CONTROVERSIAL laws aimed at curbing sectarian behaviour at football matches are an “important tool” for police and prosecutors and will remain in place, the Scottish Government has insisted.
Community safety minister Paul Wheelhouse said while the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications Act had “harsh critics”, the government had needed to take a “strong policy response” in a bid to tackle unacceptable behaviour.
I recognise there are areas where improvements could be made - after all this is still new legislation and it is important we consider where it is not working as effectively and take the appropriate steps to address thatPaul Wheelhouse
Football fans and opposition MSPs have made repeated calls for the legislation, which came into force in March 2012, to be scrapped.
The Conservatives renewed that appeal at Holyrood, with justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell insisting: “It is time to repeal this ill-conceived legislation, which was railroaded through by the SNP majority government.”
Labour, meanwhile, called for a “comprehensive review” of the law.
While Mr Wheelhouse accepted improvements could be made, he told the Scottish Parliament it “remains a tool that should remain available to the police and courts”.
He said: “The Act was not created in a vacuum, it resulted from circumstances which simply could not be tolerated and which needed a strong policy response.
“During the 2010-11 football season we saw an unacceptable level of sectarianism on Facebook, internet forums, blogs and social media, as well as a number of high-profile figures being targeted with parcel bombs and death threats, alongside increased patterns of violence and disorder at some football matches.”
Mr Wheelhouse added: “I recognise there are areas where improvements could be made - after all this is still new legislation and it is important we consider where it is not working as effectively and take the appropriate steps to address that.”
A recent evaluation of the legislation highlighted a lack of trust between the police and some football fans, with the minister conceding: “The relationship between police, football clubs and fans could be improved.”
He said he was keen to work with all parties to help achieve this.
The minister announced last week that an education programme which could see more fans avoid prosecution for offensive behaviour at matches is to be extended across the country.
The Scottish Government is providing the charity Sacro, which works to reduce offending, with more than £66,000 to roll out a national Diversion from Prosecution scheme, aimed at less serious and first-time offenders.
“I know this chimes with concerns raised by football clubs and others such as fans about criminalisation,” Mr Wheelhouse said today.
“Where behaviours can be changed without giving first time and low tariff offenders a criminal record, this would be desirable.”
He said: “Scotland is moving on from the prejudices of the past and I believe a clear majority supports the sentiment that Scottish football needs to move with the times.
“The evaluation shows that hateful and offensive activity has been a declining phenomenon in recent seasons since the Act was introduced in terms of the number of charges reported to prosecutors by the police.”
But Ms Mitchell accused the minister of giving an “upbeat assessment” of how the law is working “when everyone else can plainly see the problems with associated with this legislation”.
She said: “Today would have been ample timing to scrap these laws, but instead the minister seems to want to press on despite the widespread criticism it has attracted from sheriffs, legal experts and football fans.”
Labour justice spokesman Hugh Henry said: “The Act has been a huge source of controversy, criticised not just by football fans but by legal experts too. A promise was made to review the legislation.
“This work should be the start of that review. We all know that bigotry and intolerance are not confined to football matches but sadly infect too many corners of Scottish life.”
He said the research “does not make clear whether or not the legislation is effective”.
Mr Henry said: “This can be the generation which confines sectarianism to the past by tackling intolerance in our classrooms and communities.
“Scottish Labour is willing to work with the SNP to challenge sectarianism in Scotland; this work should begin with the promised review of the Football Act.”