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New bill to tackle sectarianism in Scottish football

Fri 17th Jun 2011 | Football Governance

The Scottish government has published its proposals for legislation to tackle sectarianism related to football, including tough new prison terms.

The bill aims to stamp out abusive behaviour from football fans whether they are watching matches in a stadium, in the pub or commenting online.

It would raise the maximum jail term from six months to five years.

But the legal profession and Holyrood's justice committee raised fears the laws were being rushed through too quickly.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill, which could be passed by 30 June and in place for the start of the football season in July, aims to tackle disorder around football matches and clamp down on internet hate postings.

The draft legislation includes two new offences.

The first relates to stirring up religious hatred at or around football matches in a way likely to cause public disorder.

It will also apply to pubs which are showing the games on television.

The second addresses the use of new technology to air old prejudices.

It bans communications anywhere, including on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which involve a threat or incitement to stir up religious hatred.

The new legislation comes in the wake of several high-profile football-related incidents, including the recent appearance of two men in court, after suspected bombs were sent to Celtic manager Neil Lennon and two other high-profile supporters of the club, in March.

However, justice committee convener and SNP MSP Christine Grahame said the timescale for passing the bill meant it may not get the proper parliamentary scrutiny.

She called on the Scottish government to insert a "sunset clause" into the legislation, requiring MSPs to revisit it at a later stage.

Her concerns were echoed by the committee's deputy convener, Labour MSP James Kelly, who said: "We look forward to working constructively with the Scottish government to ensure the new laws are in place as quickly as possible, but, if we rush this legislation through at breakneck speed without proper scrutiny, there is a real danger that we will get something wrong."

Bill McVicar, of The Law Society of Scotland, expressed similar concern, saying time must be made for proper consultation and scrutiny.

He said: "Without this consultation there is the risk that the legislation could be passed which either does not meet its objective or is inconsistent with existing law, making it unworkable.

"It could also result in legislation that is open to successful challenge."

And the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, The Right Rev David Arnott, said he was "nervous" about the plan to see the bill approved by 30 June.

"Whilst we are not against the ideas in this bill, we remain unconvinced of the wisdom of this approach," he said.

"The speed at which it is being rushed through means it appears to lack scrutiny and clarity.

"The government is rightly asking for support from across civic Scotland, but is not giving civic Scotland much time to make sure they are happy with the content."

Scotland's community safety minister, Roseanna Cunningham, said the bill was the beginning and not the end of the fight against sectarianism.

"We felt as a government that we had to move fast while we dealt with the broader problem right throughout society," she said.

"Of course, there is a great deal more work that needs to be done right across society in order for us to tackle the bigger problem which is endemic across Scotland."

The minister warned: "There is no pot of fairy dust - I cannot sprinkle Scotland and have it change overnight, much as I would wish that to be the case.

"But what do have, as a society, to do is to address it, stop tolerating it - I think that has been one of the problems in Scotland.

"It shames us and it shames us in the eyes of the world and we have begun to see that and understand that and it is time we really began to tackle it."

Rangers and Celtic football clubs welcomed the bill.

Strathclyde Police assistant chief constable Campbell Corrigan also backed the legislation, but warned: "You do not solve a problem like this by arresting your way through it.

"In fact, arresting people should be a last resort - we should be doing everything we possibly can to eliminate the problem itself, not just relying on police officers and the courts to, hopefully, make it go away."

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