SCOTTISH Labour MSP James Kelly’s bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act will leave a gap in the law, according to prosecutors.

The Holyrood Parliament’s Justice Committee yesterday heard differing views on the Kelly bill from Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) and three supporters’ organisations.

The COPFS said that alternative charges are available to those contained in the 2012 Act, but that law does give prosecutors extra powers which are not contained in other legislation.

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The Act brought in after the so-called “shame game” between Celtic and Rangers in 2011 was aimed principally at tackling sectarian behaviour around football matches and online, but its opponents such as Fans Against Criminalisation yesterday argued strongly that the Act is unnecessary in light of existing laws.

They and other supporters groups say it unfairly targets football fans, and has also led to a breakdown in trust between police and supporters.

James Kelly said it had failed to tackle sectarianism and “simply served to draw a divide between fans and the police, reversing years of progress”. MSPs quizzed Anthony McGeehan of COPFS and Assistant Chief Constable Bernard Higgins on the consequences of repealing it.

McGeehan said: “In my assessment there would be a gap in the law.”

He said alternative charges are available to those provided under the Act, but he added that they have “limitations”.

For example, the Act provides powers to hand out tougher sentences for people convicted of threatening communications offences than those available under other legislation.

ACC Higgins said the repeal of the Act would not prevent police from addressing sectarian behaviour at football matches, including offensive banners or songs.

He said: “In the general legislation, should this Act be repealed, that behaviour, we would still challenge, and we would still arrest for.”

Asked if its repeal could lead to a rise of such behaviour he said: “Of course ... there is the potential that many might see this as a lifting of restrictions which means perhaps behaviour would deteriorate, which then would mean the consequence of additional police officers and stewarding having to be deployed to stadiums.

“But the reality is we just don’t know, we would have to wait and see how fans and fan groups reacted to it.”

Jeanette Findlay of the Fans Against Criminalisation group said McGeehan’s comments conflicted with a submission from the Law Society of Scotland who she said took the view that there would be no gap in the law.

She added: “I would also refer you to the evidence you just heard where Mr Higgins said in the absence of this Act young men would have been arrested and charged with breach of the peace.”

Findlay also said laws on offensive communications should have been looked at separately, rather than being added in to the Act.

She said: “If there needs to be other legislation then that other legislation should not have been attached to something that only relates to football fans.

“It seems to me there was a problem with the original drafting and of course that can be looked and corrected after this Act is repealed, which is of course what we hope will happen.”

Told by SNP MSP Rona Mackay that gay rights group Stonewall Scotland, the Equality Network, Victim Support and women’s organisation fear the repeal of this Act, Simon Barrow of the Scottish Football Supporters Association replied: “Certainly it would concern many football fans if sexist and racist abuse and sectarianism, hate speech of any kind, homophobia, was to be tolerated in football and fans are actively working to combat those tendencies.

“The key thing we would like to say is that whatever happens moving forward, we within football take greater responsibility for the atmosphere that exists and the way we address disorder.”

Findlay said: “Obviously it would be very concerning and I have read those submissions in some detail and I have also kept a track of the statistics over the years, so if there was any basis to those concerns then clearly I would be concerned as well.

“However I think you’ll find that in the entire period of the Act there’s been two charges which related to homophobia, and none which have related to misogyny or sexism.

“If there is a problem, and clearly there is a problem in wider Scottish society which affects those groups, I don’t know that there has been any evidence which has been presented that’s particular to football.”