Ya beauty! The hated OBAF Act is finally binned

Ya beauty! The hated OBAF Act is finally binned

by Murdo Fraser
article from Friday 16, March, 2018

IT WAS, according to Labour’s James Kelly, “the worst legislation in the history of the Scottish Parliament”. Moving his motion at Holyrood on Thursday for repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, he labelled the law a failure – having failed to tackle bigotry, and having been widely criticised by law groups and human rights groups.

The SNP Government passed the legislation in December 2011 during those days when it had a parliamentary majority and against the will of every opposition party. It has simply not worked, it has failed to tackle sectarianism and religious intolerance, and it has unfairly demonised football fans.

In Thursday’s debate, speaker after speaker from the opposition parties lined up to condemn the hated and discredited law. For the Conservatives, Liam Kerr labelled the Act as “bad law, and, more than that, unnecessary law”. He said that the objectives of the Act, to tackle sectarianism by preventing offensive and threatening behaviour at football, were laudable, but the offending behaviour that the Act was designed to address was already fully covered by the substantive existing criminal law. All that had been achieved by the law was to create a deterioration in relationships between football fans and the Police.

SNP members who contributed to the debate seemed to have given up trying to make any sort of rational argument why the Act should be retained. In a shrill and intemperate response, the SNP Justice Minister Annabelle Ewing simply went through a list of unacceptable behaviour at recent football matches, completely missing the point that these all fell foul of legislation still on the statute book. By her own admission, the OBAF Act had failed to change behaviour. 

Ms Ewing did her cause further harm when, after James Kelly had narrated the case of a Hibernian supporter charged under the Act for being part of a pitch invasion, she intervened on him to ask whether he was advocating more pitch invasions? It was a risible performance, from a representative of a Government that had clearly lost the argument. 

The best speech of the afternoon came from Labour’s Johann Lamont, who set out her concerns about sectarianism in society, but rejected the view that this Act was the way to tackle it. She, like other members, raised the cases of individuals who had fallen foul of the law, for the supposed hideous crimes of wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, or having the audacity to express a political view. Johann Lamont also pointed out the irony of an SNP government claiming to be concerned about sectarianism, while cutting the budgets for programmes that educate young people on the issues from £3 million to £500,000.

In the end, the vote to repeal the Bill was passed by 62 votes to 60. A hated piece of SNP legislation is finally consigned to the dustbin of history, and arguments in favour of liberalism, and free speech, won the day.

Will the SNP Government learn from this episode? There has been a tendency, not just from them, but also from their preceding administrations, to address societal issues through legislation. This may grab the headlines, and be seen to answer the charge that “something must be done”, but in reality it changes very little.

There is no evidence that the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act tackled sectarianism in Scottish society. All it did was demonise and criminalise a few football fans, but it allowed politicians to claim that they had ticked the sectarian box, and move on to the next issue.

Passing laws can be easy; what is harder is actually bringing meaningful change. I hope that the lesson of this whole sorry episode is that serious, meaningful work to tackle sectarianism must be supported, and that simply creating more criminal offences is not always the way to improve human behaviour.


For a ful transcript of the debates please click here and here.


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