Appeal to Scottish Government: You got it wrong – Let it go and move on

For those of you who did not see the opinion piece written by FAC activist, Jeanette Findlay, about the introduction of the repeal bill, in yesterday’s (25/6/17) Sunday Herald, here it is in a slightly extended version:

The announcement on Thursday by James Kelly MSP that he had lodged his Private Members’ Bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, is the latest stage in the long-drawn out demise of this much-despised and dangerous piece of legislative folly. Backed by the results of the largest public consultation response ever received by the Scottish Parliament showing 71% support for repeal, Kelly hopes to guide the Act to oblivion before the end of 2017.
The Offensive Behaviour Act, known universally by football supporters as The Act (the words usually spat out in disgust), was introduced in 2012. It was introduced, as is often stated, following a bad-tempered game between Celtic FC and Rangers FC in March 2011 at which the managers had a bit of a ‘set to’.

While this is undoubtedly true in a chronological sense, there is no causal relationship here. The idea that this not uncommon scene was sufficient justification for a bespoke piece of legislation is frankly ludicrous. Neither was the Act, which has impacted calamitously on the lives of thousands of football supporters (or as they are sometimes known, citizens), introduced to deal with a documented problem in Scottish football. The Scottish Government’s own statistics make it clear that that the rate of offending of any kind which takes place in football stadia was, and is, miniscule. I once amused myself by calculating the proportion of hate crimes which take place in a football ground and those taking place in society at large as a proportion of the relevant populations. I was not all that surprised to learn that Scottish citizens in general are 50 times more likely to commit hate crimes than those who, for the purposes of the data, are designated as football supporters. Indeed, I have often thought that many people are far more likely to be at risk in their own livingrooms than at any football ground that I have attended.

The true explanation for the introduction of this legislation lies much more in timing (coming, as it did, in the run-up to the 2011 election and two weeks after former First Minister Jack McConnell baited the then FM, Alex Salmond, about the issue of sectarianism); budget cuts (in response to which the newly appointed Chief Constable of Strathclyde Police, Stephen House, strategically and successfully targeted the Government’s anti-sectarian funding pot as well as the top job in the new Police Service of Scotland); and yes, personalities – House, Salmond and the then Justice Secretary, Kenny MacAskill would struggle to fit their combined egos into a detached villa in one of Edinburgh’s more affluent areas. The then Lord Advocate, Frank Mulholland, not only failed to offer wise legal counsel against the draft Bill, but he became its public face giving numerous bravura defences of the Bill/Act in press and television interviews. He even famously told STV’s Bernard Ponsonby that an ‘Irish republican identity’ could be unlawful under the proposed legislation! He was probably correct given the broad scope of the legislation which effectively made unlawful the offending in any way of any person, present or otherwise; aware of the action or not, in the context of a regulated football match ie in attendance, going to or from, during an overnight stop, in Scotland or outwith Scotland, in possession of a match ticket or not; or even while in a public house in which a game was being shown! The Act was and is the football equivalent of the old Not the Nine O’Clock News sketch in which racism was parodied by showing a police officer arresting a man for being in possession of thick lips and curly hair. Football fans became, by dint of simply being football fans, potential criminals.

Fans responded by forming a campaign, Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC), as soon as the idea was first mooted. The basis of our argument is that this legislation was poorly-drafted, unnecessary, illiberal and discriminatory, in that it could, and did, disproportionately target young (working class) men.

In the language of the National 5 Modern Studies syllabus – in which FAC has appeared for some years – we are an ‘outsider’ pressure group. This is, as I understand it, a function of our relationship with the government. Outsider pressure groups are those which are not ‘consulted by the government’. Given the repeated claim by spokespersons for the Scottish Government that the Act is there to protect football fans and to ensure that we can enjoy attending games in a suitable environment, you would think that our views on the Act would have been solicited by the government. But no, as even 14-year-old Scottish schoolchildren know, we are defined as being ‘not consulted’ and instead have had to rely on building support among the public. Luckily for us then, that the Scottish public, when properly consulted, agree in the overwhelming majority that the Act should go. They are joined by ‘insider’ groups such as the Law Society of Scotland, Liberty UK, the black and ethnic minority organisation BEMIS, anti-sectarian group Nil by Mouth, academics, children’s organisations and … well, every part of civic society except the Scottish Government and the Police Service of Scotland. I would imagine that even the latter must, by now, be wishing they had kept well away, given the near-irreparable damage that the Act has caused to the relationship between young football supporters and the police.

The consequences of the Act have been catastrophic for many people. Young people have lost out on jobs and promotions because of prosecution, far less conviction; some young trainee teachers and health service and other professionals have had to face the prospect of losing their entire careers before they had even started, for the same reason. For many, the fact that they were ultimately found Not Guilty (The Act has a very low conviction rate) did not mitigate the damage caused to them or the stress and anxiety which they and their families suffered. For every week that this Act remains on the statute book, more young people will suffer the same. In that context, it is disappointing that our Government, who are strong believers in the ‘will of the people’ and the ‘will of Parliament’, are still digging their heels in and refusing to accept the will of both people and parliament.

This Act will go – making history as it does as the first piece of legislation enacted by the Scottish Parliament to be repealed. In the words of James Kelly, the ‘parliamentary arithmetic’ makes that almost certain. As ‘outsiders’ we don’t, by definition, expect to be listened to by the Scottish Government but, just in case they are listening, I say this: the least you can do now is to allow the process to be completed without undue hindrance. You got it wrong. Let it go and move on.



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