The Scottish Labour party has signalled a change to its previous stance on plans to introduce new legislation to tackle the problem of sectarianism in football.
In an announcement yesterday the party formally distanced itself from any new legislation and revealed a new ’11 point plan’ it insisted was an alternative to the Scottish government’s proposals.
In a change of direction from earlier public statements Labour claim that new legislation is unnecessary and education and public awareness should be the focus together with a clamp down on the sale of offensive merchandise, although the precise nature of what will constitute ‘offensive merchandise’ has yet to be clarified.
Labour’s plan calls for a review of how anti-sectarianism can be taught in schools, a “stamp out sectarianism” campaign and a national summit for teachers, youth workers and other interested parties.
Labour said the behaviour of the vast majority of football fans is “impeccable” but called for a family atmosphere to be encouraged inside grounds.
Speaking yesterday party spokesman James Kelly said: “Our package of practical measures recognises that sectarianism does not stop at the stadium gates and demands a much more sophisticated response and none of the proposals require new legislation.
“I hope the SNP government engages positively with Scottish Labour’s action plan that we believe can make a real, tangible difference in tackling sectarianism in Scotland.”
Labour’s now official stance on the issue is in contrast to previous statements when several high profile MSPs, including Mr Kelly, publicly called for new legislation.
The claim that their plan is ‘new’ appears to be at odds with a statement made by Mr Kelly when speaking to the Rutherglen Reformer at the start of June where the Labour MSP seemed to be in favour of education and new legislation.
Speaking to the paper Mr Kelly said: “I 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.
“Any approach to toughen sentences must go hand in hand with preventative measures, including anti-sectarianism education in our schools and community groups to promote greater tolerance and understanding.”
Mr Kelly has also publicly called for new laws to cover messages posted on the internet saying in April this year: “It’s clear from recent days that there are still instances of online campaigns which are sectarian in nature and are unacceptable.
“As well as condemning that behaviour, the authorities should be doing all in their power to try and clamp down on that. 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: “It’s not just a case of saying that these online campaigns are unacceptable and we want the authorities to act. We must ensure that the authorities have got the appropriate tools in legislation at their disposal to clamp down on this.”
In June Mr Kelly, whilst cautioning against moving too quickly, again signalled his clear support for new legislation saying: “We look forward to working constructively with the Scottish Government to ensure the new laws are in place as quickly as possible,”
Mr Kelly’s party colleague and fellow MSP Michael McMahon even called for a review of Scots law itself following the controversial not proven verdict, returned by a jury in the trial of a man accused of attacking Celtic manager Neil Lennon.
Mr McMahon said: “The Neil Lennon case highlights the problems with the not proven verdict. Millions saw the incident on television and were astonished by the verdict.
“It is important the public have faith in our justice system and this comes at a sensitive time for Scotland as we come to terms with how we deal with sectarianism.
“The not proven verdict is both unjust and unnecessary.”
James Kelly also appeared to question whether current legislation was sufficient in such cases when he said: “Many people find the court decision bizarre having witnessed the incident on TV. Questions need to be asked as to whether the Crown Office was right to link the religious aggravation with the assault charge.
“Lessons need to be learned from this case and the main priority for the Crown Office should be to pursue charges that secure convictions and deliver justice for victims.”
Mr Kelly was recently criticised after he and other Labour MPs who sit on the committee scrutinising the Bill refused to ask questions on proposed amendments and refused to take part in a subsequent vote.
The proposal for new legislation has the support of police chiefs and prosecutors and a recent survey suggested a majority of the population were also in favour with 85% of Scots agreeing that sectarianism should be a criminal offence and 91% agreeing that stronger action needs to be taken.
Former Labour First Minister Henry McLeish has also voiced support for new laws he claims are needed in order to tackle the “dark side” of Scottish football.
Some legal experts have suggested that the current ‘catch all’ of breach of the peace is itself too vague in order to deal with the sectarian issue.
The Scottish government has responded to Labour’s new stance by insisting that a strengthening of the law is required.
A spokesman said: “We need to tackle the scourge of sectarianism wherever and whenever it occurs – be that on the terraces, in the street or at the workplace.
“The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill is an important part of this overall effort in Scotland – giving police and prosecutors the extra tools they say they need to tackle this hatred by filling clear gaps in the current law, as detailed by the Lord Advocate.”