Chris Marshall: Scrap football act and start again

Celtic manager Neil Lennon (right) is pulled away by assistant Alan Thompson after clashing with Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist on the touchline in 2011. Events at the match led to the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.
Celtic manager Neil Lennon (right) is pulled away by assistant Alan Thompson after clashing with Rangers assistant manager Ally McCoist on the touchline in 2011. Events at the match led to the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.
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In football terms, Celtic’s 1-0 victory over Rangers in March 2011 has long since been forgotten about. But the political fall-out of the so-called “shame game” continues to be felt more than six years on.

One of seven Old Firm games played over the course of the 2010-11 season, the game was notable for an infamous bust up between then managers Neil Lennon and Ally McCoist.

It was the point the Scottish Government decided enough was enough, introducing the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act the following year.

Yesterday, MSPs on Holyrood’s justice committee heard evidence from Police Scotland, the Crown Office and supporters’ groups as they considered proposals to scrap the legislation.

Labour MSP James Kelly’s repeal bill is expected to win the support of Holyrood’s opposition parties, signalling the end for an act described last year by historian Sir Tom Devine as the most “illiberal and counterproductive” ever passed by Holyrood.

Appearing before the committee yesterday was Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins, who said the behaviour at Scottish football matches was now “almost unrecognisable” from the situation in 1988 when he joined the force.

Mr Higgins said there had also been significant improvements in the conduct of supporters since the introduction of the legislation in 2012, although he said the act was just one of a number of reasons for this.

Last season, police arrested 191 fans for all offences – not just those dealt with by the Football Act – the equivalent of around 0.05 per cent of all those who attended matches during the course of the year.

And with the exception of Celtic and Rangers, every club in the country has hosted a police-free match.

These are not statistics which suggest Scotland has a huge problem with violence and anti-social behaviour at football.

Nor do police think the bad old days will return should the Football Act be scrapped.

Mr Higgins said the repeal of the legislation would not create a “significant challenge” for his force, with officers likely to continue to police games the way they currently do.

“We would still discharge our duties in the same manner,” he told MSPs.

“We would be seeking guidance from the procurator fiscal’s office about what charges we should now apply.

“In terms of boots on the ground and how we would go about policing a football match, little, if anything, would change.”

Unsuprisingly, supporters’ groups were forthright in their evidence to the committee.

Paul Goodwin, chief executive of the Scottish Football Supporters Association, said the impact of the act on fan behaviour had been “immaterial”, while Jeanette Findlay, of Fans Against Criminalisation, said there was “little evidence” to suggest the Scottish game has a problem with fan behaviour.

Concerns were raised by the Crown Office that repealing the legislation would leave “gaps”, notably in the relatively uncontroversial section of the act while relates to “threatening communications” and has little to do with what goes on in football stadiums.

That problem, however, seems a straightforward one to solve – scrap the act and introduce new legislation to fill the gap.