Are anti-sectarian powers being misused?

Scotland is well known for its love of ‘the beautiful game’ however every year thousands of games end with scenes of violence and police having little or no way of preventing it, however last year the Scottish government created the ‘Offensive Behaviour at Football Act’ in order to try and tackle the sectarianism which leads to violence. Many praised the Scottish government for its attempts however others ask the question how much has the legislation done for football and its fans? There is proof that this legislation doesn’t protect those it should. The fans. They believe after only a year of being put in place the legislation should be shown the red card. To add insult to injury the police force has been accused of abusing the legislation to use fans as an example to others. “Harassed.” “Victimised.” “Criminalised.” Just some of the words fans used to describe how they felt following the police forces’ actions towards them.
The recently introduced Offensive Behaviour at Football legislation has been accused of undermining the human rights of football fans due to cases of supporters being put under surveillance with little evidence against their name and in extreme cases detectives questioning fans at airports coming home from a holiday. This would be seen as in the interest of the public had many of these supporters been found guilty however it is claimed that most cases are either dropped or unable to prove, which leaves the question, what does this do for Scotland? Paul Kavanagh, director of legal firm Gildeas stated,
“While going on holiday with their families, people who have been recognised at football matches by the police are stopped routinely at Glasgow Airport.”
He then went on to say, “It is correct for people who sing sectarian songs or shout sectarian insults to be arrested and processed through the courts. However, what about a person displaying a banner that is not sectarian in any way! Simply walking to a football match and being told to provide his name and address to police for no apparent reason? Or walking down the street with his family and being spoken to by the police as they recognised him at a football match? Where is their right to privacy? Where is the crime?”
Highlighting that the misuse of the police powers is so high that lawyers and law firms are seeing a difference in their cases within only one year. Many feel that this does little for the Scottish population other than waste the time of the police, lawyers and football fans who in fact raise huge income for the Scottish economy.
However it has been noted that there is a rather large loophole in the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act in that football related bigotry did not apply to England matches in last summer’s European Championships. This allowed Scottish fans to chant abuse at the English as they were not protected by this law making them an easy target for the Scottish fans. The Euros which were held in Poland and Ukraine in July were not covered by the act as it only relates to matches played within Scotland or involving Scottish teams abroad.
English fans have previously been victims of verbal and often physical violence while watching games in pubs proving that the anti-bigotry law that was meant to protect fans from all kinds of “offensive” behaviour does not work. Labour’s community safety spokeswoman Jenny Marra stated,
“Bigotry is bigotry- it doesn’t matter where the game is played or who is playing.” She went on to say, “Whether we like it or not, anti-English racism remains a problem for Scotland and it is time the SNP faced up to it. They must clarify the law and, if appropriate, amend the legislation.” However The Crown Office replied to this saying,
“There are other criminal provisions which can be utilised to cover disorderly conduct.” As did the Scottish Government saying,
“Anyone engaging in threatening or offensive behaviour will be dealt with by the full force of the law.” This shows that without this law those who act in a bigoted or offensive manner are still dealt with, which leads to the question, where does this law fit in society?
Mr MacAskill has pledged £9million over the next three years “on a range of projects to tackle sectarianism” however 91% of Scots supported tougher action to tackle the problem of sectarianism within Scotland. In November, Lord Advocate Frank Mullholland QC said that 89% of cases reported under the Offensive Behaviour and Threatening Communications Act have been prosecuted, adding that there is an 83% conviction rate proving the effectiveness of the act throughout Scotland. Mr MacAskill has also shown that it is not only the population of Scotland who have asked for this legislation by stating,
“This legislation was introduced in response to Scotland’s police and prosecutors, who told us they needed greater powers to take a hard line on sectarianism associated with football.” The government are so positive the legislation has worked that they have commissioned an independent evaluation of the legislation by six different research organisations; these are being collated and are set to be published at the end of the football season in attempts to prove the legislation worth the money put into it.
There are many cases of police using a person as an example to others; a seventeen year old was kept in a police cell and then a young offenders institute for almost a week after being refused bail before receiving only a banning order. Another had their taxi driver’s license opposed by the police who alleged that he was the subject of an application for a Football Banning Order however the fan received no ban and had no idea of the application the police were putting forward against him. Connor McGhie, an eighteen year old Rangers fan, received three months jail time for chanting sectarian abuse at an Inverness game, his case has been brought to light as the legislation “cracking a nut.” This begs the question, are these fans being used as examples to others? And is the sentencing too harsh for such a miniature crime? A Glasgow based advocate Owen Mullan stated,
“Fans of various clubs can’t understand why the police follow them as they make their way to football grounds, why they are filmed as they watch football, and why they are continuously searched and required to provide their details to the police.” Proving that there are innocent fans being hugely affected by this law which could put them off going to football games lowering the income to the teams and lowering the standard of the type of fan going to these games. However it has been proven that police dislike the initiative just as much as fans as a police source said surveillance gave police squads “something to do” and that “intelligence gathering isn’t just about a specific crime. It’s also for databases.” The legislation is obviously affecting both football fans and police in a negative way as it is dissuading fans from the matches, lowering the income for the team and lowering the enjoyment of the game, and it is creating a lazy and harassing police force.
In conclusion, the laws and the expense of this initiative could be seen as a waste of public money as many feel that football clubs could do more in the way of anti sectarian propaganda. It also penalises innocent and true football fans and stereotypes the majority of fans from certain clubs, it has also been proven that it is only a minority of fans who take part in these acts of offensive behaviour. In a world facing a recession the use of £9million could be better spent on other initiatives within the government remit, however many other sectors within the government are being cut and so can Scotland really afford this initiative aimed at a small minority of its citizens?

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