Sectarianism laws have not criminalised football fans, MSPs told

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Claims that controversial laws to tackle sectarianism have criminalised football fans have been rejected by the community safety minister.

Annabelle Ewing told Holyrood’s Justice Committee that the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act had targeted the “tiny minority” of people who cause problems at matches.

The committee is considering a bid by Labour’s James Kelly to repeal the Act, which has been widely criticised by fan organisations and others.

The legislation – which came into force in 2012 – criminalises behaviour which is ”threatening, hateful or otherwise offensive at a regulated football match including offensive singing or chanting”.

However, Mr Kelly said it has unfairly targeted football fans, causing division between police and supporters.

Ms Ewing told the committee it was clear there was an issue with sectarianism in the game when the legislation was passed.

About four million people attend football matches over the course of a season, with only 377 charges brought under the legislation in 2016/17, she added.

“Just because there are 377 charges and four million visits at the turnstile, that does not mean to say that this isn’t a problem that is corrosive and damaging to society,” she said.

“I find it difficult in that regard to get into the mind of somebody that is saying that this is criminalising all football fans, when the evidence patently shows that that’s not the case.”

She added: “This Act has dealt with those cases where the behaviour itself has attracted the attention, irrespective of club, of football strip, of affiliation, of any other issue … it is behaviour that has attracted the attention of the Act.

“That is the evidence that is before me and that is the evidence, indeed, that has been given to this committee.”

The minister added that while she did not think the legislation was deficient, she was open to constructive suggestions to amend it, but none have been brought forward.

She said: “My door has always been open to people coming to make constructive suggestions that are evidence-based. Not one person has sought to come to speak to me.”

Mr Kelly said: “The minister is out of touch with the everyday experience of fans.

“Evidence shows that football supporters want the Football Act repealed, a position backed by legal experts and equalities groups.

“Expert bodies have made clear that is unfair that there is legislation which targets just football fans and nobody else.”