Scottish Parliament passes sectarianism laws despite strong opposition

Sectarianism at football matches will be targeted by the new laws
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Controversial laws to crack down on religious sectarian hate crime have been pushed through at the Scottish Parliament despite last-ditch appeals for the legislation to be scrapped.

The SNP used its majority at Holyrood to pass the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill.

Two offences will be created by the legislation, targeting sectarian behaviour in and around football matches and on the internet.

Those convicted could spend as long as five years in prison and be banned from football grounds.

Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham said the law, passed in a 64-57 vote, will send a clear message to bigots.

But opposition parties united to condemn the Bill which they say is fundamentally flawed.

Ms Cunningham said expert advice is clear that the laws can be improved at football grounds and in policing the internet.

“This simple point seems to have been lost in what I think is a fog of denial and sometimes apparently wilful misunderstanding,” she told MSPs.

“To be clear: these are clear and specific improvements on the existing law.

“Much of what we see at football celebrates nothing more hate and division and is done to antagonise and provoke old wounds. That is unacceptable and that must stop.

“We’ve heard much about this Government’s apparent failure to listen on this issue. But listen we have, time and time again, listening to the demands of the overwhelming majority of Scots who do want tougher action.”

The Bill proved controversial from the start when First Minister Alex Salmond promised to rush through legislation in time for the beginning of the football season. The deadline was extended following concerns that more time was required to iron out the details.

During the final debate the SNP voted through changes to the original draft Bill, giving ministers more power to alter the legislation at a later date.

The Bill was also limited to Scottish residents, rather than all British citizens, when offences are committed abroad.

Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independent MSP Margo MacDonald issued a joint statement after the vote at Holyrood.

It read: “Members of all political parties are determined to wipe the blight of sectarianism from Scottish society. It is of real regret that the first piece of legislation passed by this new parliament has been railroaded through by the SNP.

“The SNP has used its majority to force through bad law that risks doing more harm than good. It sets a worrying precedent for this parliament.

“The SNP has failed to make the case for the legislation both in parliament and out, with football fans, religious organisations, anti-sectarianism organisations, children’s charities, the Law Society, the Human Rights Commission and the Scottish Justices Association all raising genuine concerns with the SNP legislation.

“We believe a far more effective response is to focus on education and young people, working with the churches and football authorities on positive, practical, evidence-based measures that tackle the root causes of sectarianism, as well as robust application of existing laws.”

During the debate Labour justice spokesman James Kelly said: “The Government’s process on this has been a flawed one. We all know that throughout this process, it has not been competently handled by the minister.

“In terms of the way forward, what we need is a proper thought-out strategy on sectarianism. One that is informed by real people in real communities, and not civil servants in St Andrew’s House.

Conservative justice spokesman David McLetchie could not win support in his attempt to widen the Bill to cover groups listed under the Terrorism Act.

He said: “What we will now see is a flood of prosecutions under the Bill, as current laws are ignored in favour of the new legislation. No doubt this will be presented as a great success by the SNP but in reality it will be a sham.”

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