FOOTBALL fans could avoid prosecution for offensive behaviour at matches, with the Scottish Government pledging cash to roll out an education programme across the country.
Community Safety Minister Paul Wheelhouse announced the move as a new report into controversial legislation aimed at curbing sectarian and other forms of offensive behaviour in and around football matches was published.
Religious crimes are down, race crimes are down, crimes in relation to sexuality are down and we’ve seen a decrease in crimes of offensive behaviourCommunity Safety Minister Paul Wheelhouse
Both fans and opposition parties at Holyrood have been calling for the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications Act to be scrapped.
The new research found a “marked decline in football related charges, including hate crime charges”, between the first and second full seasons after the law came into force in March 2012.
But it added that “positive as these trends are, it is impossible to determine whether some, or any, of these reductions are attributable directly to the Act”.
Prison sentences of up to five years can be imposed under the Act, but many of the charges are for less serious offences.
As a result, the report argued it “may be prudent particularly for less serious charges to consider faster, diversionary measures”.
It recommended greater consideration be given to a “more nuanced set of responses, shading from club-focused sanctions and diversionary measures that preclude the need to impose a criminal record, through to appropriate criminal penalties for more serious or incorrigible offenders”.
The Scottish Government is now providing the charity Sacro, which works to reduce offending, with £66,883 of funding to roll out a national Diversion from Prosecution education programme, which will be aimed at less serious and first time offenders.
Mr Wheelhouse pledged the Government would “act upon the recommendations from the independent evaluation, starting today”.
He stated: “There was concern within the evaluation around how we can help fans to understand the impact of their behaviour and to divert them from activity that could lead to criminal charges.
“Today, I’m acting on that recommendation by providing additional funding for Sacro to develop their Diversion from Prosecution programme on a Scotland-wide programme and, where appropriate, make available an alternative disposal that will allow less serious or first time offenders committing an offence under the Act to avoid being caught up in the criminal justice system while providing a suitable and proportionate response to the offence committed.”
Charges under Section 1 of the legislation - which covers hateful, threatening or offensive behaviour at or linked to football matches - have fallen from 268 in 2012/13 to 193 in 2014/15.
Charges relating to fans’ behaviour inside stadiums have fallen from 165 to 89 over the same period.
Last year, a total of 42 charges involved behaviour that was regarded as derogatory towards the Roman Catholic faith, down 88 in 2012/13. Meanwhile six charges in 2014/15 involved behaviour offensive to Protestants, compared to 16 two years ago.
The report, by researchers at Stirling University and ScotCen Social Research, said surveys found “tentative support for the notion that at least some of these reductions may be due to a real improvement in offensive and disorderly behaviour on match days”.
But it added: “The extent to which these reductions can be attributed to the impact of the Act is far from clear, not least given the substantial and sustained reductions in many categories of violence and disorder across Scotland and the UK as whole.”
Assessing the impact of the law was made more difficult after regular derby games between Glasgow rivals Rangers and Celtic ended after Rangers Football Club Plc went into liquidation and the newly re-formed club joined the Scottish third division for the 2012/13 season.
Mr Wheelhouse said: “We have seen a raft of encouraging statistics and evidence published today showing that hate crimes in Scotland are on the decrease, both on the streets of Scotland and in our football grounds, and this is to be welcomed.
“Religious crimes are down, race crimes are down, crimes in relation to sexuality are down and we’ve seen a decrease in crimes of offensive behaviour at regulated football matches in Scotland. Whilst the legislation we brought in two years ago has had its critics, the latest statistics show a steady decline in offences at stadiums and a YouGov poll shows 80% of Scots support the Offensive Behaviour Act.”
But he stressed: “We will not be complacent and will continue to monitor how the Act is working very closely going forward. However, I believe the legislation is working. The evaluations, backed by the latest statistics out today, demonstrate that the Act has had a positive impact and our approach has delivered real improvements in behaviour at football and online.”