SPECIAL REPORT: DO SCOTLAND’S FOOTBALL FANS NEED TO BE REINED IN?

supporters buses
Fans organising their own buses for games has been part of Scotland’s  culture for decades.

By Bill Heaney

Private coaches carrying football fans are a regular fixture on Scotland’s roads on match days – but a controversial shake-up of how they operate is on the horizon.

It will have to wait though after a red card from Scottish parliamentarians.

The Traffic Commissioners, which regulates bus travel across Britain, wanted to bring in new voluntary guidelines on what the supporters’ buses can do.

However, they have announced an eleventh hour call-off of the consultation and issued the following statement: “As the Senior Traffic Commissioner for Great Britain, I think it is important to stress that the traffic commissioners are safety regulators and that we are independent of Government.

“Any guidance that is issued is intended to assist bus and coach operators. However, before I can issue any guidance, I am required to consult, including with the UK and Scottish Governments. But we also consider the views of a wide range of other stakeholders.

“I have listened to the strength of feeling expressed and it is clear to me that there is further work required to understand the full impact of the introduction of any proposed guidance in Scotland.

“As a result, I have asked my officials to cease this consultation exercise.”

It was planned to includes coaches being forced to arrive an hour before kick-off and any stops at pubs before the games being allowed only at premises which serve a “substantial meal” with any alcohol bought.

The commissioner had argued that changes are needed due to concerns that incidents of football-related disorder “do still occur and may be increasing”.

But Scotland’s football authorities disagreed that this  amounted to a solution looking for a problem and would serve to “demonise football fans”.

Who is proposing these changes?

The proposal comes from the Traffic Commissioners for Great Britain, a UK government body which is responsible for the licensing and regulation of firms who operate buses and coaches.

Scotland has its own traffic commissioner as part of this body but the plan comes from the senior traffic commissioner who can issue statutory guidance such as these proposals across the UK.

The proposed guidelines for coach operators are separate to the law enforcement powers that Police Scotland have in relation to fans travelling to and from football matches. Alcohol is already not allowed on coaches travelling to sporting events.

What were some of the changes being proposed?

The guidelines were to be voluntary and apply to the carriage of passengers to football matches in Scotland:

  • The creation of a dedicated football officer (DFO) role at each club which has fans that travel by coach. This person would, 48 hours before every game, receive a notification from a private coach operator stating how many supporters’ buses have been booked, how many people are expected to travel and the organiser’s details.
  • Supporters’ buses would not be allowed to stop within 10 miles of a stadium without prior agreement from the relevant DFO.
  • Stops at pubs on the way to and from matches would be agreed with the DFO and only allowed in premises where alcohol can bought “ancillary to a substantial meal”.
  • Buses would have to arrive no earlier than two hours before, and not later than one hour before, the start of the game, and then must leave within 30 minutes of the finish.
  • Picking up or dropping off passengers at “unauthorised locations” would not be allowed without prior permission of the police.

Why is this being proposed?

The senior traffic commissioner, who launched but then discarded an open consultation on the plans, said the majority of football fans in Scotland are law abiding and did not cause disturbances whilst travelling to or from games.

But they argued that  “a small minority can be disruptive and impact the enjoyment of others”.

The same voluntary guidelines are already in place in England and Wales and the Commissioner argued they have worked well, adding that it has “seldom been necessary” to take any action against coach operators.

The consultation document added: “There is however concern that incidents of football-related violence and disorder do still occur and may be increasing” and the plan is being put forward to achieve a “consistent approach across Great Britain”.

What has the reaction been?

Unusually for Scottish football, there has been a swift and near-uniform condemnation of the proposals from fans and the game’s authorities.

A joint statement issued on behalf of the Scottish FA, Scottish Professional Football League, and Scottish Women’s Premier League said the proposals were “unnecessary and heavy-handed”.

It added: “There’s no evidence that this is a significant problem in Scottish football.

“We are concerned by the targeted nature of these proposals which serve to demonise football fans and interfere unnecessarily in people’s lives. “

The Scottish Football Supporters Association said “it is fair to say that we have concerns around these proposals”.

It added: “We will of course ask the UK government as to who has actually asked for this consultation in the first place given that it has appeared without any previous debate.”

Football in Scotland enjoys some of the best attendance figures, per capita, in Europe

The SNP and Scottish Greens have both criticised the proposals as “unworkable”.

Asked about the issue at Holyrood, first minister Humza Yousaf suggested the guidelines would probably be ignored and backed the concerns expressed by the football authorities.

He added: “I think it is ludicrous. I have no idea where these unworkable proposals have come from, why the uk government and the Traffic Commissioner of Great Britain has decided to bring these guidelines to Scotland.”The first minister said sports minister Maree Todd will be writing to the UK government and the Traffic Commissioner of Great Britain to understand what problem it is that they are trying to solve.

Scottish Conservatives leader Douglas Ross said the “ludicrous plans are completely disproportionate”.

He added: “The proposals make no sense for the Scottish game and should be scrapped immediately – I’ve made that clear to the UK government.”

BBC Scotland asked Police Scotland if the force viewed the behaviour on private coaches carrying football fans to be of concern and it said it would only comment on specific incidents. 

Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross, who is a football referee, said: “This is the right outcome and a victory for football fans across Scotland who had united against these ludicrous proposals.

“It is only right that the traffic commissioner has seen sense and withdrawn the consultation. The fact that it has now been withdrawn only serves to highlight the hugely important role football plays in communities in Scotland and how it brings people together from all backgrounds.

“The proposals were insulting and completely disproportionate and have ended up on the scrapheap where they belong.”

It was John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP),m who kicked off the debate when he asked the Scottish Government what its position is on the potential introduction of strict liability in Scottish football. 

His colleague, the Minister for Social Care, Mental Wellbeing and Sport, Maree Todd, told him: “We have never ruled out strict liability as an option. However, our preferred solution has always been that the footballing authorities in Scotland proactively shape and deliver a robust and meaningful solution to tackle any unacceptable conduct by what is a minority of supporters.”

John Mason pressed the matter: “In recent times, we have had a huge amount of antisocial behaviour in Glasgow, including in my constituency, by some football fans, particularly around George Square, by Rangers fans, and Glasgow Cross, by Celtic fans. 

“Does the minister agree that the clubs need to take more responsibility, as they do when there is a European championship [match]?”

Maree Todd replied: “Although the vast majority of football supporters are well behaved, it is clear that a problem remains, which everyone who is able to exert an influence or to bring about change must work together to eradicate.

“It is important that we do not lose sight of the need for collective action to achieve a zero-tolerance approach to any offences or antisocial behaviour. That includes the footballing authorities and the clubs, as well as everyone else.

“As I have said, our preferred solution has always been that the footballing authorities in Scotland proactively shape and deliver a robust and meaningful solution to tackle any unacceptable conduct by what is definitely a minority of supporters.

“However, we have never ruled out strict liability as an option, and we are well aware that clubs are subject to strict liability when they participate in UEFA-run competitions.

“We will continue to work with the footballing authorities, Police Scotland and fans’ groups to address issues and to ensure that football matches are an enjoyable experience for everyone.”

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