Monday, 12 December 2011

Bills, bills, bills

The SNP's 'anti-sectarianism bill' returns to Holyrood for its third and final stage on Wednesday. 
It has been heavily and widely criticised, leading to some re-writes from the government, such as the addition of a freedom of speech section. 
Now the minister in charge is putting down some eleventh-hour amendments suggesting there are still serious problems to fix. 
Here's a longer version of my story in the Sunday Herald.

Tom Gordon
Scottish Political Editor

THE SNP are set to water down their controverisal bill aimed at tackling sectarianism in football.

Community Safety minister Roseanna Cunningham, who is taking the legislation through the Scottish Parliament, has tabled a last-minute amendment which would let her scrap a key section which had previously been likened to “thought crime”.

She has also tabled an amendment narrowing the scope of those outside Scotland who could be punished by the bill, a tacit admission that the original version strayed beyond devolved powers.

MSPs vote on the third and final stage of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill on Wednesday.
Labour, the Tories, LibDems and Greens say it is muddled and unnecessary, but it is set to become law regardless thanks to the SNP’s majority.
Prompted by the violence centred on the Old Firm last season, the bill criminalises religious, racial or homophobic bigotry at football games, as well as sectarian threats on the internet.
As it stands, the bill could see football fans jailed for up to five years for behaviour “likely to incite public disorder” even if no one else was offended and no disorder occurred.
For instance, Section 1(5)(b) would criminalise abusive chanting in supporters’ clubs where only one set of fans was watching a televised match, or at a stadium where one team’s fans had already left. 
Holyrood’s justice committee queried the concept, but Cunningham said it was “essential” the bill emphasised such behaviour was always unacceptable.
As recently at November 22, Cunningham told the Justice Committee that without it. bigots would have “the freedom to take their poisionous singing and chanting into pubs and clubs across the country when there are football broadcasts. That cannot be tolerated.
However, her new amendment would give ministers the power to “disapply” this part of the law using minor legislation, clearing the way for a quick U-turn if the law proves unworkable.
Section 4A 
Roseanna Cunningham 

3 In section 4A, page 4, line 18, at end insert— 
<(  ) disapply paragraph (b) of subsection (5) of that section in relation to a 
description of behaviour for the time being listed in subsection (2) of that 
Cunningham has also tabled an amendment narrowing the scope of those punishable under the bill.
Currently, it applies to any British citizen or Scottish resident who incites disorder at a match outside Scotland involving a Scottish side.
Cunningham now wants to drop all reference to British citizens, meaning only Scottish residents guilty of behaviour outside Scotland are covered.

Section 7 
Roseanna Cunningham 

4 In section 7, page 7, line 8 leave out <, sections 1(1) and 5(1) also apply> and insert <by any 
person, section 1(1) also applies> 
Roseanna Cunningham 

5 In section 7, page 7, leave out lines 10 to 13 
This effectively exempts ex-pats and Rangers and Celtic fans in Northern Ireland who misbehave in relation to Scottish matches outside Scotland.
Anyone committing an offence while they are in Scotland would still be liable to punishment.

Alison McInnes, the LibDem justice spokeswoman, said: “These amendments show the government knows they’ve got it badly wrong - they just aren’t willing to own up. Instead, we have desperate attempts to find a way out, to surreptitiously ‘disapply’ parts of the bill at a later stage.
“The other amendment is an embarrasing admission that the attempt to apply the crime to other British citizens is far outwith their powers.
“The only sensible way out of this mess is to put this bill through the paper shredder.”
A Government spokesman said: “Supporters clubs would be fully covered by the legislation. It [the amendment] simply gives the power to add to or amend the offence in the future. However, we have absolutely no plans to invoke this power.”
Labour will today launch an anti-sectarian action plan aimed at tackling religious hatred in sport and across society as an alternative to the bill.

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