SNP’s proposed “sectraian” law

Sectarianism is a scourge of Scottish society and is the cause of so much misery and trouble, particularly in relation to football.  Quite rightly the political leaders at Holyrood are united in their determination to deal with sectarianism which plagues Scotland’s communities and can effectively ruin a good afternoon/evening out at the football.

Recently we have seen the sectarian divides in football take an unwelcome turn for the worst as what can only be described of acts of terrorism being carried out.  Neil Lennon, manager of Celtic Football club, as well as a prominent QC and former MSP (both of whom are known Celtic supporters) received through the post packages that were designed not only to cause fear and alarm, but to cause physical injury.  These incidents are not, of course, representative of modern sectarianism in Scotland which is normally confined to utterances and the singing of offensive songs at football games.  However, they do further highlight the problem that faces Scotland.

The First Minister in his address to Parliament setting out the SNP’s vision for their five year term pledged to tackle bigotry.  The Scottish Cabinet has backed a new sectarian law which was proposed by the First Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Justice.  The Government’s aim is to pass the law before the Scottish Parliament breaks for its summer recess, which will mean a final vote on the legislation no later than 30 June 2011.

While discussing the proposed law on television and radio neither the First Minister nor the Cabinet Secretary have been able to set the record straight on exactly what this new legislation will do.  The confusion and what appears to be a lack of consensus between Mr Salmond and Mr MacAskill is concerning to say the least.  Surely one would expect such an important piece of legislation to be properly scrutinized by experts outside of Parliament who would appear before the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee to give evidence.  The Justice Committee would examine the proposals in detail and come back to Parliament with recommendations as to how the law could be improved and strengthened.  This cannot happen with legislation to be passed in little over a month; indeed it would appear that the Parliamentary draughtsmen have not even completed writing the Bill yet.

Legislation is always seen as the key to solving a problem by politicians.  It’s as if, in their minds, passing a new law will eradicate a problem overnight, and that their work is done.  The problem of sectarianism, like Scotland’s relationship with booze and violence, is a more complex sociological problem that simply passing a new law will not solve.  New laws are often about being able to create good headlines and give the impression that the Government is actually doing something to tackle the issue, when really they are not.  The sociological aspects of sectarianism are not going to be solved overnight and are going to take, at the very least, a generation to resolve.  It is going to need more than simply creating new offences (I will come on to argue that actually these new offences are probably not even required), it needs a lot of work starting off with proper Religious Education, more of a focus on citizenship in Personal, Social and Health Education, and for the police and courts to come down heavy, using the laws that already exist, on those who engage in sectarian activities.

The police are doing what they can to tackle sectarianism with the already considerable powers that they have.  In a recent BBC Scotland News report Assistant Chief Constable Campbell Corrigan of Strathclyde Police said:

Very often the solution to this would be to identify those who are singing…and through either their ticket allocation, or if they are season ticket holders, then identify them and deal with them after the match.  For me the whole issue is that it doesn’t always need a response of running into the middle of a large group which is impractical and often unsafe.

From that what it would appear the police are doing is using the CCTV and television footage available to identify offenders and deal with them after the game.  It is obvious to any reasonable person that the police wading into the middle of the crowed to arrest one or two individuals for singing sectarian songs or chanting sectarian remarks is dangerous for the police themselves and the members of the public around those individuals. Only in the most extreme cases should the police adopt such tactics.  The SNP’s new law wouldn’t result in the police cracking down more on sectarian disorder at football matches, they are likely to use the same tactics they do currently: identify the offenders and knock on their door a few days or weeks later (depending on how long identification takes).

The Scottish Government probably won’t struggle to get the Bill through Parliament in the time they have allotted it.  Having a majority in Parliament makes these things a lot more likely and with it being so early in the new Parliament any SNP members who are uncomfortable with passing legislation so quickly are unlikely to rebel so as not to risk a Government defeat.  A Government defeat within the first month or two would be disastrous for Salmond and his Government.

There is a very real problem with passing legislation quickly though.  Rushed legislation is always bad legislation.  One only has to look at the disaster that is the Criminal Procedure (legal assistance, Detention and Appeals) (Scotland) Act 2010 for evidence of what can happen when you rush legislation through Parliament (no more will be said on Cadder here, my views are very well documented on this blog).  The legislation is always ill thought out and will inevitably have to be re-visited in order to fix the problems that would most probably have been identified and resolved had Parliament taken longer to consider the legislation.  Yes, sometimes genuine emergencies do arise that require urgent legislative action to fix, but given the scale of the sectarian problem in Scotland one can hardly consider it a genuine emergency requiring legislative action taking no more than one month.  The opposition leaders in Holyrood should be very vocal on that while action is needed to tackle sectarianism in Scotland the answer is not to rush a Bill through Parliament.

Is the legislation actually needed?  I would argue that it is not.  The conduct which Mr Salmond and Mr MacAskill regularly refer to in relation to this Bill is, in my view, already adequately covered by existing criminal laws.  We saw the mess that Labour got themselves into in England and Wales by simply creating new offences, many of which related to conduct already adequately covered by existing criminal law.  In the end they created more than 3,000 new criminal offences in 13 years and they had little overall impact on crime.  Yes, passing a new law creating brand new criminal offences generates headlines that allow politicians to say that they are taking the issue seriously and are being pro-active in dealing with it.  However, as I have already said above, simply passing legislation rarely solves a problem (or indeed rarely ahs any impact on actually dealing with the issue).

In my view it would be better for Salmond to set-up a cross-party Parliamentary committee to specifically look at the issue of sectarianism, and examine in detail the measures that could be taken that would hopefully break the cycle.  It is going to take far more than simply looking to the criminal law; we are dealing here with a social problem engrained into society.  The problem is that many people just do not see the harm of singing a few sectarian songs at football games.  I have friends who are the most open-minded people who are certainly not in any way, shape or form bigoted, but yet the fail to see the harm of singing such songs.  Its part of the atmosphere or it’s just what happens at football is what they’ll often come out with in the defence.  This requires the changing of attitudes and messing about with the criminal law will do nothing to change those attitudes.

I will await the publication of the Bill with interest, but I can almost guarantee that what we end up with is an ineffective law with consequences that were far from the intention of Parliament.  Often we will hear the First Minister talking about listening to the will of the Scottish people (especially in relation to independence and a referendum on independence), well the Scottish people should be vocal in telling him to slow down and deal with this issue properly.  As is often said (and indeed the point has been made by the First Minister many times himself) the test is not how much legislation is passed, but the quality of the legislation that is passed.  This issue is far too important to get wrong.

For some more excellent commentary on the subject pop over to Lallands Peat Warrier’s blog, he makes some excellent remarks with which I mostly concur.