Hoey talks tough on thugs

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FOOTBALL FANS who utter racist chants or attack rival supporters are to be targeted for immediate arrest under a "zero- tolerance" policy to be introduced by the new sports minister, Kate Hoey.

The policy came into force this weekend, at the start of the new football season - which kicked off with Birmingham fans smashing the windscreen of the Leeds United players' coach just before the clubs' warm-up match at St Andrew's.

Ms Hoey's move, certain to prove popular with the overwhelming majority of fans, comes just days after she launched a ferocious attack on Manchester United for treating their fans in a "shabby way" over the club's decision not to take part in the FA cup. Initially regarded by commentators as a gaffe, sources close to the new minister were yesterday claiming it showed "her popular touch". They believe most Manchester United fans are angry at the club's decision.

Outlining her zero tolerance strategy, Ms Hoey explained that football hooliganism had been thought to be declining but that new figures from the National Criminal Intelligence Service showed violent football crimes had soared by 100 per cent over the past year. During the past season, arrests rose from 52 between 1997 to 1998, to 100 over the past year, and arrests for all types of football-related offences also rose for the first time in six years.

The surge in violence is seen as tainting minor league clubs as well as the Premier League. But under the Football Act introduced last week, the police and courts will have stronger powers to deal with football criminals. Previously, police could arrest only groups of fans for offences such as racist chanting, a restriction that made it difficult to get convictions. But now individual thugs can be arrested. Courts will also find it easier to issue banning orders, which now apply to offences committed 24 hours before or after a match. Fans will also be barred from going abroad for up to 10 years if they commit a football-related offence.

Intelligence officers at the NCIS will focus on up to 200 individuals thought responsible for masterminding attacks on fans and police. There are also plans for detectives from British Transport Police to be seconded to the NCIS's football unit.

The moves are in response to hooligans now focusing their criminal activities outside the football grounds. Investigations by the NCIS show they are using the internet, mobile phones and pagers to organise match violence. They are also selling drugs, dealing in counterfeit currency and using bogus credit cards to help fund their activities at overseas matches.

Bryan Drew, head of strategic and specialist intelligence at the NCIS, said he expected the new law to lead to a huge rise in international and domestic banning orders.