Stringent new laws to tackle sectarianism could be in place by the start of the next Scottish football season after proposals won the support of the new Scottish cabinet.
Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond's new-look team backed the proposed legislation at its first meeting since the SNP's election victory, in response to what is seen as one of the worst years of sectarianism in Scottish football in recent memory.
The ‘Offensive Behaviour in Football and Threatening Communications Bill’ would see football supporters who cause sectarian disruption at matches or online jailed for up to five years.
Currently people who cause disruption at matches can be charged with breach of the peace, with a maximum one-year sentence.
‘Online hate to be targeted’
Online hate crime, such as comments posted on Twitter or on message boards, will be included in the legislation and would carry the same punishment.
Following the cabinet meeting, a spokesman for Salmond said: “By the beginning of the next football season, everybody will know the score.
“There will be no shadow or scintilla of doubt as to what is acceptable and what isn't acceptable.”
The spokesman said the Bill is focused on particular areas of the issue of sectarianism and is part of a “much wider and comprehensive effort to eradicate the problem”.
‘Failure of fan groups’
The Bill comes after commentators have welcomed a new debate on self-policing amongst fans, but pointed to the failure of leadership by supporter groups.
A culture of challenging sectarian fans has not been developed, it is argued, and self- policing measures that have been effective in the fight against other forms of intolerance and violence in countries such as Germany have not become common practice in Scotland.
Representatives of 80 Rangers fans groups met in early May pledging to take action on the problem. A statement after the meeting said, “It was agreed any songs with references to sectarian chanting as outlined by the police and the courts must go now and remain gone. We can try to eradicate this by more stringent self-policing.”
The new bill is expected to be presented to Parliament by the middle of June and completed by the end of the month.
‘Scotland in the 21st century’
Labour justice spokeswoman Johann Lamont said: “In 21st century Scotland there is no place for sectarianism and while the SNP government's new focus on tackling the problem is to be welcomed the fact is ministers have taken their eye off the ball over the last four years.
“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.