Dismay as Labour refuse to engage in sectarianism legislation process

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By G.A.Ponsonby
 
SNP members on Holyrood’s Justice Committee have expressed disappointment after Labour MSPs refused to participate in the parliamentary process designed to scrutinise and strengthen the Offensive Behaviour Bill.
 
Two Labour members on the committee refused to question amendments put forward by other parties and also abstained from all votes.

The bill contains legislation that aims to tackle sectarianism in Scottish football.  It is the result of violent scenes that marred last season’s league campaign and threats involving live ammunition being sent through the post to figures linked to Celtic football club.

On culmination of yesterday’s proceedings it emerged that the two Labour MSPs James Kelly and Graeme Pearson:

•         did not propose any amendments,
•         did not ask the minister any questions on government amendments,
•         did not ask the Tories or Greens any questions on their amendments and
•         abstained from all votes

The behaviour of the Labour MSPs was condemned by fellow Committee member Humza Yousaf, who accused Kelly and Pearson of ‘letting down voters’ by “sitting on their hands” on the sectarianism issue.

The SNP MSP said:

“You cannot simply opt out of debating or discussing the whole of a piece of legislation, especially one as important as this.

“This bill is significant and whether people are in favour of it or opposed to it they were let down by their Labour MSPs, they may as well have stayed at home.

“Labour backed the bill at stage 1, failed to put forward any amendments at stage 2 and now completely abstained on everyone else’s.“

Both Labour’s outgoing leader Iain Gray and current deputy leader and front runner to replace Mr Gray, Johann Lamont, previously pledged that the party would work with the Scottish government to improve the legislation.

Mr Yousaf added:

“Labour’s depute Leader even said they would work constructively with the government to improve the bill.  Now it comes to the crunch they are hiding in the corner instead of stepping up and taking a decision.  

“Labour are falling back to their worst ways of the last four years.  Calling for more time to consider then refuse to make any input into the consideration of the bill is just Alice in Wonderland stuff.

“I may not have agreed with some of the amendments put forward by the Greens or the Tories but they did their job and took part in a piece of legislation.

“Labour has an opportunity to redeem themselves and engage in the legislation before the final vote ahead.”

Labour initially backed calls for stronger laws and senior party figures pledged their support in helping draw up new legislation.

On 25th May, current Labour Deputy leader and leadership hopeful Johann Lamont said: “We look forward to scrutinising the detail of these proposals and working closely with the Scottish Government to improve this legislation and ensuring it is in place as quickly as possible.”

Weeks later, outgoing leader Iain Gray repeated his party’s commitment and said: “It is certainly the intention on this side of the chamber to support the principles of the bill.  I made it clear that we want to support the Government in legislating against bigotry in football and, indeed, anywhere else.”

Speaking after refusing to take part in yesterday’s discussions, Labour MSP James Kelly who is the Justice Committee’s Deputy Convener, said the legislation was currently “not fit for purpose”.

Prior to May’s Scottish election Mr Kelly had called for laws dealing with online sectarianism to be “beefed up”

Speaking on April 23rd the Labour MSP said: “The job for a future parliament is to look at the laws around the internet and examine whether they’re tough enough or not – and if they’re not, look to beef those up.”

He added: “We must ensure that the authorities have got the appropriate tools in legislation at their disposal to clamp down on this.”

Yesterday’s sitting saw a freedom of expression clause brought forward by Community Safety Minister Roseanna Cunningham.  The exemption will not cover messages posted online that are deemed threatening or likely to cause public disorder, or sectarian and threatening behaviour at and around football matches.

Ms Cunningham said: “The intention of the amendment is not to prevent legitimate religion discussion and debate.  It aims to prevent the kind of communication we saw last football season when individuals were threatened with serious harm.”