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Justice Secretary urged to tear up sectarianism secrecy agreement

Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur has asked Humza Yousaf to make a database of information publicly available.

Almost two years’ data has been collated regarding unacceptable behaviour at grounds (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Almost two years’ data has been collated regarding unacceptable behaviour at grounds (Andrew Milligan/PA)

The Scottish Government has been urged to “rip up” a secrecy agreement it reached with the SPFL over data on sectarianism in Scottish football.

It emerged on Sunday that almost two years’ data has been collated by match officials regarding unacceptable behaviour at grounds.

The Scottish Government was told it would only be able to view the data if it signed a contract that prohibits it from publishing the information.

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Humza Yousaf said he cannot just rip up the contract (Jane Barlow/PA)

At Holyrood on Tuesday, Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur urged Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf to tear up the contract and make the entire database publicly available.

“The football authorities have been collating data for the past two seasons in secret,” he said.

“Nobody but ministers and the police has ever seen it, they never will unless something changes.

“Will the Cabinet Secretary rip up the secrecy agreement and publish today, in full, the contents of the sectarianism database?”

Mr Yousaf explained the agreement had been signed by his predecessor, Michael Matheson.

He said Mr Matheson had written to the SPFL in 2017 expressing his disappointment over the decision to keep the data from the public.

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Neil Doncaster will take the issue to the next SPFL board meeting (Andrew Milligan/PA)

The letter by Mr Matheson to SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster at the time read: “It’s difficult to see how the building of public confidence can be achieved without being open and transparent.

“I’m therefore disappointed that the data will not be publicly available and I hope that you will reconsider this decision.”

Mr Yousaf said he spoke to Mr Doncaster on Tuesday morning to outline the Government’s preference for the data to be made available.

“I strongly agree that we need robust data to understand unacceptable conduct at football and take actions necessary to address it,” Mr Yousaf said.

“The data is collated by the football authorities, not the Scottish Government.

“It was only provided on the basis that it was, and I quote, ‘confidential and is not published’.”

He added: “However, our clear and consistent preference has been for this data to be published, therefore I’ve spoken to SPFL chief executive Neil Doncaster today to reiterate this once again and we’ll follow up in writing.

“He and the SPFL have confirmed that they are committed to discuss this positively at their next board meeting.

“It’s only through open and honest discussion, based on robust evidence, that we can work with all of our partners to tackle the unacceptable conduct by a minority of supporters which unfortunately contuinues to shame our national game.”

Responding to Mr McArthur’s call for the agreement to be ripped up, Mr Yousaf said it would not be possible.

“It’s not in my gift to just rip up an agreement with a stakeholder that could be potentially actionable if I do that,” Mr Yousaf said.

“Rather what I’ve done this morning is spoken to Neil Doncaster through dialogue and conversation, asked him once again to reconsider the SPFL’s objection to that.

“In fairness to Neil Doncaster, he took a very constructive approach to that telephone conversation, has agreed that he’ll put that forward to the  board at the next board meeting and I hope through that dialogue we get to a place where that data can be very readily published.”

The SPFL's response has been to date quite frankly pathetic Liam McArthur MSP

Mr McArthur added: “It seems inconceivable that the Government would sign up to an arrangement that’s effectively gagged it by the SPFL.

“The Scottish Government’s own independent commission asked for this data to be recorded and published annually to inform a proper public debate.

“Serious conversations about options like strict liability are impossible if the figures are kept secret.

“And that calls into question just how seriously those who have the data are working to life the curse affecting Scottish football.”

He added: “I too would like to hear from Neil Doncaster because the SPFL’s response has been to date quite frankly pathetic.

“If their response to sectarianism is dependent on secrecy and gagging orders, they don’t deserve to be running the game.”

In a statement, Mr Doncaster said: “I had a very positive and productive discussion with Humza Yousaf this afternoon, where he formally requested that a variety of information be made public. We will now discuss this as a board before deciding on the best way forward.

“During the conversation, we wholeheartedly agreed on the imperative to do all we can to tackle unacceptable conduct and underlined our keenness to play an active role in the cross-party group in the Scottish Parliament on combating sectarianism in Scottish society when it convenes, which we believe will be later in the summer.”

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