Is it time to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act? [Update]

The Justice Committee is currently taking evidence on the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Repeal) (Scotland) Bill.

Various opponents of the law say it is written poorly and targets football fans. The repeal bill is in its first stage after it was introduced by James Kelly MSP on 21st June 2017. The Committee is currently taking evidence from two panels: Panel 1 will take evidence from groups with an interest inequalities & human rights. Panel 2 will consist of witnesses from faith groups. Although ministers argued that opponents of the law have not put forward any realistic alternatives to reducing sectarianism in football and that repealing the bill would send the wrong message on offensive behaviour.

Colin Macfarlane (Director of Stonewall Scotland) urged MSP’s, “Don’t repeal the Act until there is something in its place.” Although Stonewall Scotland supported the bill, they believe there are implementation issues. Macfarlane said that it is time to review what is working and what is not. In its’ evidence to the committee, Stonewall declared that the Scottish government should conduct a review, with a focus on how the law is being applied and if necessary renewed so that it is “consistently” used to challenge different prejudiced behaviours.

The charges reported to the Procurator Fiscal under the Act since 2013 show there are consistently increased numbers each year, with 206 in 2014-15, 286 in 2015-16 and 377 in 2016-17, however, these numbers are still worrying as Sacro’s Tom Haplin says the low level of prosecution and referral is a concern.

Mr Macfarlane expressed worry, saying, “If it goes and there is nothing in its place that is our big worry.”

Sandy Riach from the Scottish Disabled Supporters’ Association agreed with Macfarlane by saying there needs to be something in place but more work needs to be done on this issue.

However, Danny Boyle from BEMIS seemed to be pushing for the repeal by saying there is a shared aspiration to tackle hate crime across the board, but “this piece of legislation is not achieving that.”

With all members of the board giving evidence agreeing there needs to be more work done to reduce hate crime in football, there is some friction with regards to whether the bill should be repealed and if there needs to be further legislation in place.

Updated at 13:47

As the Justice Committee continues to take evidence, Danny Boyle from Bemis revealed he used to work for the Irish Heritage Foundation and being a Roman Catholic, he says this makes him one of the most probable to be a victim under the Act. He goes on to say the Irish Heritage Foundation did not support the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Behaviour Act. He also states that education has a very important role to play in challenging hate crime but also states there is less hate crime in football than there is elsewhere.

Sandy Riach, from the Scottish Disabled Supporters’ Association, somewhat disagreed by saying a lot of people who go to football matches are scared, whether it be noise, chanting or foul language but agreed that education plays a vital role. He also said that disabled groups feel more protected because of the Act.

Tory MSP, Liam Kerr asked if sectarianism is a significant issue throughout Scottish football or if it is restricted to two clubs (Rangers and Celtic). Tom Haplin, from Safeguard Communities – Reducing Offending said that the referrals are not limited to two clubs, he goes on to say,

This is a Scottish societal issue.

Mr Boyle agreed with this by saying there is a fallacy that sectarianism is the responsibility of two clubs, and that only 12% of charges under the football act have been related to Old Firm matches.

In terms of online abuse, Mr Kelly, the member behind the repeal bill, says that there is a vast majority of cases that are not going through the Offensive Behaviour At Football and Threatening Behaviour Act but rather The Communications Act 2003.

With Danny Boyle citing various cases showing the inconsistencies in the interpretation of the term sectarianism making the Act incompatible with the Human Rights Act, there is agreement across the board that more work needs to be done. However, there is still differing opinions on plans to go forward in the future. The evidence given shows disagreement in terms of repealing the bill and the plans for making positive changes regarding hate crime in football reduction.

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