Scotland politics

Bid to scrap Offensive Behaviour at Football Act launched

Football fans Image copyright PA
Image caption The law was intended to discourage overtly sectarian behaviour in and around Scottish football matches

A Labour MSP has officially lodged proposals to scrap the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act.

James Kelly said the "illiberal" law was "flawed on several levels" and had damaged trust between police and football fans.

All four of Holyrood's opposition parties pledged to repeal the act in their election manifestos.

However, the Scottish government insists it has "delivered real improvements" in tackling sectarianism.

With the SNP a minority administration, there is a majority in the Holyrood chamber which would back repealing the act.

It was introduced in 2012 in an attempt to crack down on sectarianism and other football-related offences, but critics say there is already sufficient legislation in place to deal with such crimes.

A report published earlier this year revealed there were only 79 convictions in 2014/15 under the legislation, with the Scottish Conservatives saying the figures demonstrated the law was "unnecessary and unworkable".

The Scottish government's Criminal Proceedings in Scotland 2014/15 report stated: "The (2012) Act criminalises behaviour which is threatening, hateful or otherwise offensive at a regulated football match including offensive singing or chanting.

"It also criminalises the communication of threats of serious violence and threats intended to incite religious hatred, whether sent through the post or posted on the internet.

"Numbers are very small (79 convictions in 2014-15) in comparison to the crime type, breach of the peace (15,580 convictions) which they fall into, making up around less than 1%."

Image caption Mr Kelly is a long-standing critic of the legislation

There have been a total of 231 convictions since the law was enacted.

Mr Kelly, a longtime critic of the legislation, said the SNP had "arrogantly bulldozed" it through without any cross-party support.

Launching a consultation as the first step towards scrapping the act, the Glasgow MSP said he had the backing of opposition parties, supporters groups, legal experts and academics.

He said: "The SNP's football act has damaged trust between football fans and the police without doing anything to combat sectarianism and intolerance in our country.

"Sectarianism in Scotland has existed for hundreds of years but the government's approach was to try and fix it in 90 minutes.

"Now the SNP have lost their majority in the Scottish Parliament we can scrap the Football Act and get real about tackling sectarianism off the pitch, in our classrooms and communities."

Image copyright PA
Image caption Football supporters including the Fans Against Criminalisation group have staged rallies against the Act

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would listen to concerns about the legislation, but said it was a "strange priority for opposition parties to almost have as their first objective to get rid of legislation which is about tackling sectarianism".

And Glasgow Shettleston MSP John Mason lodged a motion at Holyrood claiming that the disorder at the recent Scottish Cup final was proof that the act should be kept.

He said parliament should conclude that "this would not be an appropriate time to relax the law", after Hibs and Rangers fans clashed on the pitch following the Edinburgh club's historic win.

The Scottish government has insisted that the act has "delivered real improvements", with a spokeswoman claiming polls had shown 80% of Scots backing the law.

'Wrong signal'

She said: "Since its introduction, religious crimes, race crimes and crimes in relation to individuals' sexuality are down and we've seen a decrease in crimes of offensive behaviour at or in relation to regulated football matches in Scotland.

"Any move to repeal the Act would send entirely the wrong signal and would undermine progress in driving all forms of prejudice from the game."

The campaign group Fans Against Criminalisation welcomed Mr Kelly's proposals as "the first step in the process to get rid of the expensive, anti-democratic mess that this ill-thought-out and badly-worded legislation has created".

A statement on the group's website said: "We are in the final stages of our five-year battle against the Act and victory is now within our sights."

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur said it was time for the law to be "sent for an early bath".

He added: "This legislation was forced through the Scottish Parliament by an SNP government who seemed more concerned about tackling bad headlines than sectarianism.

"The law has been criticised by everyone from fans on the terraces to senior judges. The majority of the legal profession were opposed to the act when it was introduced. Knee-jerk reactions to serious social problems rarely deliver the sort of change we need and that is what we have seen with the OFBA."

"It is time that this law was sent for an early bath."

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