Shadow Scottish justice secretary James Kelly MSP explains why Scottish Labour is opposed to the SNP’s anti-sectarianism bill.
The issue of sectarianism in Scottish football was highlighted again this weekend, with arrest of Rangers goalkeeper Grant Adam on bigotry charges; James Kelly MSP (Labour, Rutherglen), the shadow justice minister in the Scottish Parliament, explains why the current anti-Sectarian legislation going through Holyrood, though right in spirit, is flawed in execution
Scottish Labour condemns sectarianism without fear or favour. I regret that some comments against those of us who have criticised the bill have characterised us as not supporting attempts to wipe sectarianism from Scottish society.
This is not the case; we have reached a genuine position and have difficulties with the bill.
There are three issues I believe are worth focusing on – the process that the government has followed; the problems that have arisen from the bill; and the way forward in tackling sectarianism.
The process: In the election’s aftermath, the government got itself into a place where it felt that something had to be done. When governments adopt the approach that they need to do something, they sometimes rush in, get their action wrong or mixed up and do not take people with them.
Back in June, we were told in private briefings that we needed the bill quickly because the clubs wanted it in time for the start of the football season.
However, when the clubs appeared before the justice committee, Rangers Football Club said that the first that it knew of the bill was from reading about it in the papers.
The Government told political parties that the clubs wanted the legislation, but it is on the record that the clubs told the justice committee that the first that they knew about the bill was when it was published.
When the minister for community safety and legal affairs came to the justice committee in June, she was perhaps badly prepared.
To be kind to her, that was in the rush to introduce legislation, but her comments at that meeting caused fear by appearing to suggest that making the sign of the cross or singing the national anthem might be caught under the bill. The minister’s comments caused consternation in the country and that undermined the bill’s credibility and was one of the main reasons why the timetable had to be extended.
The government botched the process and lost support in parliament and in the country.
The bill: The government claimed that the bill was because of gaps in existing legislation. However, during the summer, there have been convictions for sectarian singing, including on trains, and for inappropriate Facebook postings. That begs the question why the bill is needed when the current legislation is being used effectively.
There are clear problems of clarity in the bill. When I put questions about specific situations to the minister and the lord advocate in the justice committee, the answer was that it will be down to the police to decide. That is unfair and passes the buck on to police and prosecutors. How can you bring forward legislation where the minister in charge of the bill cannot be explain what would be an offence under the bill?
The Way Forward: The Scottish National Party Government has concentrated too much on football. The justice committee heard evidence that only 14 per cent of offences with religious aggravation occur in and around football stadiums. Sectarianism is much more complex, so it is wrong to focus simply on football.
The SFA, the SPL and the clubs could do more. There is no doubt that, if points could be deducted from clubs, supporters would be less likely to sing “The Billy Boys” or “The Boys of the Old Brigade”.
More needs to be done on education. I was interested to note in an answer to a parliamentary question that it is only within the past month that Roseanna Cunningham has had discussions with Mike Russell, the Education Secretary about how to take the issue forward in the education sector
We should also build on the good work of the churches, for example the ‘Building the Bridges’ project progressed by the Church of Scotland. In addition, there needs to be close work with organisations like ‘Nil by Mouth’ to get the anti-sectarianism message out in our communities.
In summary, the bill is not fit for purpose and the Government should to withdraw it, to think again and to build a consensus in Parliament and the country so that we can move forward as one to tackle the blight of sectarianism.
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• Sectarian Law will address “ugly element” within Scottish society – John Finnie MSP, November 3rd 2011
• Has racism returned to football? – Shamik Das, October 25th 2011
• The hate at the heart of the Orange Order – Kevin Meagher, September 15th 2011
• All eyes on Barcelona as racism rears its ugly head again – Shamik Das, May 3rd 2011
• Northern Ireland: Are the sectarian divides beginning to crumble? – Ed Jacobs, March 15th 2011