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22 December 2011

Scottish government passes sectarianism in football Bill

Scottish government passes sectarianism in football Bill

The Scottish government has passed its Bill to tackle sectarianism within Scottish football. In the end its passage was far from the harmonious consensus they had once hoped for. MSPs approved the Bill by 64 votes to 57 among scenes of protesters being removed from the public gallery. 

The Bill has two main purposes. Firstly to criminalise offensive behaviour likely to provoke public disorder, such as chanting; and secondly creating an offence concerning the sending of threatening communications which are likely to incite religious hatred. Successful prosecution will result in a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment plus an unlimited fine - a dramatic increase from six months for breach of the peace. 

Back in June, when the Bill was originally introduced, the government tried to push it through as emergency legislation in time for the start of the Scottish football season. Fortunately, through the intervention of many groups and organisations, the government decided to delay the passage of the Bill by six months. First Minister Alex Salmond said that "by making available the timetable for fuller consideration, we will be able to carry the Parliament unanimously… on this issue above all, I want consensus". 

As the final votes were cast there was little doubt the government had lost the support of all the other parties and was being widely criticised for pushing through a "deeply flawed" piece of legislation. Despite moves to negate the opposition, through various amendments and concessions, the SNP had to rely on its majority to push the legislation through its final stages and so create the first Act of the present Parliament.  

Many opposed the Bill on grounds that it would ultimately do very little to tackle the endemic causes of sectarianism. A joint statement by opposition MSPs after the vote reaffirmed their determination to stamp out sectarianism but said: "The SNP has used its majority to force through a bad law that risks doing more harm than good. It sets a worrying precedent for this Parliament." 

Throughout the extended legislative process the government tried to maintain cross- party support. For example, the Scottish government minister Rosanna Cunningham announced that £3 million a year would be devoted to "tackling the root causes of sectarianism" through schools, community initiatives and other methods. They also moved to appease deep concerns expressed by many - including Christian denominations and organisations - that the Bill could impinge upon free speech. The government introduced a free speech clause which not only protects the "right to discuss and criticise religion" but also "an individual's right to try to convert people to their religion or religious beliefs". They also introduced a 'sunset clause' so that the Bill will be reviewed by the Parliament in the future. None of these were enough. Whether primarily driven by political motives, the opposition parties ultimately declared that the Bill was irremediable.  

In the end it did not matter. Despite the strong opposition, the government's majority in the Parliament was enough to pass the Bill. It is important that this does not set a precedent. The SNP have a good track record of working and negotiating with the opposition parties after four years as a minority government. They should do all they can to maintain this, even with a majority.