Controversial Scottish sectarian laws face the axe after MSPs back repeal

Controversial laws aimed at cracking down on sectarian abuse at football are facing the axe after a MSPs at Holyrood backed their repeal.

The laws were introduced following the infamous Old Firm shame game of 2011, which saw then Celtic manager Neil Lennon (pictured) and his Rangers counterpart Ally McCoist square up on the touchline after the match. Picture: SNS Group

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act “needs to be changed” according to Holyrood’s justice committee, which found that existing laws could be used to tackle much of the abuse being targeted.

Opposition parties came together to out-vote Nationalist MSPs on the committee. It will now go forward to the full Parliament, where a repeat of the united opposition stance would mean the SNP minority government is defeated and the laws are axed.

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Justice committee convenor Margaret Mitchell said: “Whether the act is finally repealed or not, the message that came through from the vast majority of witnesses was that this legislation needs to be changed.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 laws were introduced following the infamous Old Firm “shame game” of 2011 which saw then Celtic manager Neil Lennon and his Rangers counterpart Ally McCoist square up on the touchline after the match, with widespread trouble among supporters inside and outside the ground.

The act was the first piece of legislation to have been passed without any cross-party support in the history of the Scottish Parliament when the then-majority SNP government pushed it through seven years ago.

But it has come under fire in recent years amid claims it unfairly targets football fans and has even “criminalised” a generation of football supporters. This has resulted in the current “Repeal Bill” being lodged at Holyrood by Labour MSP James Kelly.

Yesterday’s report finds existing laws could already be used to crack down on the sectarian behaviour targeted by the act.

“Repeal would not have a significant impact on the prosecution of the type of offences which the 2012 act sought to capture,” it said.

Many of these offences could also be covered by sentencing “aggravations”, the committee was told in evidence.

However, the repeal of Section 6 of the act, which involves “communicating material” which may cause fear and alarm or which stokes up religious hatred, would leave a gap, the report finds.

The Scottish Government has called for the Repeal Bill to be delayed while a review of hate crime in Scotland, which has examined the impact of the act, is completed by Lord Bracadale. But the committee says such legal reviews can take years to implement and says it would “not be appropriate” to delay the bill to await this.

Community safety minister Annabelle Ewing said a “range of organisations” set out concerns during the committee inquiry that the police would be hampered from tackling the issue.

“We share those manifest concerns that repeal will send entirely the wrong message, leaving vulnerable communities feeling exposed to abuse and prejudice and putting Scotland behind the rest of the UK,” she said.