As I write, the Scottish Government has just moments ago published its Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Bill, which it intends to rush through Parliament and have on the statute book before the summer. In line with this accelerated timetable, SCoJeC received an urgent invitation from Roseanna Cunningham, the new Community Safety Minister to discuss the proposals.
When we met, she explained that the Bill will create two new statutory offences. The first will be directed against religiously motivated offensive football-related behaviour in any public place. This will cover broadcasts, public screenings, etc, and will be extended to all characteristics protected by the Equality Act, including ethnic or national origin, and not only religion. As we discussed with the Minister, it will therefore cover both the abuse of Israeli and Palestinian flags by Old Firm fans, and disorder at matches involving Israeli teams in Scotland.
The second new offence will be making threatening communications, and the Minister explained that this would cover not only explicit threats, but anything that a reasonable person would interpret it as implying a threat. However comedy, drama, and theological debate will be exempted by the defence that the communication was reasonable in the circumstances. The offence can be committed by written, electronic, or recorded communications including voicemail, but not by speech alone, and will include communications from abroad.
Since previous media comment had suggested that these offences might be quite narrowly drawn, we were reassured when the Minister told us that the Bill would cover all religious hatred, not only inter-Christian sectarianism. Indeed that word does not appear in the Bill. Having been at the receiving end of malicious letters, e-mails, phone calls, and blogs, we were also pleased to hear that all these would be covered - though of course that presumes that the police are able to identify the perpetrator.
We had also asked for an urgent meeting with Mike Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Lifelong Learning, which took place earlier the same day. We had alerted him to the serious incidents that had recently taken place in a number of Scottish universities, and had asked to meet as soon as possible. This became more urgent when the University and Colleges Union repudiated the European Union Monitoring Committee definition of antisemitism, in effect stating that the McPherson principle that "a racist incident is any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person" should not apply to antisemitism. The result is that Jewish students are even more exposed than before because they cannot look to academic staff to defend them, and the Jewish Student Chaplaincy Board is having to deal with an increasing number of cases of quite severe stress. The Minister assured us of his support, and undertook to make his concern about these developments clear to university authorities when an appropriate opportunity arose, and also to demonstrate his support by addressing a Jewish student meeting in the near future.
We very much support all efforts to clamp down on hatred and bigotry, and hope that the accelerated parliamentary procedure does not result in any significant deficiencies. In particular we appreciate the fact that the Bill is widely drawn to cover all religious hatred rather than only sectarianism in the narrow sense, and that there is explicit reference to communications from abroad; this will assist the authorities to act against the kind of internet hatred that the Jewish Community has unfortunately experienced. We welcome the assurances given to us by both Ministers of the Scottish Government's commitment to creating a Scotland in which all can live together in safety and security.