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21 July 2011

Tackling sectarianism

New anti-sectarian laws being pushed through the Scottish Parliament by the government were dramatically halted by First Minister Alex Salmond. While there is an unquestioning need for this "parasite" of Scottish culture to be tackled head-on, many were concerned that legislation was being rushed without proper scrutiny. The government u-turn will see the Bill delayed for six months.

Tackling sectarianism is a key agenda for Mr Salmond who had hoped that legislation would be passed before the football season begins at the end of July. A number of incidents over the last football season have increased its public profile and brought the issue right to the fore of the government's agenda.

The aim of the Bill is to provide increased powers for the police to tackle specific instances of sectarianism within Scottish football. It has previously been difficult to secure prosecutions for sectarian behaviour at football matches because of the inadequacy of prosecuting under common law as a breach of the peace. The Bill provides for two new criminal offences. The first criminalises offensive or threatening behaviour likely to provoke public disorder at football matches, covering seven different categories of discrimination (including race, sexual orientation, disability etc). Second, the Bill creates an offence concerning the sending of communications which contain threats of serious violence or which will incite religious hated. 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.

The government had made it clear that the Bill is just a "small first step" in a much wider strategy which has still to be developed. But many hoped that the Bill could be put in context of a broader strategy now and not at a later date. The Alliance, among other Christian groups, also expressed concern over the Bill's lack of clarity and direction and aspects of the Bill which could have unintended consequences, including infringing freedom of speech. Alliance member CARE, alongside the Christian Institute, took legal action against the Scottish government over concerns that the Bill went far beyond its intended remit. After the government u-turn they subsequently halted their court action.

Sectarianism is a deeply-rooted and complex issue within Scottish culture but which is regularly and most violently expressed in football. It is therefore appropriate that the focus of this Bill be entirely on Scottish football and the increase of police powers. While not trying to be a silver bullet, the Bill should be applauded if it provides another tool for the police to bring effective prosecution in quite unique situations - hence the support from Strathclyde Police. But the Bill, as it stands, is much broader than intended with powers which could be used outside of football and sectarianism. There is no free speech safeguard which has been included in similar types of legislation introduces in England and Wales. It is vital that these issues are raised in the now lengthened process of evidence gathering and scrutiny by the committee and the wider parliament. The Evangelical Alliance in Scotland hopes to be at the heart of this process.