James Kelly MSP: The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act has failed miserably and will soon be gone - now we must look to the future

Scottish Labour MSP James Kelly looks ahead to the looming repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act this week, and lays out where he thinks policing can make a stronger impact on tackling bigotry

TOMORROW afternoon, MSPs will vote on my Bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. This hated legislation has been roundly discredited throughout the journey of my repeal Bill through parliament.

I was a justice spokesperson for Labour when the Football Act was first brought to parliament in 2011, and I led the opposition to the original Bill. At the time, the SNP used its majority to rush through the law, making the Football Act the first ever Bill to have been passed with only one party’s support. 

This unprecedented move went against the values of co-operation enshrined in the Scottish Parliament and speaks volumes about the SNP’s refusal to seek agreement on something they argued was introduced with good intention.

READ MORE: Scottish Parliament votes in favour of Offensive Behaviour Act repeal

Fast-forward to the 2016 Holyrood election, and every party bar the SNP backed repeal of the Football Act. From the outset, the SNP knew it needed support outside of its ranks to keep this legislation on the books. 

Minister Annabelle Ewing said she was fine to amend the legislation, yet never worked to get other parties on board. Labour’s position was clear: the Act unfairly targets football fans and is not working. As soon as the SNP lost its majority in 2016, the writing was on the wall for the Football Act. It is nobody’s fault but the SNP’s that the Act is going and ministers cannot claim to have been caught off-guard by repeal.

I’ve been a football fan all of my life and I know the real-life impact that the Football Act has had on so many people, especially young, working-class men. I would recommend listening to Fans Against Criminalisation’s recent podcast to hear the devastating impact this law has had on individuals. 

I’ve heard from people starting a career in teaching who need a clean disclosure check whose lives have been disrupted because of an incorrect identification of a face from CCTV cameras. Others have waited over a year just to hear that the police have identified the wrong person.

A range of witnesses made clear to MSPs that the Football Act has completely broken down trust between fans and the police and created an unhealthy atmosphere at grounds. Instead of stopping behaviour, it has just made people adopt tactics to avoid police.

For too long, clubs have been able to get away without taking enough responsibility for what goes on within their stands.

If the Act was designed to tackle sectarianism, then it has completely failed. There is nothing to show for any decline in sectarian behaviour since the Act’s introduction. While the Act has been shamelessly defended by government ministers, the funding for anti-sectarianism initiatives has declined, as has the number of projects running to tackle bigotry. The Act has acted as a smokescreen for SNP politicians to hide behind, as the government has failed to govern and take Scotland’s problem with sectarianism seriously.

If the Act is repealed, it is not the end goal. Football clubs must come together with supporters’ groups and police. For too long, clubs have been able to get away without taking enough responsibility for what goes on within their stands.

The Scottish Government also has to wake up to the impact of the cuts to anti-sectarianism initiatives over years. Funding must be reviewed and increased so that genuinely meaningful projects can expand their role and start tackling the prejudices in communities.

There is also a great opportunity to strengthen the law on online communications. While this was stuck in at the end of the Football Act, it has barely been used by prosecutors, with only one case last year. The forthcoming review on hate crime legislation has the chance to pick this up, and I have set out to Lord Bracadale the case for tougher legislation to challenge new forms of abuse on social media.

The Football Act has been a failure. It is a failed piece of law. It has failed to tackle sectarianism. It shows a failure to respect football fans. And it has been a political failure by the SNP. Tomorrow’s vote to repeal is the first step in readdressing how the Scottish Government works to end hate crime and makes cheap law.

Picture courtesy of The Celtic Network

Look at how important CommonSpace has become, and how vital it is for the future #SupportAReporter