Joint investigation reveals football authorities, SNP ministers and police keeping sectarianism data secret

A joint investigation by the Scottish Liberal Democrats and Nil By Mouth has uncovered that the football authorities were tasked with compiling a database of sectarian incidents at football, but that in exchange for access to it both the Scottish Government and Police Scotland agreed to be gagged and keep its contents secret from the public and the Parliament.

In a 2017 report for the Scottish Government, international expert Professor Duncan Morrow recommended that ministers, football authorities and the police establish a framework for monitoring sectarian incidents with its findings “published annually to allow for a genuine debate about the extent of sectarian behaviour and attitudes in football”.

The joint investigation, printed today in the Herald on Sunday, has now found:

  • The SPFL has been collating data on “unacceptable conduct at football” since the start of the 2017-18 season, after reaching an agreement with the government and police, but that there are no plans to make this public.
  • The Scottish Government told Liam McArthur MSP it “does not directly monitor unacceptable conduct in football”, before later admitting it was in possession of the SPFL’s records but was required to keep them secret.
  • Ministers refused a request from Liam McArthur MSP to give the data to Parliament, stating “this information is shared with the Scottish Government and Police Scotland in confidence, at the request of football authorities”.
  • Nil By Mouth also asked the Scottish Government for the contents of the sectarianism database through a freedom of information request. Nil By Mouth was told that it was obtained from the SPFL and “disclosure would constitute an actionable breach of confidence” and “was provided in circumstances which imposed an obligation on the Scottish Government to maintain that confidentiality”. After this was appealed, Nil By Mouth was told that if ministers were to release the sectarianism data it would “make it extremely unlikely that this type of information would be shared again in future”.
  • Police Scotland was asked, through a freedom of information request, what records it collected on sectarian incidents at football. The national force said it wasn’t recorded centrally, and failed to admit that it too is in possession of the SPFL’s records.

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur MSP commented:

“An international expert was commissioned by the Scottish Government ministers to come up with a plan to tackle sectarianism. A critical part of that plan was collecting and publishing data on its prevalence at football. It is a joke to now be told that ‘it isn’t in the public interest’ to disclose this information.

“There are serious questions about why the football authorities were entrusted to collate it, given that the same expert found them to be in denial about the problem and refusing to take responsibility.

“Equally, how did Ministers and the police get themselves into a situation where they are gagged? They dodged telling us they are in possession of the data and now I’ve been told Parliament can’t even have it.

“At best, the police and government wrongly acquiesced to the football authorities. At worst, they colluded with them to keep data on the level of sectarianism at Scottish football secret.

“Sectarianism is poisoning Scottish football. Secrecy isn’t the answer. This data needs to be released immediately.”

Dave Scott, Director of anti-sectarianism charity Nil By Mouth, commented:

“When it comes to tackling sectarianism in Scottish football, it’s crucial that the Government and Parliament don’t let the SPFL call the shots given its utterly dismal record of failure on the subject. Whistleblowers within the SPFL’s own match observer network have already laid bare the extent to which the league will go to ignore the problems of sectarian abuse at games and last year a third of all Premier League managers had to speak out about repeated instances abuse toward them from the stands.

“The silence from the SPFL to these problems is deafening. That is why we need this report to be published so the Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee can thoroughly analyse and investigate the claims made within it as well as take evidence in public from relevant agencies and officials. The SPFL cannot be allowed to dodge, deflect or deny responsibility any longer.”

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