LABOUR leadership front-runner Jim Murphy has pledged to scrap controversial laws aimed at sectarianism in football “right away” if he becomes first minister.
MSPs at Holyrood last night rejected a Labour move to repeal the legislation after it came in for criticism from football fans and judges.
The Scottish Government has insisted the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act is working. It was introduced two years ago after a series of ugly incidents surrounding the Old Firm, but failed to win the support of opposition parties.
Mr Murphy said: “If I am elected Scottish Labour Party leader and First Minister, I will scrap the Football Act right away.
“The law was an attempt to chase headlines rather than actually fix a complex problem. Sectarianism and intolerance goes far beyond 90 minutes on a Saturday or 140 characters in a tweet. Instead of fixing the problem, they have created a pointless culture of mistrust between football fans and the police.”
Labour’s outgoing deputy leader, Anas Sarwar, signalled earlier this year the party wanted to scrap the legislation.
The law gives police and prosecutors powers to tackle the singing of sectarian songs and other abuse at and around football matches, as well as threats posted on the internet or through the mail. It created two distinct offences, with punishments ranging up to a maximum of five years in prison and an unlimited fine.
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However, football fans, lawyers and civil liberty campaigners have branded the legislation unnecessary and confused, and cases have been called into question by sheriffs when they reached court. Dundee Sheriff Richard Davidson recently described the legislation as “mince” because it was so badly drafted.
At the time it was introduced, Labour, the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Greens said the bill was “railroaded” through by the SNP, using its Holyrood majority. A review is due to be published by Stirling University researchers next year.
Mr Murphy said: “The way to tackle intolerance and bigotry is every day in our classrooms and communities, not with gimmick legislation.
“The Football Act isn’t helping us towards the fair and tolerant Scotland we all want to live in. It has to go.”
Yesterday a Labour motion calling for the “flawed” legislation to be dumped was defeated by 68 votes to 50 after a debate at the Scottish Parliament.
Roseanna Cunningham, the community safety and legal affairs minister, said there were “welcome indications of success” as a result of the law and insisted: “It is working.”
She added: “This government remains completely committed to tackling sectarianism.
“The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act, in our view, does have a clear role to play in meeting the commitment that was made, and there are welcome indications of success, with decreases in offences of religious hatred and offending under the Act.”
Ms Cunningham also said that the SNP administration has undertaken the “biggest commitment ever made to anti-sectarianism by any government in Scotland” with £9 million to be invested in the next three years. Some 44 community projects are being funded, along with a “comprehensive research programme” into the problem.
She said: “This is a new approach where time is needed to allow the projects to deliver their initiatives, and evaluate these, and for research to be carried out and completed.
“I don’t believe anyone is under any illusions there are quick fixes here, and we need to allow all the pieces of work to complete before we can bring them all together next year.”
But Tory justice spokeswoman Margaret Mitchell claimed the act was “deeply flawed”.
“This is fundamentally bad legislation which was poorly drafted,” she said. “In 2011, it was then rail-roaded through by the SNP majority government in the face of opposition from Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats.”
Alison McInnes, the Lib Dems’ justice spokeswoman, said attitudes towards equality issues such as racism and homophobia had been “transformed” in recent years. She said: “Sectarianism and the marginalisation and resentment it causes must be deemed just as shameful, but this will take time.”
And she said Lib Dems opposed the legislation because it was a “flawed, headline-grabbing response” to the issue.
But she said Labour plans for an outright repeal of the laws were neither “appropriate nor helpful”, and Lib Dems backed the government last night.
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