NEW laws to clamp down on football hate-crime require far more funding, according to the police who will enforce the legislation.
MSPs heard from witnesses, including Les Gray of the Scottish Police Federation, on the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill, which is being pushed through Parliament so that it can be in place for the start of the football season.
Mr Gray said the financial provision “did not scratch the surface” of what would be required to “hammer” sectarian behaviour in order to deter such conduct in future.
Deputy Justice Minister Roseanna Cunningham was also pinned down on what might constitute an offensive song. Tory John Lamont asked whether the British national anthem or Flower of Scotland could be considered offensive under the new Act.
“No,” declared Ms Cunningham, but she said context was everything.
She cited the way Rule Britannia had become a sectarian anthem in some quarters, while other conduct could shift into the realm of the offensive depending on context.
“I would not regard it as an offensive song, which is exactly why we don’t start defining which songs and listing the songs because it is a matter of facts and circumstances of the case whether something is or is not offensive.
“I have seen hundreds of Celtic fans, in a manner which I can only describe as aggressive, making signs of the cross, gesticulating across an open area to Rangers fans.
“A sign of the cross is not in itself offensive but in circumstances such as Rangers and Celtic fans meeting each other in a crowded street, it could be construed as something that is offensive.”
She said: “I want to remind everybody what we saw during the last football season, scenes which none of us ever wish to see repeated, scenes which were broadcast throughout the world and which shamed Scotland.
“Football is our national game, millions of people are passionate about it but we can’t tolerate the complete corruption of that passion into hate, whether it is mass sectarian chanting or bullets and bombs in the post.”
Convener Christine Grahame said the Justice Committee has been “put in a very difficult position” in wishing to examine the Bill on behalf of the public in the timescale proposed.
However, Ms Cunningham added: “I don’t rule out the possibility in a few years’ time of revisiting the situation with legislation.”
Both Mr Gray and Assistant Chief Constable Campbell Corrigan, who represented the Association of Chief Police Officers of Scotland, agreed that the new laws would be useful, but Mr Gray said: “I have absolutely no doubt that the financial memorandum is way off the mark. I don’t think £0.5 million to £0.7m will even scratch the surface of what is required.
“For the last few years, particularly the last two years, the police service has been engaged actively in removing police officers from football grounds to reduce costs.
“We’re now going to have to reverse that trend in order to enforce this legislation properly by bringing more police officers to police these games before, during and after.”
Mr Gray said while in the past two to three officers would be sent in to pubs during a football match, enforcing the new laws safely could mean as many as between 20 and 30 officers would be needed.
But Mr Corrigan said that a “proportionate response” to the new legislation would ensure it was introduced as officers were trained and he was confident of making it workable.