Instigating the repeal of the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act

Credit: Joseph Webster

Through direct engagement with the Scottish Parliament and the media (including 16 newspaper articles and a live TV debate), Joseph Webster’s research at the Faculty of Divinity was instrumental in repealing the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012 (OBFA) on 15 March 2018.

Webster’s ethnographic research on the Orange Order in Scotland included 13 months of immersive, full-time fieldwork with Orangemen and Rangers Football Club supporters in an Orange Social Club, as well as loyalist parades and street protests, and Orange church services. His published research was of particular relevance to his case for repeal of the OBFA and, post-repeal, to his advocacy of non-legislative solutions to football sectarianism via early-years education.

His study of religious identity politics initially contributed to the Scottish government’s Independent Advisory Group on Hate Crime, Prejudice and Community Cohesion, after which he was invited to appear before the Scottish Government Justice Committee to give oral evidence on repeal. During this time, Webster also engaged extensively with the media on the repeal debate.

Beneficiaries of repeal include all football fans in Scotland, Police Scotland, Irish-migrant populations, and civil liberty groups UK-wide.

Since repeal, ‘at risk’ football fans (mostly young men from deprived communities) will no longer have their prospects blighted by criminal records classing them as sectarian offenders. Webster’s research called for non-legislative solutions to sectarianism via early-years education, leading the Scottish government to allocate £530,000 to anti-sectarianism education in 2019.

Webster’s research has also shaped a much broader debate about the nature of sectarianism and hate crime. His research has influenced current and future anti-sectarianism policy in Scotland by engaging with politicians, journalists, campaigners and further education colleges to redefine sectarianism not as a juridical problem, but as a social problem which requires a societal solution.

As the Scottish government currently debates new ways to tackle hate crime, Webster’s research continues to influence draft legislation by assisting politicians to learn from the mistakes of the OBFA.

“Your evidence at the committee was very impressive and helpful to my case. The fact that you were able to back up views with such a strong evidence base added good quality to your oral and written submission.”

– James Kelly MSP, leading the repeal effort