Scottish Parliament votes in favour of Offensive Behaviour Act repeal

MSPS voted 65-61 in favour of repealing the controversial anti-bigotry law

THE SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT suffered a defeat on one of its flagship policies on Thursday afternoon when MSPs voted in favour of the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications at Football (Scotland) Act.

The vote was triggered by Labour MSP James Kelly’s Member’s Bill to repeal the act, which following its initial success, will now move on to examination at committee level before a final vote.

The act, first passed in 2011, which has faced considerable controversy from opposition parties, football fans and campaign groups, was intended to tackle the spectre of sectarianism and related activities prevalent in Scottish football, but has been accused of unfairly and illiberally criminalising football fans. Nevertheless, public support for the act remains relatively high.

In the debate preceding the vote, James Kelly said: “The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 has completely failed to tackle sectarianism. It is illiberal and unfairly targets football fans. It has been condemned by legal experts, human rights organisations and equality groups.

“The Scottish National Party Government must now produce a unified approach, working through Parliament, charities and education. It is time to scrap this discredited act.”

READ MORE: Evidence backing Offensive Behaviour Act branded “deception” as committee hearings draw to a close

Kelly, like many MSPs speaking in favour of the act’s repeal, acknowledged the ongoing problem of behaviour related to sectarianism in Scottish football, but argued: “We need a completely new approach. We need a unified approach—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.”

Responding to Kelly, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs Annabelle Ewing said: “The Scottish Government stands on the side of the vast majority of football fans who want to enjoy the game with friends and family in an atmosphere that is untainted by offensive, abusive or threatening behaviour.

“Sadly, we continue to see problematic behaviour at football matches. A persistent minority seem to think that it is their right to behave as they please with no regard for those around them or wider society.

“Equality groups have been very clear that they place great importance on the protection that the act offers them, and it is absolutely right that we look at constructive ways to ensure that support for repeal does not leave them feeling exposed and unprotected.

“We need to invest in education, and to support, rather than cut, anti-sectarian education programmes.” Labour MSP James Kelly

“If the bill is agreed to at stage 1, the Scottish Government will seek to ensure that there is a continuity of protection for minority communities.”

In his contribution to the debate, Conservative MSP Liam Kerr quoted the Scottish historian Tom Devine’s 2012 the act would go down in history “as the most illiberal and counterproductive act passed by our young Parliament to date.”

SNP MSP Rona Mackay expressed an openness to criticism of the act, while speaking against its repeal: “Like my colleagues, I believe that the act is by no means perfect. However, for several reasons, I do not believe that outright repeal, with nothing to replace it, is the answer.

“The bill could be amended to address the issues in section 1, which most repeal supporters object to. Of course, it would be for the Government to construct amendments, but perhaps the act could be extended to cover religious marches or gatherings where sectarian behaviour sometimes occurs.”

“There are many reasons to retain the 2012 act. It is supported by most people in Scotland: 83 per cent support legislation to tackle offensive behaviour at football and 80 per cent support the act directly.” SNP MSP Ben Macpherson

SNP MSP Ben Macpherson pointed out the widespread public support for the act, which has sometimes been contrasted with the focus placed upon it by opposition parties: “There are many reasons to retain the 2012 act. It is supported by most people in Scotland: 83 per cent support legislation to tackle offensive behaviour at football and 80 per cent support the act directly. Removal of section 6 would create a gap in the law.”

Labour MSP Neil Findlay also argued that his opposition to the act was not merely a partisan issue, saying: “I do not support the repeal of the act for opposition’s sake; it is about defending the rights of people who choose to go to watch a sport, but have their rights removed for doing so.”

Following the vote in favour of the act’s repeal, Annabelle Ewing said that it was “a sad day for Scotland.”

Fans Against Criminalisation, the grassroots campaign of football supporters founded in opposition to the act, welcomed the result of the vote, stating on Twitter: “A huge step forward on the road to repeal. We are now within touching distance,” they tweeted.

Picture courtesy of Fans Against Criminalisation

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