Scottish Government defeated on football sectarianism law

Celtic and Rangers fans hold up banners. Picture: SNS

Celtic and Rangers fans hold up banners. Picture: SNS

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THE Scottish Government is under pressure to scrap its controversial law on football sectarianism after opposition parties united to call for its repeal.

Following a Tory-sponsored debate at Holyrood, MSPs voted 64-63 in favour of killing off the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act which became law in 2012.

The vote is not binding on ministers, but immediately afterwards, Labour’s James Kelly said the act was now “dead in the water” and called on the SNP to bring forward immediate plans on how it would be repealed.

And Conservative justice spokesman Douglas Ross said: “The SNP can now make no mistake – the Scottish Parliament has voted to repeal this hated law.

“There’s nowhere for the Scottish Government to go, it has to scrap what was unpopular and ill-thought-out legislation.

“This is a historic moment for Holyrood – the days of the SNP railroading through this kind of thing are over.”

He said the legislation wrongly targeted football fans, most of whom were law-abiding, and did not even work on those who did cause problems. “I look forward to ministers now detailing the timetable for repealing this law.”

However, the government continued to defend the law.

Community Safety Minister Annabelle Ewing said: “This vote threatens to set us back as a country in our efforts to effectively combat prejudice, hate crime and sectarianism and ultimately to drive such behaviour out of Scottish society.

“The result of the vote sends completely the wrong message about how serious parliament as a whole is about doing so – but the Scottish Government remains absolutely committed to that objective.”

She claimed there was strong public support for the legislation – one poll showed 80 per cent backed it – and repealing it would leave a “significant gap” in effectively prosecuting hate crime.

“Following today’s vote we will reflect on the debate and give full consideration to all of the issues raised.”

The law – which criminalised offensive and threatening behaviour, including sectarian behaviour, related to football matches and any communications containing threats or incitement to religious hatred – has been criticised by football clubs and many in the legal profession.

During the debate, Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said the Act was “flawed from the start”.

And Green MSP John Finnie said his party believed the Act “unnecessarily restricts freedom of expression and has not been the most effective way of addressing these concerns”.

The SNP said the other parties had not put forward any viable alternatives to tackle sectarianism. But opponents argued the police had enough powers under other existing legislation to deal with the problem.

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com