THE number of football banning orders (FBOs) issued in Scotland has soared, with new figures revealing a steep rise over the past six months.
Fifty orders were made between April and October this year – a period including football’s summer break – five more than in all of last year.
The figures also show that since the orders were introduced in September 2006 the bulk were granted by sheriffs in the Strathclyde region.
Rangers supporters top the league of shame (77), with twice as many bans as Celtic fans (36) in second. However, the appointment of football liaison prosecutors in the east and north of Scotland, following a pilot in the west, is expected to trigger a rise there.
Most orders in the past six months were for sectarian or violent offences, although there have also been the first related to internet use and six related to racial offences.
The increase in cases has raised questions about the need for new law on offensive behaviour at matches proposed by the Scottish Government.
Ministers want to introduce laws to criminalise songs, chants and banners that incite violence at matches.
However, MSP Graeme Pearson, a former police football match commander and member of Holyrood’s justice committee, said the rise in FBOs is further proof that police already have the powers to tackle the problem.
He said: “The biggest threat to a fan is not imprisonment, it is not being able to go and see his team. While everyone wants an end to the evils of sectarianism that is no excuse for poor legislation and there are huge concerns about the potential unintended negative consequences of the SNP’s plans. We must fully use the powers in place to deal with sectarianism before deciding whether there is need for further measures.”
Tory justice spokesman David McLetchie MSP said: “These statistics prove there are measures for dealing with sectarian behaviour, and call into question the need for the SNP’s slapdash legislation. We have called for more effective use of non-legislative measures and better enforcement of existing laws before rushing through a new bill.”
Like the proposed legislation, FBOs cover games, journeys to and from matches, and pubs where the games are being shown on TV. Police and prosecutors can only apply for an order where the offence was related to a specific match. Orders of up to ten years can apply where an offender is jailed, and five years otherwise. Orders for as little as three months have been set. Of 178 issued since the legislation was introduced, 166 have accompanied a criminal conviction, with the rest being the result of a civil case. FBOs have also been granted against fans of other Clydesdale Bank Premier League sides, including Aberdeen (15), Dundee (6), Hearts (5), Hibs (4) and Motherwell (5). Fans of teams in the Junior League have also been given banning orders, including Auchinleck Talbot (4).
Lyndsey Gray, FBO manager for the Association of Chief Police Officers in Scotland (Acpos), said: “When the legislation was introduced, in September 2006, there was a very slow uptake, particularly the number of banning orders police were requesting.
“It was the same when they were introduced in England and Wales, although there was a different emphasis there to stop English hooligans travelling abroad. Here it was part of the Scottish Executive’s action plan to target sectarianism.”
Regional differences are marked. There were 46 banning orders in Strathclyde between April and October, compared with two in Lothian and Borders and one in the Northern Constabulary area.
To try to persuade sheriffs of the value of FBOs, Acpos invited them to games to see how they are policed.
“There’s no question that numbers are going to rise,” said Gray. “Sheriffs now have a better understanding of how fgames are policed. This misconception that football just runs itself – they’ve had a behind-the-scenes view and that’s been a real eye opener.”
Prosecutors are determined to use powers such as FBOs to make matches safer. Lesley Thomson, area procurator fiscal for Glasgow, said: “Disorderly conduct and violence at matches will not be tolerated. Any conduct of this nature will be robustly investigated and perpetrators dealt with. If they plead or are found guilty, the Crown will advise the court of its power to impose FBOs.”
The Scottish Government insists FBOs and the proposed legislation are necessary.
A spokesman said: “It is not a question of either the Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill or FBOs – both do different things, and both are needed. We need the best laws to ensure police and courts have all the tools they need to most effectively tackle the offensive behaviour of a small minority poisoning our national game
“The Offensive Behaviour at Football Bill clarifies and strengthens existing laws – for example by providing our police with the tools to arrest those shaming Scotland abroad. We also need FBOs to be used effectively, and the increase reflects the hard work of the police and the courts.
“The bill has been drafted to ensure anyone convicted for offensive behaviour can also be subject to an FBO.”