Consultation response shows strong opposition to controversial Offensive Behaviour Act

Holyrood’s Justice Committee finds majority of the 200 individual responses it received support Scottish Labour’s James Kelly MSP’s bill to repeal controversial football act

THE majority of respondents to a Holyrood consultation would like to see the controversial Offensive Behaviour at Football Act scrapped.

A number of organisations submitted evidence to Holyrood’s Justice Committee as part of the consultation for Scottish Labour MSP James Kelly’s private members’ bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threating Communications (Scotland) Act questioned the impact of the legislation on freedom of speech and the role in tackling sectarianism at football matches.

The committee received over 200 individual responses – ranging from the legal profession to football supporter groups - to its call for evidence to examine Kelly’s bill, of which more than three quarters were in favour of the proposal.

Kelly said: “The Justice Committee has been told in the clearest of terms that the Football Act should be scrapped.

“The Football Act was a PR stunt pulled by a government abusing its majority at the time. It has failed to tackle sectarianism and simply served to draw a divide between fans and the police, reversing years of progress.

“[The Football Act] has failed to tackle sectarianism and simply served to draw a divide between fans and the police, reversing years of progress.” James Kelly 

“Legal experts, human rights groups and countless supporters continue to speak out against this illiberal and ineffective legislation. It’s time the Football Act was scrapped.”

The Act came into effect in 2012 after a series of incidents, including trouble at a Scottish Cup replay between Rangers and Celtic, and the sending of suspected bombs to the then Celtic manager Neil Lennon, leading criminal lawyer Paul McBride QC and Trish Godman MSP.

At the time, opposition parties at Holyrood claimed that the legislation was “railroaded” through by the SNP administration. But since last year’s Holyrood elections, the law could be overturned after opposition MSPs backed a motion to repeal the act by 64 votes to 63 last year.

Research from The Law Society found that of all of the 287 charges brought under Section 1 of the 2012 Act, all could have been prosecuted under current legislation or common law. In its response to the Justice Committee, it stated that “we do not believe that the Section 1 offence has improved the common law breach of the peace or Section 38 of the 2010 Act and are not of the view that its repeal will leave a gap in the criminal law”.

“We do not believe that the Section 1 offence has improved the common law breach of the peace or Section 38 of the 2010 Act and are not of the view that its repeal will leave a gap in the criminal law.” The Law Society of Scotland

The Law Society added: “If all charges brought under the 2012 Act could have been charged under the existing common law or various existing statutory provisions then it follows that the 2012 Act has not been fundamental to tackling sectarianism.”

In Liberty’s response to the Holyrood committee, it stated that “this Act was a poorly thought-through response to a turbulent 2010/11 football season and represents a real threat to freedom of speech”.

However, others responded to the consultation in support the football Act.

Victim Support Scotland stated that it opposed repealing the 2012 Act “unless there is a viable alternative to support victims of threatening communication and religious prejudice”.

“The Act strengthens the law and allows for a more effective response by police and prosecutors to an issue which many appear resigned to accept as the status quo.” Scottish Government spokesperson

The Equality Network added its concern about the potential effects of repealing the Act “without other clear measures being implemented in its place”.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The vast majority of football supporters are well-behaved and the Act is a clear statement that no section of society is exempt from standards and behaviours that are considered acceptable. As groups representing victims and equalities campaigners have also indicated, repealing it would send entirely the wrong signal to both football and wider society.

“The Act strengthens the law and allows for a more effective response by police and prosecutors to an issue which many appear resigned to accept as the status quo.”

In 2015, a YouGov poll commissioned on behalf of the Scottish Government found that 82 per cent of respondents agreed that sectarian singing or chanting at football matches is offensive; 83 per cent supported the legislation to tackle offensive behaviour at and around football matches and 80 per cent directly supported the football Act.  The poll surveyed more than 1,000 people.

Since the Act was introduced, the government has faced strong opposition from grassroots fan campaign group Fans Against Criminalisation.

Police Scotland used the Act 377 times in 2016-17.

Picture courtesy of The Celtic Network

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