SPFL accused of 'gagging' Scottish Government on sectarianism at football

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has been urged to "rip up" a confidentiality agreement with the SPFL on its sectarianism data.
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has been urged to "rip up" a confidentiality agreement with the SPFL on its sectarianism data.
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The Scottish Govenment has been urged to "rip up" an agreement with football authorities and publish sectarianism data, as questions were raised about the fitness of the SPFL to run Scottish football.

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said it was "inconceivable" that the government had agreed to be "gagged" by the football authorities over data which would show the extent of sectarianism at Scottish football matches.

Raising the issue with Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf in Holyrood today, he said the reluctance of the Scottish Professional Football League to reveal the statistics called into question "just how seriously those who have the data are working to lift the curse affecting Scottish football."

Mr McArthur described the SPFL's attempts to tackle sectarianism as "pathetic" and added: "If their response to sectarianism is dependent on secrecy and gagging orders they don’t deserve to be running the game."

The discovery that a dossier of two-year's of statistics on sectarianism at football matches would not be made public was revealed at the weekend by Mr McArthur and the anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth.

READ MORE: Should football clubs be shown the red card for sectarianism?

But Mr Yousaf said that while he had urged the SPFL to publish the data, it was not "in his gift" to do so as the figures were not the property of the government.

He said: "I strongly agree we need robust data to understand unacceptable conduct at football and take action as necessary to address it. The data is collated by the football authorities not the Scottish Government and only provided on the basis, and I quote, "it was confidential and not published". However our clear and consistent preference has been for this data to be published.

"I have spoken to SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster today to reiterate this again and will follow up in writing - he confirmed the SPFL is committed to discussing this positively at the next board meeting. It's only through open and honest discussion, based on robust evidence, that we can work with all of our partners to tackle the unacceptable conduct by a minority of spectators which unfortunately continues to shame our national game."

But Mr McArthur said it was unacceptable that only ministers, police and football authorities had seen the data. He added: "Will the Cabinet Secretary rip up the confidentiality agreement and publish today, in full, the contents of the sectarianism database? It’s inconceivable that the government would sign up to an arrangement that's effectively gagged it, by the SPFL.

"The Scottish Government's own independent commission asked for this data to be recorded and published annually to inform a proper public debate. Serious conversations about options like strict liability are impossible f the figures are kept secret and it calls into question just how seriously those who have the data are working to lift the curse affecting Scottish football.

"I too would like to hear from Neil Doncaster because the SPFL response to date has been quite frankly pathetic. If their response to sectarianism is dependent on secrecy and gagging orders they don’t deserve to be running the game."

Mr Yousaf reiterated that the data was not the government's. He said: "It’s not in my gift to rip up an agreement with a stakeholder which could be potentially actionable. I have asked him [Neil Doncaster] once again... he’s agreed to put that to the next board meeting and I hope through dialogue we get to a place where the data can be published. We will continue to intervene where appropriately - my desire is that the SPFL publish this data."

READ MORE: Kenny MacAskill: Football must face strict liability sectarianism offence
But Mr Yousaf was also challenged by SNP MSP James Dornan to push for the data to be released. Mr Dornan, who is considering a Member's Bill on introducing strict liability as a way of forcing football clubs to take responsibility for sectarianism in their grounds, said: "It’s incumbent on the organisations to publish their own data and if they don’t people will continue to believe that Scottish football is a law unto itself and has something to hide."

Mr Yousaf said he believed the SPFL and SFA "would do well to reflect on just how they are viewed by parliamentarians and the public on this issue".

The SPFL has been contacted for a response.