory in that actions become criminal only in the context of football while being perfectly legal in any other situation.”
Similarly, Glasgow City Council said: “We believe that the act discriminates against football fans and is an unjustifiable attack on their rights to political expression and freedom of speech.
“Indeed, we are concerned at the number of young men in particular that are being criminalised by the legislation.”
Those in favour of repealing the act also point out that the definition of ‘offensive behaviour’ is unclear, that the act has led to poorer relations between football fans and police and that most of the offences could be prosecuted under other legislation.
Those against repealing the act note that getting rid of the legislation could give the impression that abusive and sectarian behaviour is now acceptable, that the act has been effective and no alternative is proposed to replace it, and that the act could be amended rather than repealed.
A report published in March showed that there had been only 79 convictions under the Offensive Behaviour Act in 2014/15.
However, while not taking a policy position on whether or not the act should be repealed, a factual submission from the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service pointed out that a football banning order (FBO) is often given in addition to the main conviction under the act.
It said: “Many of these FBOs are not reflected in the numbers published; but the imposition of these orders nevertheless plays a role in deterrence, preventing reoffending and providing a safe atmosphere in which people can travel and support their team.”
The public consultation on the proposal to repeal the act generated the most replies the Scottish Parliament has had to a consultation, with 3,248 responses from across Scotland and the UK, both from organisations and members of the public.
Of these 71.12 per cent were supportive of repealing the offensive behaviour section of the law, with 24.48 per cent opposed, while 62.1 per cent supported repealing the second section the act too, which deals with threatening communications.
For the proposal to repeal the act to proceed through parliament it needs the support of 18 MSPs from three political parties, which should pose no problem, given the wide cross-party support it has.
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