fans could be arrested for singing “offensive or sectarian” songs at
football games within weeks, after a new hardline package of measures
was passed by MSPs at Holyrood yesterday.
The tough new
legislation has led to suggestions that fans could face prosecution for
singing the national anthem or crossing themselves. It was introduced
in the aftermath of the “shame game” between Rangers and Celtic last
season and the parcel bombs sent through the post to high-profile
Last night the SNP
government was accused of using its substantial majority to
“steamroller” through the Offensive Behaviour at Football and
Threatening Communication Scotland Bill, despite widespread concerns
from opposition parties and bodies outside Holyrood.
But the measures are
backed by the police and prosecution chiefs, who argue that they are
needed to address a gap in the law.
The bill is now
expected to complete its third stage reading by parliament in
mid-December and should become law by mid-January.
Ministers rejected a
series of opposition amendments aimed at refining the laws yesterday.
Patrick Harvie, the
leader of the Green Party, claimed the SNP has forced the measures
through parliament, ignoring a growing chorus of objections. This
prompted him to claim that the measures had been “steam- rollered”
“I’m still not
convinced that this bill can be fixed – its flaws are too deep,” Mr
Harvie said yesterday.
stubbornly determined to force it through in the teeth of consistent
and reasoned opposition from all quarters, inside and outside
parliament,” he said yesterday.
MSPs agreed to insert
a new freedom of expression clause into the new laws to allay wider
concerns as the bill passed its second parliamentary stage yesterday.
It has a final hurdle
to pass at Holyrood, which is expected to be a formality.
The new crackdown has
been mired in controversy, largely generated by confusion surrounding
the nature of the behaviour that could now become illegal.
First Minister Alex
Salmond has already delayed its implementation in an effort to find a
broad consensus, but this is now in tatters.
safety minister Roseanna Cunningham appeared to tell MSPs on Holyrood’s
justice committee that fans who cross themselves or sing the national
anthem could face arrest if they were behaving in a way that could be
threatening or offensive or incite public disorder.
Labour has refused to
lodge any amendments. Party justice spokesman James Kelly yesterday
called for the legislation to be ditched.
He said: “As it
currently stands, we do not believe it is fit for purpose and
parliament should not be asked to pass bad law.
“We want the SNP to
withdraw this bill and take more time to discuss the problems of
sectarian behaviour with all interested parties, including the
churches, football organisations and other groups.”
The freedom of
expression clause agreed yesterday covers communications, such as
messages sent over the internet, which may contain insults or abuse of
religious beliefs. But it does not cover online messages which are
threatening or likely to cause public disorder.
Neither does it apply
to sectarian or threatening behaviour at and around football matches.
During an earlier
discussion of the legislation, Ms Cunningham said: “Banter and
passionate support for football teams is the lifeblood of football.
Sectarianism and other expressions of hate are not.
“They poison football
and all they touch and this government is taking decisive action to
tackle it, giving the police and prosecutors the extra tools they need
by filling clear gaps in the current law, as outlined by the Lord
majority of all fans – who are the vast majority – have nothing to fear
from a bill which will make Scottish football and society better.”
The SNP proposes two
new offences through the bill.
The first offence
targets sectarian and threatening behaviour at and around football
matches which is deemed likely to cause public disorder.
The second offence
relates to threats or serious harm which are intended to stir up
religious hatred on the internet or other communications.
Those convicted under
the legislation could spend up to five years in prison and be banned
for life from football grounds.
The measures were
introduced in the aftermath of the so-called “shame game” at Parkhead
in March, which saw Rangers’ assistant manager Ally McCoist – now the
club manager – and and Celtic boss Neil Lennon square up on the
touchline after the match.
Three Rangers players
were also sent off in the match, which resulted in a summit hosted by
Alex Salmond at St Andrew’s House, bringing together football and
prosecution authorities to debate ways to tackle the issue.
The following month,
parcel bombs were sent to Lennon and two high-profile fans of the
Parkhead club, the advocate Paul McBride and former Holyrood presiding
officer Trish Godman.
Another change made
by the committee yesterday widens part of the bill to include people
not necessarily travelling to a football match.
Ministers are to
consider an amendment surrounding the definition of “offensive
behaviour” to include expressions of support for organisations listed
in the Terrorism Act.
Lib Dem justice
spokeswoman Alison McInnes tried to oppose a government amendment which
allows Parliament to consider changing the bill in future. She said it
gave ministers too much power, despite assurances from Ms Cunningham
that no changes would be made without consultation.
Ms McInnes later
said: “This is simply more evidence of the act-now-think-later approach
that the government have taken in bulldozing this bill through