With the Offensive Behaviour in Football Bill just over one year old, Roseanna Cunningham MSP, Minister for Community Safety and Legal Affairs; wrote for Scotzine to defend the bill, claiming that Scotland wanted the bill.
Scotland’s beautiful game has for too long been marred by a small minority of fans who think it is acceptable to use each match-day as an opportunity for peddling abuse and engaging in other offensive behaviour.
All too often their actions have spoiled the match and pre-match experience for real supporters, including family groups who want to be able to enjoy the game without having to put up with the kind of behaviour and songs which should be relegated to the history books. Indeed, a poll carried out in 2011 by TNS-BMRB showed that more than 90 per cent of Scots backed stronger action to tackle sectarianism and offensive behaviour associated with football.
We listened to those concerns and introduced further measures through the Offensive Behaviour Act to give the police and prosecutors the additional powers they were requesting, to crackdown on the singing of sectarian songs and other sectarian abuse at and around football matches, as well as those using technology such as the internet and email to peddle hatred and threats. That new legislation created two new distinct offences, punishable through a range of penalties.
The first offence targets any offensive and threatening behaviour expressed at and around football matches which is likely to cause public disorder, while the second offence relates to communicating threats of serious harm or which are intended to stir up religious hatred on the internet or other communications.
The message to fans was and remains clear – by all means enjoy the banter at the match and continue to be passionate about supporting your football team, but sectarianism and other expressions of hate are not acceptable and must cease, otherwise, you will face the full force of the law. We have now reached the one year anniversary since those new provisions have come into force and so far, the evidence shows that the new Act is working well.
Figures out last week show that there were 268 charges of ‘offensive behaviour at regulated football matches’ in the first full financial year of the act. The majority of charges were at football stadia and the conviction rate for the first 13 months of the act was 68 per cent. This is broadly comparable with the conviction rate for racially aggravated offences.
As previously pledged we will continue to monitor and review the impact of this new legislation to ensure that it is working as we intended. To support this work, we are currently commissioning an independent evaluation of the new law.
Once completed, this research will provide a full analysis – for us, Parliament and the public, of the impact and effectiveness of the new legislation, while also examining the impact which it has had on fans’ attitudes and behaviour more generally.
The police can of course continue to make use of other measures – football banning orders to tackle broader football related disorder, enabling ill-behaved fans to be banned from attending matches for up to 10 years. FBOs, which were first introduced in Scotland in September 2006, can be imposed in two ways – either by a court when someone is convicted of a football related offence, in addition to or instead of any other sentence handed down, or alternatively the police can make an application for an FBO.
Those who receive one are typically banned from attending every football ground in the UK, as well as matches involving the home nations’ national teams. However they can also be extended to include overseas matches and additional restrictions may also be imposed to prevent entry to areas around football grounds on match days.
An evaluation of FBO, carried out by the Scottish Government, was published in July 2011 and showed that the number of successful FBO applications has increased in Scotland and that 240 had been issued between their introduction in 2006 and the start of the current football season. The research also showed that many FBOs were targeted at people with multiple convictions for football-related violence, with the report noting a broad consensus with regard to their effectiveness against such individuals.
The Football Co-ordination Unit for Scotland, responsible for administering FBOs, is tasked with ensuring that information on these bans is shared with football clubs and that they work closely with local police across Scotland and the UK to ensure the worst offenders are identified and FBOs are rigorously enforced. The measure is clear – FBOs can and will continue to be used to deter hooligans from spoiling games for the well-behaved majority.
Finally, I want close by stating that the Scottish Government is under no illusion that legislation alone will be sufficient to tackle such a deep-seated and long-standing problem as sectarianism. While, it can be most noticeable in and around football games, sectarian hatred goes far beyond a match day and unfortunately has blighted broader Scottish society for hundreds of years.
That’s why we are investing more than £9m over three years to develop and deliver a range of projects to tackle this in all walks of life, in every area of Scotland. We believe that the involvement of communities in tackling the sectarianism that they experience is central to building the Scotland that we all want to see – a country where everyone can live and raise their family in peace and free from bigotry, discrimination or intimidation. By working with community organisations we will develop the right solutions to the sectarian problems that each community is experiencing, and will take significant steps to eradicating its scourge.