Sectarian hate crime at football matches will continue to be dealt with by police if controversial legislation is repealed.
Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins told Holyrood’s justice committee that scrapping the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act would not pose a “significant challenge” for Police Scotland.
MSPs were taking evidence on Labour MSP James Kelly’s Member’s Bill to repeal the Act.
Mr Higgins said the behaviour of football fans had “improved greatly” since the introduction of the legislation in 2012, although he said the Act was just one of the reasons for this.
But he said his officers would revert to using existing legislation should the Act be repealed.
He said: “I’ve been in the police 29 years and from when I started in 1988 to the current day, football is almost unrecognisable in terms of fan behaviour and stadia. In the last five or six
years we have seen massive improvements in not just fan behaviour, but the stadia and key elements around producing a football match such as the stewarding...”
He added: “In terms of the 2012 Act, it has certainly brought to the forefront and the public consciousness behaviour people would describe as unacceptable. It’s made it clearer when we can take action and when we can’t.”
Asked what would happen if the legislation was repealed, he said: “Operationally, it wouldn’t pose a significant challenge. We would still discharge our duties in the same manner. We
would be seeking guidance from the procurator fiscal’s office about what charges we should now apply. In terms of boots on the ground and how we would go about policing a football match, little, if anything, would change.”
But Anthony McGeehan, of the Crown Office, said abolishing the legislation would will leave a gap in the law.
He said alternative charges are available to those provided under the Act, but he added that they have “limitations”.
Jeanette Findlay of the Fans Against Criminalisation group said Mr McGeehan’s comments conflicted with a submission from the Law Society of Scotland who she said took the view that there would be no gap in the law.
She added: “I would also refer you to the evidence you just heard where Mr Higgins said in the absence of this Act young men would have been arrested and charged with breach of the peace.”