The Offensive Behaviour at Football Act – Does it work?

by Emma Flood Curated Media on May 18, 2016

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act 2012 was introduced by the Scottish Government in a bid to wipe out sectarianism and other football-related offences in Scotland. The Act criminalises behaviour which is threatening, hateful or offensive in any way at a regulated football match, the Act includes behaviour such as offensive singing or chanting. However, the law has been met with much criticism, with those opposed arguing that the law already equipped the authorities to adequately deal with such offences and that the Act simply punished law-abiding football fans. Now that the SNP no longer have a majority, opposing parties have outlined that they will work together to have the law repealed, with the support of the Fans Against Criminalisation campaign group which claims that the law has eroded trust between police and football fans. But has the law been successful? Has it contributed anything to tackling football violence and sectarianism? This post looks at the successes and failures of the act in targeting sectarianism in Scotland.

The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act 2012

The Scottish Government have stated that the act has delivered ‘real improvements’ since it was introduced in 2012, believing that the law has helped kerb Scotland’s problem with sectarianism. It said in a recent statement:

“Statistics show a steady decline in offences at stadiums and a YouGov poll shows 80 percent of Scots support the Act.

“The Act sends out a clear message that Scotland will not tolerate any form of prejudice, discrimination or hate crime, and it gives police and prosecutors an additional tool to tackle this behaviour.

“Any move to repeal the Act at this time would send entirely the wrong signal and would undermine progress in driving all forms of prejudice from the game.”

However, only a very small number of convictions have been made under the Act with only 231 convictions since introduction in 2012 according to Scottish Government figures. This is in comparison to more than 15,000 convictions of the of breach of the peace, the category into which the convictions fall. These figures highlight that in fact the police may already be equipped under the law to tackle football violence and other types of anti-social behaviour associated with both football and sectarianism.

The End of the Act?

Labour MSP James Kelly has announced plans to introduce a Member’s Bill to repeal the act. He said:

“The place to tackle sectarianism is in our classrooms and communities. Instead, the SNP passed a law based on chasing headlines rather than finding solutions and set us back in the fight to end sectarianism in Scotland.”

Kelly has widespread support from other parties in the Scottish Parliament, and with the end of the SNP majority, it is looking likely that the Act will be repealed. The Liberal democrats have also put forward their opinion that the Act should be scrapped, criticising the SNP for pushing the act through. Conservatives and the Greens also support repealing the Act.

“After repeal, the Scottish government should instead take forward the recommendations of the Independent Advisory Group on Tackling Sectarianism.”

Critics believe that those being caught by the act are normally law-abiding supporters who are looking to enjoy football matches and the atmosphere without increased police suspicion, and concern about what kind of singing and chanting would be deemed ‘offensive’ under the act. Scottish Labour’s justice spokeswoman, Elaine Murray highlights that the party would seek to tackle sectarianism in Scotland on a wider scale – outside of 90 minutes of football.

The party would look to use the education system, community groups and football clubs themselves to address the issue.

It is looking highly likely that the Act will meet its end. However, it will be interesting to see if any measures are brought in to more adequately target the problem of sectarianism and football related violence in Scotland.

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