MONDAY VIEWPOINT : Unjust assault on rights of fans

By Mike Slocombe, national co-ordinator of Football Fans Against The Criminal Justice Act
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The Independent Online
If you're a dedicated football fan you'll be familiar with the trials and tribulations of travelling the country to see your team play. No doubt you'll also be familiar with the wildly contrasting receptions you receive from the local constabulary, ranging from convivial to confrontational.

Well, now things are going to get a lot worse. The Criminal Justice Act has recently been passed, and it will seriously affect the fundamental civil rights of all football fans.

Peaceful demonstrations, like those seen in recent years at Queen's Park Rangers, Celtic, Manchester City and Tottenham, will now become criminal offences under the "aggravated trespass" laws. You could also be arrested even if you're nowhere near the ground: all the police need is "reasonable suspicion" that you intend to take part.

Often protests are the only way left for fans to voice their concern about what is happening at their club. Taking away this right of peaceful protest will give them even less say in the running of the club - and it is the fans, after all, who ultimately pay the wages.

If you are unlucky enough to be arrested, not only do you no longer have the right to remain silent, but police can now forcibly pull hair out of your head or take a mouth swab. This information will stay on a national DNA database, even if you're subsequently found not guilty.

This is bad news for football fans, as there have already been publicised cases of innocent fans being deported from away trips in Europe after their names had mistakenly been put on the "hooligan blacklist."

The Act also empowers police to stop and body-search anyone, even if they're nowhere near the ground. Fans are already searched as they enter grounds, and according to the police's own figures, out of the 23 million fans who attended games last season, just 35 were found to be carrying offensive weapons. These additional powers are clearly unnecessary, and may create tension, ill-feeling and possible confrontation between fans and the police.

Another rather bizarre section of the Act introduces the criminal offence of "intentional harassment, alarm or distress." This means that if a fan shouts or gestures within sight or hearing of a person likely to be caused "alarm or distress", they could face up to six months in prison. The implementation of this clause may prove difficult: don't large numbers of fans generally spend the entire 90 minutes trying to "harass and alarm" the opposition?

A section of the Act already in force is the ticket tout law. This supposedly outlaws professional ticket touts, but there have already been many cases of innocent fans being threatened with arrest or having their tickets confiscated just for trying to sell on single spare tickets at cost price.

If a friend is taken ill and you find yourself with a spare ticket, the club almost certainly won't buy it back, you can't sell it to a fellow fan, so you lose your money. Needless to say, this only applies to football and not to the theatre, tennis, rugby or any other sport.

The Act is being implemented in stages, with the stop and search, DNA database, right to silence and intentional harassment clauses coming into effect over the next two months.

The powers contained in the Act are very broad and vague, and it seems that some police forces are already interpreting them in an unfair and aggressive manner towards football fans. This sets a worrying precedent for when the rest of the Act becomes law.

Football Fans Against the Criminal Justice Act needs to know how fans are being affected by these new laws, and we've set up a campaign hot- line (0171-274 8029) on which fans can ring in and tell us about their experiences.

This information will help us to compile a Bill of Rights for football fans, which will detail what rights fans have, what the police can and cannot do, and what to do when arrested. This will take the form of a wallet-sized card that will be distributed free to every ground in Britain, with a more comprehensive information booklet available at a small cost. We have no funding, so we welcome any help.