The next item of business is a statement by Paul Wheelhouse on the “Scottish Government Report on the operation of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012”. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement. There should therefore be no interventions or interruptions during it.
Last Friday, we published our “Scottish Government Report on the operation of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012”. In doing so, we have fulfilled the requirement in section 11 of the act for us to report on the operation of the offences in sections 1 and 6 by 1 August this year.
Since June 2013, researchers at the University of Stirling and ScotCen Social Research have been carrying out an extensive evaluation of the act, and they have heard evidence from a wide range of stakeholders including fans, match commanders, police, prosecutors and football club representatives. The resulting independent evaluation covers section 1 of the act, on offensive behaviour at regulated football matches, and it is one of the pieces of supporting evidence that is central to our report.
The second piece of evidence that our report is founded on is an evaluation of section 6 of the act, on threatening communications, which was produced by the Scottish Government’s justice analytical services division.
Although the act is a high-profile and important piece of legislation, it is by no means the only measure that the Government has deployed to tackle offensive behaviour and crimes that are associated with different forms of hatred. However, I hope to set out why I believe that the act is a tool that should remain available to the police and the courts. I will also set out where I believe there is scope for improving the implementation and operation of the act. I am keen to work with all partners to do that.
The basis for moving forward is the evaluation’s recommendations and suggested improvements in how the act is applied and used. However, I am keen to supplement that by hearing from those who have an interest in the legislation, who want to respond to the recommendations and who have ideas for improving operation of the act. Our on-going aim is to learn from the evidence and improve implementation.
The work that has been undertaken by the independent research team indicates that the majority of the people of Scotland, including football fans, have had enough of football being used as an outlet for offensive, bigoted and abusive behaviour. Scotland is moving on from the prejudices of the past, and I believe that a clear majority supports the sentiment that Scottish football needs to move with the times.
The evaluation shows that hateful and offensive activity has been a declining phenomenon at football matches in recent seasons since the act was introduced, in terms of the number of charges that have been reported to prosecutors by the police. Updated hate-crime figures that were published last Friday indicate that such activity has fallen even further than was reported in the evaluation, with offences under the act having fallen by 28 per cent since the first year of operation.
I whole-heartedly welcome the decline in offences under the act. That decline reflects opinion that we have observed through other work that we have been doing, in particular in relation to tackling sectarianism: the public tell us time and again that they are tired of the worn-out rhetoric of bigotry, which has no place in modern Scotland.
The act has some harsh critics. Since taking on responsibility for my portfolio, I have been keen to understand the basis for that opposition and to consider how legitimate concerns can be addressed in order to improve implementation and operation of the act.
The act was not created in a vacuum; it resulted from circumstances that simply could not be tolerated and which needed a strong policy response. Members may recall that during the 2010-11 football season we saw an unacceptable level of sectarianism on Facebook, on internet forums, in blogs and on other social media, and that we saw a number of high-profile figures being targeted with parcel bombs and death threats, alongside increased patterns of violence and disorder at some football matches. When Parliament legislates, it chooses to communicate important messages. In response to those events, the act stated that bigotry, prejudice and the celebration of loss of life and of terrorist activity are unacceptable.
There is no question but that the vast majority of football supporters are well behaved and simply wish to support their teams and enjoy the match-day experience. I acknowledge that good behaviour and self-policing where it occurs—I have seen it at work. That positive behaviour is absolutely central to creating the atmosphere of friendly rivalry that allows everyone to enjoy our national sport without feeling abused, threatened or intimidated.
It is therefore unsurprising that the evaluation highlights findings from surveys of supporters of Scottish football clubs that were conducted as part of the research and which show that a majority of football fans hold views that are broadly in line with the act’s objectives. Football is not in itself responsible for giving rise to sectarianism or other forms of hatred that exist in society—to suggest otherwise would be wrong—but it is, regrettably, a means by which such hatred, abusive behaviour or sectarianism can manifest themselves. For example, recent research from a Scottish social attitudes survey by ScotCen Social Research found that 88 per cent of people identified football as a contributing factor to sectarianism in Scotland, and that 55 per cent highlighted it as the main contributing factor to sectarianism in Scotland.
In developing their evaluation, the University of Stirling and ScotCen Social Research consulted a wide range of stakeholders. That included an online supporters survey at the end of the 2012-13 season and a further survey at the end of the 2013-14 season, which attracted a total of 4,130 responses. The surveys sought views about match-day experiences since the legislation came into force, and supporters from all 42 professional league clubs were involved. The strongest representations came from Celtic, Hearts and Rangers fans. The results, which were validated through focus group work, demonstrate that 90 per cent of respondents to the fan survey found songs that glorify or celebrate the loss of life or serious injury to be offensive; that 82 per cent found songs in support of terrorist organisations to be offensive; and that 75 per cent found songs, chants and shouting about people’s religious background or beliefs at football matches to be offensive.
We have never promoted the view that societal problems can be eradicated through legislation alone; they are complex problems that can be addressed only through a range of activities. That is why the act is part of our broader work to tackle abusive behaviour and why it has never been intended as a single fix. However, I recognise that there are areas in which improvements could be made. After all, the legislation is still new, and it is important that we consider where it is not working so effectively, and that we take the appropriate steps to address that.
For example, although policing at football matches is an operational matter for Police Scotland, the evaluation’s finding that the relationship between the police, football clubs and fans could be improved is acknowledged. I am keen to see that happen and to work with all parties on positive engagement and on improving levels of trust. I know from my discussions with Police Scotland that it shares that ambition.
I was delighted to be able to announce last Friday that I have extended the diversion from prosecution programme—which is run by Scotland’s leading organisation for reducing offending in communities, Sacro, as an alternative to prosecution. I know that that chimes with concerns that have been raised by football clubs and other groups, including fans against criminalisation. Sacro’s programme, which will cover all Scotland, will ensure that, when appropriate, people will be kept away from the criminal justice system and given appropriate alternative education programmes to make them understand the impact of their actions; to steer them away from getting caught in a downward spiral in the criminal justice system; and to give them opportunities to make positive life changes. Clearly, it would be desirable to change behaviour, where possible, rather than giving first time and low-tariff offenders a criminal record.
Another area that I will be looking into is the application of football banning orders, their effectiveness as an intervention and what improvements can be made to the procedures to ensure that they remain an effective tool for dealing with a wide range of negative behaviours that are associated with football. That will be done in conjunction with the Scottish Court Service and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service. A short-term banning order may be an appropriate alternative in some cases, and prosecutors may want to use those as an alternative disposal.
The Lord Advocate will be updating his guidelines on the act to ensure that prosecutors are aware of the diversionary programme and are able to use it in all suitable cases. He will also be highlighting precedents that have been established through case law in order to clarify interpretation of the act and to achieve a more consistent approach to its application.
As well as taking the actions that I have mentioned, I am keen to hear more from people who have been critical of the act, so that I can identify and understand the legitimate concerns that they may have, and how best to address them.
Clearly, actions must be evidence based. Therefore, I am also committed to monitoring the act’s operation and the effectiveness of Sacro’s diversion from prosecution programme.
Other issues are highlighted in the evaluations, such as that 60 per cent of fans perceive that they have not yet seen an improvement in behaviour; the act’s comparatively low usage; and the duration of court cases, which is a concern of fans’ representatives. The implications of all the findings must be fully considered and, where appropriate, acted on.
I am satisfied that the evaluation meets our commitment to report to Parliament on the act’s effectiveness, and that it presents a strong, diverse and representative set of views, reflected through a robust and independent evaluation process. We have a thorough and robust understanding of the act’s impact in its first two seasons of operation. I thank the University of Stirling and colleagues in the justice analytical services division for providing a good basis for further progress.
Tackling all forms of abusive behaviour, including abusive behaviour in and associated with football, is a Government priority. It is central to building an inclusive Scotland where all can live and raise their families in peace without fear of threats, abuse or prejudice. The act remains an important tool for helping us to achieve that goal.
Sectarianism and offensive behaviour are unacceptable no matter where or when they occur. Indeed, I am surprised and disappointed that it was not 100 per cent of those surveyed who found such behaviour unacceptable. The question is what to do about it.
The act is controversial, and not just with football fans. It has been criticised by sheriffs and other legal experts. Many have questioned whether most of the convictions under the act could have been obtained using the legislation that was in place before the act was passed. The act creates a culture of mistrust between football fans and the authorities, which is not helped by fans being arrested at home in controversial circumstances.
The research, while highlighting that football-related offences are down, concludes that that could possibly be attributed to other factors. Therefore, it is impossible to determine whether some or, indeed, any reductions are attributable directly to the act. The research does not make clear whether the act is effective. The minister is being disingenuous. A promise was made to review the legislation. This work should be the start of that review.
We all know that bigotry and intolerance are not confined to football matches. Will the minister commit to enhancing the investment in education? Will he commit to having a thorough review of the flawed legislation? We can do better than this. Scotland deserves effective action to tackle this age-old scourge.
I thank the minister for advance sight of his statement, the gist of which appears to be a reaffirmation of what we already knew about the attitudes to offensive behaviour at football matches and a broadly upbeat assessment of how the legislation is working in practice, in terms of the decline in the number of football-related charges. However, I point out that the report states that it is impossible to determine whether any of that reduction is attributable directly to the act. What is evident from the minister’s statement is that there is an emphasis not on continuing to make use of the act but, rather, on improving relationships, using diversion from prosecution, considering the use of banning orders and—crucially—looking at guidelines to clarify the interpretation of the act. Is it not simply time to repeal this ill-conceived legislation?
On the concerns that have been raised by the police, can the intensive use of police resources to implement the policy at the expense of policing more violent risk groups be justified? At the very least, can the minister cite any examples that the review looked at, specifically in terms of the prosecution process, that show how inadequate the act has been so far and why it is necessary to clarify its interpretation?
I will address the member’s final point first. I disagree with Margaret Mitchell. The offences that are being committed under the act have contributed to a wider situation in which people fear for their safety. More specifically, I recognise the debilitating effect of sectarianism and other hatred-based offences that are being committed in our society, which makes people’s day-to-day lives difficult.
The act makes a clear statement to the wider population that Scottish society in the 21st century does not support any form of discrimination or hatred that causes offence to people, such as that which has, in the past, led to acts of physical violence and abuse in parts of Scotland. I appreciate the points that Margaret Mitchell makes, but I believe that it was important for the Parliament to send a strong signal to the Scottish population that the problem needed to be tackled.
The YouGov survey indicated that 80 per cent of the public support the act specifically—that is not just support for legislation to tackle offensive behaviour, but specifically support for the act. There is strong support out there for the act.
I appreciate the concern about Police Scotland’s resources. The focus unit that was set up to improve the policing arrangements in and around football matches has been successful and has been welcomed by clubs and some supporters groups. The focus unit is working effectively to finesse and fine-tune the policing approach, but we stopped funding it as a stand-alone project at the end of 2012-13. Thereafter, the costs have been borne by Police Scotland, which believes that it is important to tackle the issue.
As I have mentioned, the Sacro programme, which will cover all of Scotland, will ensure that, when appropriate, people will be kept away from the criminal justice system and given appropriate alternative education programmes—that chimes with the point that Mr Henry made—to make them understand the real impact of their actions, to steer them away from getting caught in a downward spiral in the criminal justice system and to give them opportunities to make life changes.
As I mentioned in my statement, and as was recognised by Margaret Mitchell, the Lord Advocate will update his guidelines to ensure that it is clear when it is most appropriate to apply that programme.
First, I ask the minister to withdraw his claim that his views on the extension of diversion from prosecution chime with those of fans against criminalisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. He should not have made that claim. Fans against criminalisation see no succour in those who should not be facing prosecution in the first place being diverted away from any prosecution.
Secondly, what efforts has the Scottish Government made to follow up on its commitments on a further equality impact assessment to assess the impact that the legislation is having on people of different races and ethnicities? In particular, how has the Government engaged with Scotland’s multigenerational Irish community?
On Mr McMahon’s first point, I have had a full and frank discussion with fans against criminalisation about their views. It was very helpful. [Interruption.] I see Mr McMahon pointing—I am aware that members of fans against criminalisation are in the public gallery. Mr McMahon was not at that meeting, but we discussed with fans against criminalisation—[Interruption.] Perhaps I could carry on without gesticulations from Mr McMahon.
Fans against criminalisation and I had a full and frank discussion, and I am fully aware of the group’s criticisms of the act. I understand their perspective. However, we also discussed whether the group would be supportive of alternatives to prosecution. Members of the group certainly gave me the impression—I appreciate that Mr McMahon was not there—that they were supportive of that. The clue is in the name—“fans against criminalisation”. If we can avoid criminalising fans unnecessarily, I would hope that the proposed measure would be something that they would support.
On the other issue that Mr McMahon raised regarding the strength of links with the Irish community, I fully recognise that members of the Irish community in Scotland have a proud heritage, and I am entirely supportive of their promoting their heritage.
The courts have done work on this through case law, and we have to recognise that certain songs and acts can constitute an offence. That is for the courts to determine, not ministers, but there are clearly strong sentiments. I recognise the strong views of fans against criminalisation in that respect, but we will continue to have discussions with them about how we can improve the policing and implementation of the act.
I welcome the funding for the diversion from prosecution projects. The Government will know that I have raised concerns about the dangers of disproportionate criminalisation, particularly of young men. I welcome the step that the Government has taken.
What assessment has been made of how many people, particularly young people, might have been disproportionately criminalised as a result of the act? How many people does the minister envisage will benefit each year from the diversion from prosecution?
I will be happy to write to the member with some further detail about the underpinning of the financial figures that we have used for funding the programme, which will probably help to explain the estimates of the numbers involved.
I have had some informal discussions with Sacro, as have my officials, about the effect of the measures. We believe that they are highly effective, with a 100 per cent reduction in offending among those who have been going through the process.
I very much welcome Alison McInnes’s support for the measures, which I know she has herself espoused. I am very grateful for her warm words on the subject today. We will ensure that she gets the detail of the underpinning assumptions regarding the numbers of people going through the scheme.
I note from the report that the main victims of offensive behaviour—some 84 per cent—seem to have been Catholics, who have traditionally suffered from discrimination in Scotland. Does the minister therefore consider that the main beneficiaries of the act are likely to be Catholics and football supporters from a Catholic background?
The appalling murders in France following the publication of cartoons in the Charlie Hebdo magazine saw politicians from all parties declaring “Je suis Charlie” in defence of freedom of speech. At the same time, working-class football fans in this country are hauled before the courts for singing songs or wearing T-shirts that I and the minister may not like—
The act does not forbid freedom of speech in Scotland; it regulates behaviour within regulated football matches, including travel to and from those matches or situations that might prove inflammatory, such as a public bar where the match is being shown. We do not say that people are not entitled to hold such views; they are entitled to hold views, but they are not entitled to purvey them in a situation where that may cause offence or lead to violence or hatred.
At football grounds, there are two teams and two sets of fans—we must accept that a football ground will not contain a homogeneous group of people. The work that the University of Stirling did showed that 47 per cent of Celtic fans supported tackling offensive behaviour such as singing in support of terrorist organisations and of the loss of life. Those fans outnumbered the Celtic fans who were against tackling such things through legislation.
We must get this into perspective. The majority of fans support tackling offensive behaviour and support the act.
I accept that there are sensitivities around such issues, particularly with the Irish community in Scotland, which Mr McMahon mentioned. I am more than happy to ensure that all material on the evaluation of the act, the Government’s response to the report, the YouGov survey, and any material that we feel would be helpful will be sent to the assembly for it to deliberate on at its leisure. We strongly support the Irish community in Scotland. The act is about tackling behaviour that could lead to disorder.
I hope that the minister agrees that offensive behaviour is not exclusive to football fans. The second element of the legislation is about threatening communications. That includes online activity that has been extremely hurtful to a number of individuals, as has been well publicised recently. How many of those crimes have been recorded over the past year?
As Mr Martin may be aware, there have been a relatively small number of offences under the act. Perhaps he is asking whether it would be a measure of success if more cases were recorded under the act, but I hope that the legislation has sent a strong signal that people must behave themselves on social media and not issue threatening communications. It is difficult to say—I am not attributing any views to Stirling university or to our justice analytical services division, which did the work for the Scottish Government—that those bodies are saying that the act has been responsible for a decline in such cases. However, we should welcome the fact that there are not more offences under the act, which I hope means that people are observing the correct behaviour.
The evaluation found that, in 2013-14, 22 per cent of supporters attending away games heard negative references to a person’s sexuality, yet the number of offences relating to sexuality under the act is low. What work is the Government taking forward to tackle homophobia in sport and the underreporting of homophobic offences?
We should note that point, and I have emphasised that the act covers behaviour that goes well beyond traditional sectarianism and into homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and other offences. Mr Dornan raises an important point. The Scottish Government has funded Leadership, Equality and Active Participation in Sports Scotland, which has worked for the greater inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in sport and against homophobia in a sports context since 2012. The Government is funding that to the tune of £38,800 in this financial year. One of LEAP’s objectives is to promote equality and diversity through challenging discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation. That is an effective means to address homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. I will provide more details to Mr Dornan for his information.
The reduction in offensive activity is due to a number of factors, some of which predate the act, and to a general reduction in violent crime. The minister and his predecessor have stressed the importance of education, but that has been undermined by the 25 per cent cut in funding for projects such as Nil by Mouth. Will the minister assure us that the long-term future of educational programmes will be safeguarded?
Mr Pentland raises an important point. I support the activities that Nil by Mouth and others undertake in communities on our behalf. We invited those organisations to submit revised bids for the current year, in the full knowledge that there will be a reduction in funding, because we have a long-term commitment to phasing out sectarianism. We are not trying to create a sectarianism industry that has a long-term future—far from it. We want to eliminate sectarianism, but I recognise the important role that such organisations are playing.
We will continue to engage with partners such as Nil by Mouth and I acknowledge the positive work that they are doing in our schools. I have seen just how valuable that work is, but we have to recognise that the organisations need to work with local stakeholders to mainstream their activity so that it does not become project funded in perpetuity.
I note that the YouGov poll found that 82 per cent of respondents believed that offensive behaviour at or around football matches is harmful and has a bad influence on young people. What work is being done to better educate young people on the issues that can contribute to offensive behaviour at football matches?
Aside from the Sacro scheme, which I will not go over again—it is certainly a significant investment that takes the total investment to around £140,000—we will provide further funding and support through other organisations, such as the 38 community organisations that are doing local projects.
Another initiative that is funded by the Scottish Government is the community links scheme, which I have also had the pleasure of seeing in practice. Community Links South Lanarkshire’s anti-sectarianism project is another example of a project that is working at a local level; it is delivering social marketing campaigns and educating social media users about the risks of posting sectarian and offensive material on Facebook, Twitter and similar sites.
Further work is being done by sense over sectarianism in schools, Nil by Mouth and other organisations, including the Scottish Book Trust, which published a useful graphic novel about sectarianism called “Walk the Walk”, which I commend to the member. I will ensure that further information is made available to him.
I have no doubt that we all want bigotry, prejudice and religious hatred to be tackled, but concerns remain about the legislation. Further to Neil Findlay’s question, will the minister clarify whether he supports the police interpretation of offensive behaviour when it involves songs or banners in support of political standpoints or expressions of a cultural identity that, outside a football environment, would not be considered criminal? Overall, will the Scottish Government put specific resources into further training for the police in order to stop the act being used unfairly and inappropriately?
As I have done today, I am happy to go on the record as saying that we will continue to work with a number of partners, fan groups, clubs and others to ensure that the act’s implementation is as good as it can be.
The interpretation of particular songs or banners is best left to the courts. Such songs or banners are not defined in the act because it contains tests of what constitutes offensive behaviour. We need to leave it to the courts and the sheriffs to determine, based on case law, what they feel is appropriate in a setting. I happily commit to the member that we will continue to engage with groups such as fans against criminalisation to improve the act’s implementation where that can be done.
The minister tells us that he is keen to understand the basis for opposition to the act. Is it not clear from the Official Report that that was part of Parliament’s concern when we passed an amendment at stage 3 that required ministers to consult before preparing a report in the review period? Why did the Scottish ministers not consult publicly on the matter before commissioning this piece of outsourced research?
The piece of outsourced research that Mr Harvie refers to was done by extremely reputable academics at the University of Stirling. I am sure that Mr Harvie is not casting aspersions, but I make the point that this is a piece of high-quality research that has been done by independent researchers. They have done extensive work in consulting probably the very groups that Mr Harvie would want the Government to engage with through a consultation exercise.
We have had the evaluation. The act did not specify how the review ought to be undertaken. We have done what we believe is the best thing by undertaking an evaluation and consulting key groups. Fans against criminalisation was invited to take part in the evaluation, as were other supporters’ groups, clubs, the Procurator Fiscal Service, the police and other stakeholders. It has been a wide-ranging evaluation that has brought in as much opinion as possible. It is a fair reflection of the consultation inputs.
I take Mr Harvie’s point, but I think that we have made a successful job of evaluating the act. I hope that Parliament agrees.
Mr Henry makes a couple of points that I am in agreement with. I am disappointed that 100 per cent of fans and 100 per cent of the population do not agree that such behaviour is offensive and should no longer continue. We are where we are. We must recognise the very strong support, which we should all welcome, among fans and the general public about tackling all forms of offensive behaviour. The focus will inevitably be on sectarianism, but there are other forms of offence, such as homophobia and racism. That support is very welcome.
We have never said that the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 is the only tool in the box. We have continued to invest £2.3 million in the current financial year in community-based activities—38 projects throughout Scotland—that will, I believe, help to tackle the problem from another angle. I hope that all members support their doing so.
I recognise the point that Hugh Henry makes. We have never claimed that the act will be the only thing to solve the problem. I take on board the messages from the researchers about the difficulty in isolating the impact of a specific measure such as the act in tackling sectarianism. Nevertheless, we should welcome the reduction in the number of charges and the fact that there is strong support for tackling the issue among fans and the wider public.
As I said in my statement, I intend to engage with those who have criticisms of the act on how we can implement it better. I will also listen to the specific concerns of clubs and supporters about how such issues can be policed. Police Scotland has operational responsibility for dealing with these matters in the grounds as well as among those travelling to and from the grounds. It is willing to engage with fans on the issue and is looking to improve relations.
There is a good basis on which to go forward, and I give a commitment to keep an eye on the implementation of the act and to continue to review its effectiveness.
It is certainly an important point. A number of different facets of hate crime are covered by the act, but discrimination on the basis of religion is one that the debate inevitably focuses on.
It is true that 84 per cent of all the charges in the most recent year were in relation to behaviour derogatory towards Roman Catholicism. That was a welcome reduction on previous years. There were six charges for behaviour that was derogatory towards Protestantism—12 per cent of all charges—and one charge for behaviour that was derogatory towards Judaism and Islam. The vast majority of offences at the moment involve people abusing Catholics, and I hope that people of that faith will welcome the act tackling that issue. I stress, however, that there has been a welcome reduction in crimes against both Catholics and Protestants.