Football (Sectarianism and Violence)

– in the Scottish Parliament on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

1. To ask the Scottish Government what new measures it is considering to address sectarianism and violent behaviour associated with football. (S5T-01532)

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

Our preferred solution has always been that football steps up to address this long-standing problem with meaningful solutions. It is important for football to demonstrate leadership on the issue but, if action is not taken, we firmly reserve the right to act to rid our national game of this vile cancer. I believe that the vast majority of supporters are frustrated that a small minority are bringing our game into disrepute and frustrated at the lack of action by the football authorities and clubs.

Although we would prefer football to take action, we are considering a range of options, including the role of strict liability and the licensing of football stadiums. I would welcome contributions from across the chamber on how we can work together to address the issue.

I understand that the independent review of football policing, which was commissioned by Police Scotland, will be published tomorrow, 6 March. We will, of course, carefully consider its findings.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

Last week, Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr, who served in Northern Ireland for three decades, said that he was surprised at the level of disorder and the fact that

“the consistently thuggish behaviour of a very small number of fans is considered normal.”

Days earlier, the Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke, after quoting abuse that was thrown in his direction, asked:

“where are we living? The dark ages?”

The cabinet secretary rightly says that the vast majority of decent fans are disgusted by the actions of so-called supporters who behave in that way, but does he agree that fans are now looking to the authorities, including Parliament, to step up the efforts to combat such behaviour?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I agree with everything that Liam McArthur has said, and I welcome the powerful remarks from DCC Will Kerr. There was also a very powerful quote from PFA Scotland’s chief executive, Fraser Wishart, who said:

“The football pitch is a player’s place of work and it is not unreasonable for a player, like any other employee, to be able to work with the knowledge that their workplace is indeed a safe environment, free from violence and discrimination and that their health and safety is not at risk.”

I will carefully consider Police Scotland’s report when it is published tomorrow, and I will, of course, be open to suggestions from members across the chamber. However, it is for the football authorities to step up to their responsibilities—frankly, they have not done so thus far. As I have said, if they do not step up, we will consider a full range of options, including strict liability, licensing, civil football banning orders and the many other options that are on the table.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

I thank the cabinet secretary for that response, and I certainly echo the sentiments that were expressed by Fraser Wishart.

Two years ago, Dr Duncan Morrow’s report on sectarianism said that although

“football was only one part of the jigsaw of sectarianism ... The continuing reluctance of the football authorities to demonstrate serious commitment on this issue, means that strict liability must remain a real and present option.”

What is the cabinet secretary’s assessment of how co-operative and constructive football clubs have been in the period since?

Does he agree that there should be a cross-party approach to looking at escalating penalties including, for example, the closing of sections of grounds in more serious cases?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

Joe FitzPatrick and I met representatives from the Scottish Professional Football League and the Scottish Football Association before the worst of the behaviour that we have seen in recent weeks, and we pressed them on tackling unacceptable conduct. Although the words were warm, we are yet to see demonstrable action in that regard.

I repeat what I have said in my previous two answers: we would prefer the clubs to step up but, if they do not, we reserve the right to act.

The final question that Liam McArthur asked is very valid. When we explore the full range of options, we should do so with as much consensus in the chamber as possible. As I said, a number of options are on the table, including strict liability, licensing and civil football banning orders.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

The cabinet secretary will be aware that I have been a vocal critic of sectarianism that is associated with any football club or wider society for a number of years. He will also be aware that I am proposing a member’s bill on strict liability, which could include the use of the licensing system. The cabinet secretary clearly agrees that it would be preferable for the clubs and football authorities to bring in strict liability themselves. However, if they do not, surely a member’s bill or some other mechanism would give Parliament the power to put pressure on football clubs and would be a cross-party way of working to achieve that.

Members:

Kelly?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I mean James Dornan—that was a faux pas and an easy mistake to make. [

Laughter

.] Do not worry, Mr Kelly; I might come to you later.

I commend James Dornan for the work that he has done on strict liability and on the wider issue of sectarianism through the cross-party group. He has been a constructive voice on that matter, and he is absolutely right. Strict liability remains on the table and we will explore the legal possibilities in that regard. We will keep a close eye on the work that James Dornan is doing.

We will also look extensively at the powers that are in our hands, such as those on licensing, which is one option. Every stadium that has a capacity of 10,000 or more spectators is required to hold a safety licence. If Parliament were minded to do so, we could look at the authorising regime for such licences. For example, in England there is the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, which is the overarching body that looks into stadium licensing. Together with the Minister for Public Health, Sport and Wellbeing and the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government, I am looking at whether we should create a similar body in Scotland, alongside the appropriate sanctions, such as closing down sections of grounds or whole stadiums if that is in the best interests of public safety.

Photo of Liam Kerr Liam Kerr Conservative

Sectarianism is a blight on our national game. I associate myself with the cabinet secretary’s remarks in that regard and I would be pleased to accept his offer to work closely with him on the issue.

Do the measures that are being considered by the Scottish Government involve greater use of stadium bans for individuals who are engaging in such abusive behaviour? How closely are the football clubs working with the cabinet secretary on the issue?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

As I mentioned in my previous answer, Joe FitzPatrick and I have been working closely on the issue. We have met the SPFL and the SFA, and we will meet individual clubs if we receive a request to do so; between us, we have arranged a number of such meetings. I know that a minority of clubs are interested in civil football banning orders. The member will know about football banning orders, and the chief constable of Police Scotland’s role in those, but some clubs would like to have the power to apply for football banning orders. I will listen to the arguments with an open mind—I have not come to a conclusion yet.

On the member’s other point, I do not doubt for a minute that we all have a shared interest in stamping out sectarianism in the game. It brings shame on us as a country and shame on the clubs that we support. Therefore, it will be important, and an imperative part of my role, that we take the entire Parliament with us on whichever option we decide on. I therefore look forward to discussions with Liam Kerr and other members across the chamber.

Photo of James Kelly James Kelly Labour

I caution the cabinet secretary against the attitude, which has been adopted by some commentators, that views football supporters with disdain, when only a small minority are responsible for such incidents. Does he agree that tackling bigotry and hatred needs a wider, more considered discussion and that it should not be viewed solely through the lens of a football match? I agree that football clubs and authorities must do more, but does the cabinet secretary accept that any football-specific initiatives need consensus and widespread support, and that rushed, knee-jerk reactions are not the answer?

Photo of Humza Yousaf Humza Yousaf Scottish National Party

I will say a few things to James Kelly. The first is that we will continue to do what we have been doing to tackle the wider sectarianism in society, but let us not have our heads in the sand and ignore what has been happening in football, not only in recent weeks. I know that James Kelly is a football supporter—in fact he and I support the same club—so he knows that it has been going on not just for years but for decades. I would have thought that, as the poster boy for the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, Mr Kelly might have come to the chamber today with a little bit of humility, given that a number of stakeholders told us that repealing the act would embolden the unacceptable conduct that we have heard about today.

Mr Kelly is right that we do not need just words—we need action. I note that, when the act was repealed, he said that he would bring forward a plan “fit for 2018”. We have not yet seen that plan, but if Mr Kelly and other have constructive ideas, I ask them to bring them to the chamber. There is a society-wide issue, but let us not ignore the fact that there is a problem with sectarianism and unacceptable conduct in and around football that we must tackle, as well as the wider issue.