Evidence backing Offensive Behaviour Act branded “deception” as committee hearings draw to a close

Caitlin Logan

Football fans’ campaign group raises doubt over evidence put to the Scottish Parliament Justice Committee

FANS AGAINST CRIMINALISATION (FAC), a campaign set up in opposition to the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act (OBFA), has called into question the veracity of evidence put forward to the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee by the Scottish Women’s Convention (SWC) in opposition to the proposed repeal.

The OBFA, which aims to address sectarianism and other “offensive behaviour” in and around football matches, has faced significant criticism since it was passed in 2012. Critics have described the Act as illiberal because of the discetionary powers it confers to police, and as practically unworkable and failing to address the underlying issues.

As the committee prepares for its final hearing of evidence on Labour MSP James Kelly’s proposed repeal of the controversial legislation on Tuesday, FAC accused the SWC, which is funded by the Scottish Government to consult women across the country on various issues, of “deception” around its submission of evidence last month.

Jeanette Findlay, a member of FAC, wrote to the Justice Committee on 3 December to raise concerns about the evidence presented by SWC, and has since provided new information to CommonSpace on the issue.

READ MORE: Consultation response shows strong opposition to controversial Offensive Behaviour Act

The bulk of SWC’s evidence, FAC believes, was based on research into sectarianism carried out in 2012 – just shortly after the OBFA came into force. Despite the SWC telling a Justice Committee hearing that specific meetings on the Act took place, no specific record or details have been identified to date.

CommonSpace has made repeated requests to SWC for evidence of the organisation’s consultation regarding the Act and a copy of the 2013 report on sectarianism, but the information has not been provided. However, FAC was able to obtain the 2013 report, and CommonSpace can confirm that five of the seven direct quotes from women used in the 2017 submission on the repeal of the OBFA were taken from this report.

This, Findlay said, made it “patently obvious” that the submission had been “taken almost in its entirety from the 2013 document”, in contrast to statements made before the Justice Committee by Debbie Figures on behalf of SWC.

Findlay said: “Debbie Figures of the SWC gave oral evidence to the Justice Committee of the Scottish Parliament on Tuesday 7 November and, in answer to a question from Mary Fee MSP, said that there had been ‘specific meetings’, which had taken place ‘recently’ about the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour Act, at which women had been consulted and that this had been the basis of their evidence.”

Specifically, Debbie Figures told the committee meeting: “We recently held two events on the topic, one with young women of school age to 20 and another round-table discussion with women of a mixture of ages.”

Figures added: “There were 20 young women at the young women’s event and about 40 women at the other event where there were two round tables”, and explained that evidence had also been gathered from road shows and general discussions.

“We call on the SWC to clarify these issues now. If they do not then, I am afraid, people will be left to draw their own conclusions.” Jeanette Findlay, Fans Against Criminalisation

These details, Findlay said, were contradicted by the emergence of the 2013 report and statements later made to a supporter of FAC by Agnes Tolmie, chair of SWC.

Findlay said: “On 15 November [the supporter] was told that the evidence came from ‘various meetings and events across the past five years’; that these were ‘about various issues to do with violence against women’; that there had been none that were ‘specifically about the Offensive Behaviour Act’ and that there had been a ‘survey’.

“We can find no trace, anywhere, in the public domain of any advertising of any consultation events on the repeal of the OBFA or of any survey relating to the repeal of the OBFA. We call on the SWC to clarify these issues now. If they do not then, I am afraid, people will be left to draw their own conclusions.”

Prior to the SWC’s appearance before the Justice Committee, the organisation was contacted by around 40 women to voice opposition to its submission and question the range of representation.

SWC’s submission opposed the repeal of the act on the basis that women have reported experiences of being “groped, physically assaulted or even threatened with rape all because they support a particular team” and of experiencing “fear and alarm” due to offensive behaviour in and around football games.

“There was nothing where women were saying ‘this was wrong’ or ‘we shouldn’t have this Act’.” Agnes Tolmie, Scottish Women’s Convention

Following SWC’s appearance before the Justice Committee in November, Agnes Tolmie, chair of SWC, confirmed to CommonSpace that the evidence in the submission was drawn from “roundtables, consultations, and surveys” over a number of years.

“Not all of us can agree on everything”, Tolmie said, and noted that SWC had “consulted with hundreds of women and the topic always comes up”.

She explained: “These are not necessarily the views we hold but our role is to represent what women tell us.

“There was nothing where women were saying ‘this was wrong’ or ‘we shouldn’t have this Act’.”

Tolmie suggested it was difficult for women football fans to raise these issues because of the reaction from other fans. “Women have said they have lost confidence to talk about how they feel about the Act,” she said, explaining that women they had spoken to had asked to be “assured of anonymity” as a result.

READ MORE: Paul Quigley: It’s too late for the SNP on the Offensive Behaviour Act – it’s time to ditch it

She pointed out that, despite suggestions that support of the Act is unhelpful to working class women, “it is working class women who work in this organisation”, including staff and board members who regularly attend football matches in Glasgow.

Asked whether the women consulted considered that the OBFA itself was the best way to address the experiences of sectarianism or sexist abuse highlighted, Tolmie said: “We asked about the law, and women said ‘every little helps’ – anything that can be done, whether it’s piecemeal, anything that helps.”

James Kelly MSP will provide evidence to the committee at its last hearing on 12 December. One of its most controversial pieces of legislation, the SNP could see it overturned as the party now lacks an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament. The Act’s future will depend on the party’s ability to persuade political opponents to back it, although opposition MSPs will likely use the opportunity to push through significant reforms to the law.

Picture courtesy of Fans Against Criminalisation

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