A Scottish Government minister has been accused of misleading Holyrood over an initiative that is part of controversial laws aimed at curbing sectarian behaviour at football matches.
The group Fans Against Criminalisation (FAC) said community safety minister Paul Wheelhouse had “made an entirely false statement” when he told MSPs the group supported the roll-out of an education programme set up to reduce the number of fans taken to court under the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012.
FAC has put forward a petition to the Scottish Parliament calling for a “full and comprehensive review” of the legislation, with a view to it being scrapped.
Celtic fan Jeanette Findlay made the case for this when she appeared at Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee.
She also told MSPs Mr Wheelhouse had incorrectly said the group supported the £66,000 roll-out of the Diversion from Prosecution Scheme, aimed at educating less serious and first-time offenders rather than prosecuting them in the courts.
Ms Findlay, 55, from Glasgow, told the committee FAC could not back this as it does not believe many of the offences that people are charged with under the Act constitute an offence.
She added: “When he (Mr Wheelhouse) made the statement that we supported the Diversion from Prosecution Scheme, that was entirely a false statement and we had made this clear to one of his advisers.
“We told Mr Wheelhouse’s adviser he should not make that statement because we did not support the scheme.”
She said after the meeting that this was a “very serious matter”, adding: “We were shocked that a minister would conduct themselves in such a dishonest way.
“The response we got from Mr Wheelhouse to say he had thought we had said that, we have to accept that on face value.
“But we did not say that and we do not support that, and he failed to inform the chamber and other MSPs that he had in fact made a mistake.
“We would not accuse a minister of lying but he certainly gave a misleading and untrue statement that day, and he does know that wasn’t true and he hasn’t done anything to correct that position.”
Mr Wheelhouse insisted he had not told MSPs that FAC had backed the Diversion from Prosecution Scheme, which is being provided by the charity Sacro.
In a statement to FAC, he said: “I did not claim this in my statement.
“I said that I believed a scheme diverting individuals away from prosecution would ‘chime with’, or address, key concerns raised by groups such as FAC and football clubs.
“While I recognise that FAC do oppose the Act and do not support the Sacro scheme, which is helping to keep people out of the criminal justice system, ie. reducing the likelihood fans would be criminalised, it remains my opinion that the extension of the Sacro scheme is a positive response to those key concerns that have been raised with me.”
Ms Findlay told MSPs the Act “is creating a very poisonous relationship between police and young fans”.
She said: “I’m a middle-aged woman, I travel to the football with other people, some of whom are a wee bit older than me.
“As soon as I become a football fan I am filmed, I am stared at, I’m searched, I was travelling on Sunday and the bus was searched twice. The attitude of police officers, I think, is dangerous.”
Less than a quarter (22%) of those charged under the legislation are convicted in court, she claimed, adding “the majority of behaviours for which people are charged are things they could have been charged with under existing legislation”.
She argued the Act made some fans’ behaviour criminal when it not otherwise be an offence if it had taken place away from a football match.
Ms Findlay also clashed with former justice secretary Kenny MacAskill – who spearheaded the legislation through Holyrood – when he questioned her about whether the killing of Catholic police officers in Northern Ireland should be classed as a sectarian offence.
Mr MacAskill raised the case of 25-year-old Ronan Kerr from Omagh, Co Tyrone, who was killed in 2011 four years ago when a bomb exploded under his car.The newly-qualified officer had been on his way to work in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, when the attack happened.
The former justice secretary asked if “the mother and family of Ronan Kerr and other police families who have lost loved ones might be distressed by what could be described as songs that venerate their killers”.
Ms Findlay asked him: “What songs are you referring to. Is this a song that you know, is there a song you are referring to?”
She stressed: “It’s a sectarian act to target anybody for anything because of their religion in a negative way. That’s a sectarian act.
“But we’re committee witnesses to talk about a petition on the Offensive Behaviour Act. If you wish to discuss murder, that ‘s not what we were asked to come here to discuss.”
She said afterwards that FAC had been “delighted to have the opportunity to come before the Petitions Committee” and stated: “We felt we had a very good discussion within the committee.
“There were lots of questions which we were happy to answer but clearly some members of that committee had some rather odd views on what the topic of discussions was. But we felt most people understood what our concerns were.”
MSPs on the committee agreed to raise the issue with the Scottish Government and to highlight the petition to members of the Justice Committee, which will consider what issues it should look at in the next parliament.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “The vast majority of football supporters are well-behaved and simply wish to support their team and enjoy the game.
“Since the introduction of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act religious crimes are down, race crimes are down, crimes in relation to individuals’ sexuality are down and we’ve seen a decrease in crimes of offensive behaviour at or in relation to regulated football matches in Scotland showing the Act has delivered real improvements.
“An independent review of the operation of Section 1 of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 was presented to the Scottish Parliament and published in June 2015. The Scottish Government does not have any plans to carry out a further review at this time.”