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Stage 1 vote backs repeal of Football Behaviour Act

26 January 2018

The bill to repeal the Scottish Government's Act targeting sectarian behaviour by football supporters was approved at stage 1 in the Holyrood Parliament yesterday, with MSPs voting 65-61 against the Government.

Introduced as a member's bill by Labour MSP James Kelly, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Repeal) (Scotland) Bill was supported by all the opposition parties although SNP members were united behind the Government.

Opening the debate, Mr Kelly said the 2012 Act had "completely failed to tackle sectarianism"; it was illiberal and unfairly targeted football fans. The Government had failed to engage with others when the Act was before the Parliament; its implementation was "characterised by aggressive policing, which caused a lot of friction with fans"; and there had been continuing confusion over what was and was not legal. It had been questioned whether aspects of the Act were compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

He added that s 6 of the Act, which deals with threatening communications, had been little used, and although "well intentioned, it is not fit for purpose".

While recognising that proposing the repeal was a "serious matter", he argued that a new, unified approach was needed – "one that brings together political parties, fans and legal experts and that emphasises a strong message around pre-existing legislation that works. We need to invest in education, and to support, rather than cut, anti-sectarian education programmes. Allied to that, we need the police, football clubs and football fans to work together to promote good behaviour at football".

For the Government, Annabelle Ewing, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs, said there was a cointinuing problem with behaviour at football matches that was not witnessed elsewhere. The Act gave "better and sharper tools" to police and prosecutors, and covered any sort of hateful behaviour. Representatives of minority communities had supported its retention. There had been no successful human rights challenge. "Even if the Act is repealed, the evidence to the Justice Committee suggests that there would be no change to operational police tactics."

The minister asserted that "the door remains open" to any party that wanted to work with the Government on amending the Act instead. She concluded: "Simply going back to where we were before the Act was introduced is retrograde and counter-productive and will do nothing to tackle abusive behaviour at football or protect vulnerable communities. Repealing the Act – with no viable – will do nothing to help us to build the country that we aspire to be."

Much of the debate pointed to evidence before the Justice Committee supporting or opposing the repeal. Opponents of the Act argued that the continuing number of offences showed that the Act had not achieved its purpose, and that a bad law should not be kept just because repeal might be interpreted as "sending the wrong message". Its defenders argued that it had had some success and there was a grave risk of moving backwards if it was repealed.

Mr Kelly's bill will now be considered in committee at stage 2 before coming back to the full Parliament for a final debate and vote.

Following the debate Ms Ewing commented: "While this is clearly disappointing, we must respect the will of Parliament. It’s important now that all parties build consensus on the next steps required to mitigate the impact of this decision on vulnerable communities."

She added: "We will explore all options at our disposal to protect people as best we can from hate crime, as well as continue with our education work which is helping to prevent it happening in the first place."

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