Labour ‘to scrap football sectarianism laws’

Celtic and Rangers fans at an Old Firm game in 2006. Picture: TSPL
Celtic and Rangers fans at an Old Firm game in 2006. Picture: TSPL
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CONTROVERSIAL laws brought in to try to stamp out religious abuse in Scottish football are to be scrapped if Labour wins the next Holyrood election.

The measures have damaged the fight against sectarianism, according to the party’s deputy Scottish leader, Anas Sarwar, who said the policy had been “ineffective and unpopular”.

The party will repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act if it wins the Holyrood election in 2016.

Football fans have already voiced concerns about the legislation, which was granted Royal Assent in January 2012.

Earlier this month, Celtic Football Club called for a review of the law, saying there was “already sufficient evidence of the act’s unhelpfulness and negative impacts” to justify it.

Community safety minister Roseanna Cunningham told a Holyrood committee at the time that holding an early review would be “nonsensical”.

When the act was brought in, the Scottish Government agreed to review its operations after two full football seasons and to report back to parliament one year later.

But Mr Sarwar insisted the legislation had to go.

He said: “Sectarianism remains a blight on Scottish life. That is why the last Labour-led Scottish Government made it a priority and established a nationwide action plan and education strategy to tackle it. This has been allowed to slip over recent years.

“The decision to impose the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, despite the legislation being opposed by every opposition party and leading anti-sectarianism charities, has damaged much of the progress. It has proved to be an ineffective and unpopular law, not least because sectarianism runs far beyond our touchlines and terraces.”

Mr Sarwar went on: “We will never underestimate the effects of sectarianism and, indeed, will give it a renewed focus.

“That’s why the next Labour Scottish Government will repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act, review the existing framework and, working with others, ensure the police get the support they need, and the well-meaning majority of football fans are respected, so creating confidence in knowing the government is focused on education and prevention, not politics.”

The legislation gives police and prosecutors powers to tackle sectarian songs and abuse at and around football matches, as well as threats posted on the internet or through the mail. There are two distinct offences that are punishable with a range of penalties, up to a maximum of five years in prison and an unlimited fine.

Some fans say the changes have created problems for ordinary supporters.

However, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill’s praised the legislation, after lawyers raised concerns over the way it was being implemented.

Dave Scott, directory of the anti-sectarian charity Nil by Mouth, also voiced doubts about the legislation.

He said: “The debate surrounding this law often produces more heat than light and we should remember that there are alternatives to legislation including investment in proper, diversionary rehabilitation and restorative justice models.

“We would also like to see clubs falling into line with Uefa [European football’s governing body] and revisiting the ‘strict liability’ proposals brought forward by the SFA last summer, which would see Uefa’s disciplinary code of conduct introduced in Scotland.

“Uefa have taken tough action against clubs for sectarian behaviour and this model is much more effective than what we currently have in place.”

The Scottish Government said it would look again at the legislation but not until an independent Stirling University study had reported on its effectiveness.

Ms Cunningham said: “There is no place for sectarianism in Scotland, around football matches or anywhere else – and we introduced this legislation in response to Scotland’s police and prosecutors when they told us they needed greater powers to take a hard line on sectarianism.

“Opinion polls show that the majority of the Scottish public support that approach.”

Last November, Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland, QC, said 89 per cent of cases reported under the new legislation had been prosecuted, with a conviction rate of 83 per cent. Punishments under the act include long-term football banning orders.