Yesterday in the Justice Committee hearing on the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bil, reported at http://bit.ly/jmLzOK the Justice Minister, Roseanna Cunningham, was asked the following question by John Lamont, MSP.
“Given the history of the laws and your frustration that they are not working to achieve your objective, how many people do you anticipate will face prosecution once the bill is enacted? Clearly, that is not in the Government’s control, but you must have a feeling for how many people will face prosecution under the new laws who escape prosecution under the current regime.”
I was then astonished by her reply. (Emphases added.)
“Roseanna Cunningham: I cannot possibly answer that, I am afraid, because it will depend entirely on circumstances that arise at matches and decisions that are made by match commanders and the police on the ground. If you were to ask me what the Government is hoping for, it is for there to be immediate and early arrests in situations where there is disorder, but we hope that, over the piece, the bill will act as a deterrent as much as anything else and that there will not be hundreds or indeed thousands of arrests week in, week out. We are hoping that the legislation will be used by the police in the early part of the season and that it will be needed less as time goes on.”
Mr Lamont then further pressed by asking:-
“With the greatest respect, minister, that is the critical point. Surely the point about deterrence is that it works when people fear the prospect of being arrested and prosecuted under new legislation. Currently, such deterrence is not there. If you are not able to tell me how many more people are going to be prosecuted, surely that is a fundamental hole in your proposal. If you are not able to say that X number of people are going to face prosecution, what is the deterrence?”
“Roseanna Cunningham: I am sorry, but how can I possibly answer that? I cannot possibly say. For the first three months there might be absolutely no disorder at any single football match...With the very greatest respect, I cannot answer your question. It would perhaps be better to ask the police witnesses what they believe is the likely extent to which they will be able to use the legislation. All I would be able to do is take a wild guess, but I am not in a position to do that. We are obviously not expecting the police to arrest 5,000 people, but if disorder of the kind that we have seen kicks off, we expect the police to use the legislation, where they consider it appropriate. It will still be a matter for the police on the ground to make those decisions, because they are operational issues. We hope that early use of the legislation will result in enough salutary lessons being learnt by football fans to ensure that its use is needed less in the future.”
Perhaps I misunderstand the reason for the Executive to issue additional information alongside its bills. Perhaps a Financial Memorandum referring to less than 700 cases being brought, including 500 fixed penalties, is nothing to do with what the Executive actually thinks.
Surely in that case the Minister could have made that clear. I would be very reluctant to suggest that any lawyer, particularly one as experienced as Ms Cunningham, forgot her brief (it can happen to anyone) but I can’t see any other reason for the discrepancy between the Justice Department’s own paperwork, and the Justice Minister’s words.
Hopefully she can clarify this wehn she appears again at the Committee next week.