I strongly agree that we need robust data to understand unacceptable conduct at football and to take the necessary action to address it. The data is collated by the football authorities, not by the Scottish Government, and was provided only on the basis that it is
“confidential and is not published.”
However, our clear and consistent preference has been for the data to be published. Therefore, I have spoken to SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster today to reiterate that point once again, and I will follow it up in writing. He and the SPFL have committed to discuss the matter at the next board meeting.
It is only through open and honest discussion, based on robust evidence, that we can work with all our partners to tackle the unacceptable conduct by a minority of spectators that, unfortunately, continues to shame our national game.
The recommendation from Professor Duncan Morrow could not be clearer: ministers, football authorities and the police should work together on the monitoring of sectarian incidents, and findings should be
“published annually to allow for a genuine debate about the extent of sectarian behaviour and attitudes in football”.
A joint Liberal Democrat and Nil By Mouth investigation shows that the Government reached agreement with the SPFL and the football authorities have been collating data for the past two seasons in secret. Nobody but ministers and the police has ever seen the data, and they never will unless something changes. Will the cabinet secretary rip up the secrecy agreement and publish, today, the contents of the sectarianism database in full?
I recognise Liam McArthur’s interest—and the general public’s interest—in the issue. I agree that the data should be published. That is not only the view that I hold, as the cabinet secretary for the past year; it was the view of my predecessor, with whom the agreement was reached, who wrote to Neil Doncaster in 2017. His letter, a copy of which I have given to the Scottish Parliament information centre, said:
“It is difficult to see how the building of public confidence can be achieved without being open and transparent with the data gathered. I am therefore disappointed that the data gathered will not be publicly available and I hope that you will reconsider this decision.”
The serious point—I know that Liam McArthur understands this—is that the data is not the Scottish Government’s data; it is data that is collated by match officials. The proviso in the agreement that was reached was that, if we wanted to have the data, it must be confidential and could not be published. It is not in my gift to rip up, as the member suggests, an agreement with a stakeholder, because doing so could be actionable.
Instead, I have spoken to Neil Doncaster this morning and asked him once again to reconsider the SPFL’s objection to publishing the data. In fairness to Neil Doncaster, he took a very constructive approach during our telephone conversation, and he has agreed to put the suggestion forward at the next board meeting. Through such dialogue, I hope that the data will be readily published. However, I hope that the member understands that it is not within my gift to rip up the agreement and publish the data today.
It seems inconceivable that the Government would sign up to an arrangement that means that it has, in effect, been gagged by the SPFL. The Scottish Government’s independent commission asked for the data to be recorded and published annually to inform a proper public debate. It is impossible to have serious conversations about options such as strict liability if the figures are kept secret. That calls into question how seriously those who have the data are working to lift the curse that is affecting Scottish football. I, too, would like to hear from Neil Doncaster, because the SPFL’s response to date has been, frankly, pathetic. Is it not the case that, if the SPFL’s response to sectarianism is dependent on secrecy and gagging orders, it does not deserve to be running the game?
I say to Liam McArthur, once again, that we are in agreement that the data should be published. There is no disagreement on that point. However, for us to get the data, which has helped us to focus on where our interventions should be and to focus our discussion on what he rightly calls the “curse” of our national game, we had to agree that it would not be published. It is not our data to publish; the data is collected by match officials and it belongs to clubs, the SPFL and—in relation to cup games—the Scottish Football Association.
I had a very positive conversation with Neil Doncaster this morning. As I said, he is taking the suggestion forward to his board, and I hope that his board will see sense on the issue by agreeing to publish the data.
I could mention a number of projects, including the one that Liam McArthur mentioned, that we are funding to lift the curse from our game. The Government has taken action. The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 was part of that action, but Parliament chose to repeal it. We will continue to intervene when we think that it is appropriate to do so. Once again, I agree with Liam McArthur that there should be transparency. Therefore, my wish and desire is for the SPFL and the SFA to publish the data.
People feel as though this is secret Scotland again. It feels to them as though not only is the SPFL keeping the dossier secret, the
Government is sticking by it in not forcing its hand, while admittedly making the right noises. They feel that sectarianism is being swept under the carpet.
Government covering up or withholding information in this way?
The hyperbole with which the member asks the question does the issue a disservice. The data belongs to the SPFL—it belongs to the clubs. The only way in which we could get the data was by signing an agreement not to publish it. That data has helped us to plan our interventions.
I say again that my predecessor as justice secretary, Michael Matheson, who is sitting on my right, wrote to the SPFL in 2017 saying very clearly that our position was that the data should be released. Indeed, he expressed the hope that the SPFL would reconsider its decision not to release the data. As I said, if we were to release the data, that could be actionable.
We understand that there is a real public interest in this issue and we absolutely understand why that is the case. The onus is on the SPFL to reflect on its position. It has said that it will; Neil Doncaster has said that the issue will be presented at the next board meeting and I hope for a positive conclusion from that.
As the cabinet secretary is aware, I have been leading a campaign for Scottish football clubs and authorities to introduce strict liability to crack down on trouble from fans.
Although I am looking at introducing legislation to achieve that, it has always been my preference for Scottish football to implement the measure itself. I welcome the cabinet secretary’s comments about his discussion with Neil Doncaster, but does the cabinet secretary not agree with me that it is incumbent on the SPFL and the SFA to publish their data? If they do not, people will continue to think that Scottish football believes that it is a law unto itself and has real inclination to make the necessary changes to clean up the game, or they will think that Scottish football has something to hide. Will the cabinet secretary continue to push the SPFL and the SFA to release these figures before that something to hide starts to look like something serious to hide?
The SPFL and the SFA would do well to reflect on just how they will be viewed not just by parliamentarians but by the public on this issue if they are not as open and transparent as I and, clearly, the Parliament would like them to be with the data. That is an important point.
On the flipside, I will say to James Dornan that I have had some positive and constructive conversations with the SFA, the SPFL and wider stakeholders in football, from the Professional Footballers Association Scotland and the referees associations to supporters organisations and individual clubs. From my conversations with them, I detect a desire to do something about unacceptable conduct. Of course, what people think should be done varies. However, I will take those conversations forward.
I reiterate that we want the SPFL to publish this data; I hope that it will and I hope that it comes to that conclusion at its next board meeting.
To ensure that there is a positive and constructive discussion about tackling unacceptable conduct and promoting a positive, supportive experience, all verified and accurate data should be in the public domain.
It is fair to say that the engagement from some clubs and football authorities has been inadequate in recent times, so what action is the Government taking to ensure that clubs and football authorities engage more positively in this debate in order to ensure a more positive atmosphere across football?
I thank James Kelly for the constructive manner in which he asked that question. I have taken a range of actions; there have been many lessons to learn over the years on how we approach this subject. I am trying to take as many people as possible with us on that journey. James Kelly will understand that there is a range of views on how to tackle unacceptable conduct, including the option of strict liability.
I have had some good ideas; I am happy to talk to James Kelly offline about the lay of the land among the clubs and the various stakeholders. However, we are starting to build a coalition of those who are building consensus about what we need to do. Those conversations will continue. I hope to have those conversations well into the summer, ahead of the start of the new season.
I detect that there is some movement and there is a willingness to take action, but I agree with James Kelly’s central premise that whatever we do should be done in an open and transparent way. Therefore, I hope that the SPFL will reflect on this session in the chamber and that it will come to a positive conclusion at its next board meeting and release the data into the public domain.