The Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill seems on every examination to open up yet more questions.
In this post I want to look at the narrow issue of how it might work in practice.
This relates to Part 1 of the Bill which brings in the offence of football related offensive behaviour and refers to the meeting of the Justice Committee on 21st June 2011 when the Bill was discussed. The Report of those proceedings can be found at http://bit.ly/jmLzOK.
Assistant Chief Constable Corrigan, speaking for ACPO, indicated that he did not foresee the police routinely wading in to large crowds of chanting football fans to make arrests, on the basis that this itself could occasion further disorder. That was an entirely appropriate response from a witness to the Committee who seemed to do a far better job defending the Bill than the Minister there to promote it!
However, we need to look at the practicalities.
Already when there are high profile incidents at matches, such as Neil Lennon cupping his ears to the Rangers fans howling abuse at him, we see reports of spectators having had a fit of the vapours contacting the police in their droves to make complaints. The police, quite sensibly, generally take no action, except of course in respect of Artur Boruc blessing himself.
The proposed new law however opens up a huge new can of worms.
Dr David McArdle, from Stirling University Law School, pointed out that even under existing rules, most reports to police come, not from the police themselves, nor from stewards, but from fellow spectators.
We have a Bill here which makes great play of the need to stamp out sectarianism in Scotland, and where the offence is that of “offensive behavior”. Great publicity is being given to the evils the Bill is to resolve and the penalties for breach.
One can easily envisage the next Old Firm match – the away fans penned in their corner of the stadium with the thin flourescent line of police and stewards keeping the opposing fans at a distance, and vice versa.
Some of the delicate flowers who go to these matches take offence at a song, chant, t-shirt, banner or even tattoo on the other side of the divide. They are concerned that this could occasion public disorder. They therefore seek to report the matter to a steward or a police officer. I suspect the stewarding companies would direct the complaining fan to the nearest police officer immediately.
How many complaints do the police anticipate receiving during matches? The officers attending will need to bring extra large notebooks with them.
And could one of the officers politely tell a complainer not to bring the complaint, or that it will not be acted upon by the police?
Cue headlines the next day criticising the police for failing to apply the vital new law (the most important legislation in Scotland in the last 30 years, according to Paul McBride QC.)
Alternatively the police might direct that complaints be made after the game. If so, Strathclyde Police will have to employ extra operators, or install segregated front desks at London Road and other Glasgow police offices.
And would an officer take the chance of dismissing a complaint on the spot, on the off chance that that one might be genuine?
As with any new legislation, it would be hoped that such circumstances would quickly calm down, but the Old Firm fans are not known for their tolerance generally towards each other (even though, as a matter of fact, the vast majority are at games only for the football and not these extraneous matters).
The first Old Firm game under the new law, if passed, might well end up making a mockery of the whole thing.
How would that seem to the outside world, bearing in mind that one express purpose of this Bill is to show the rest of the world that Scotland cares about this problem?