The bid to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act is being countered by SNP MSPs in the the Scottish Parliament. This is Rona Mackay MSP’s speech against the repeal.
Today is the culmination of many hours of evidence taking, report reading and outreach visits that took place for stage 1 of the bill. I, too, thank the clerks for all their hard work and organisation—as always, it was first class. I also thank the many witnesses who took the time to give evidence to the Justice Committee.
Clearly, this is a very contentious issue, which has roused passionate opposition among some football fans, and I respect that. Having been born in Glasgow and having grown up in the west of Scotland, I have always been aware of the poisonous sectarian divides that have historically been the scourge of Scotland. In 2005, the then Labour First Minister Jack McConnell said:
“For far too long bigoted sectarian behaviour has been a scar on Scottish life … Bigoted sectarian attitudes have no place in 21st-century Scotland.”
He was not saying that sectarian attitudes are on display only at football matches, but no one—not even our many passionate witnesses—could deny that sectarian behaviour did and does take place at football matches. I was at an old firm match last year as part of a Justice Committee evidence-taking visit and heard it for myself.
George Adam was clear on that point: the act has failed. BEMIS, which was formerly known as the black and ethnic minority infrastructure in Scotland group, has said that the act fails to tackle hate crime. Does the member support both those views?
The act acknowledges that we have a huge problem and to repeal it would send out entirely the wrong message.
One of the recommendations in the stage 1 report is that the Scottish Government should consider a discussion about how we define sectarianism, should the bill progress to stage 2.
Like my colleagues, I believe that the act is by no means perfect. However, for several reasons, I do not believe that outright repeal, with nothing to replace it, is the answer. The bill could be amended to address the issues in section 1, which most repeal supporters object to. Of course, it would be for the Government to construct amendments, but perhaps the act could be extended to cover religious marches or gatherings where sectarian behaviour sometimes occurs, or sectarian behaviour happening at other events, as described by Mary Fee. With careful consideration of the objections received, I am confident that a compromise could be achieved to avoid total repeal.
Will the member take an intervention?
I want to make a bit of progress.
I listened to James Kelly on television last night saying that he would work with the Government and others on alternative proposals—I would hope that he could do that on amendments to the existing act.
My main reason for not supporting the total repeal of the act is that I believe that, as others have said, it will send out the wrong message to society. We have taken bold steps to show that Scotland is not living in the past and to repeal the act in its entirety would be a retrograde step.
Furthermore, and crucially, the Justice Committee heard heartfelt evidence from Stonewall Scotland, Victim Support Scotland, the Equality Network, the Scottish Council of Jewish Communities, churches and the Scottish Women’s Convention that they did not support repeal, because the act comforted them and gave them a feeling of safety. We cannot ignore evidence from such respected bodies.
We all know that the majority of football fans go to a match to watch the game and cheer on their team, so the act does not really concern them. I have asked friends who I know attend football matches regularly and all, bar one, were indifferent to the existence of the act. It is a vocal minority that opposes the act, and it is their right to do so.
We have heard a lot about section 6 of the 2012 act, which is extremely important. There would be a gap in the law if that section was thrown out as a result of the bill. My colleague Mairi Gougeon outlined examples of that. Of course, there were divided opinions on that during evidence taking, but, again, the perception of throwing out an act that condemns threatening communications would send out a problematic message from this Parliament.
In the committee’s questionnaire to secondary schools, almost 66 per cent of pupils said that they had experienced online offensive behaviour. That is a critical problem today.
If the principles of the bill are agreed to, I hope that, as has been said by the minister and others, there will be enough time to plug the holes in legislation that would occur following repeal of the act.
I urge Parliament not to kill the 2012 act but to amend it to send out the strong message that Scotland has moved on and intolerant attitudes have been consigned to history.