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Police Scotland spend 'baffling' £2m on football crime unit

The unit has been in operation since 2011.

By STV News

Published 09 Aug 2016.

Police Scotland has spent over £2.1m over the last three operational years on a football-only crime unit.

The Football Coordination Unit Scotland (FoCUS) was set-up by Strathclyde Police in 2011 following a recommendation of a joint action working group between football clubs, politicians and law enforcement agencies.

The working group was also used to "inform the ongoing development" of the Offensive Behaviour Act as it was drafted by the then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill.

The unit is now operated through Scotland's national police force, Police Scotland.

FoCUS, which this year has 15 police officers and a budget of £709,120, has been controversial amongst football fans for its involvement in policing fans through the Offensive Behaviour Act.

Figures released to STV News through a Freedom of Information request reveals that over the current and previous two operational years, the unit has spent £2,153,092.

Scottish Labour MSP James Kelly, who is putting forward a Bill to repeal the Offensive Behaviour Act, called the budget of the unit "baffling".

Kelly said: "At a time of civilian staff cuts and falling number of police offices it is baffling that Police Scotland has spent £2m in recent years on a unit to monitor football fans. There are real questions as to whether this is the best use of resources.

"Of course the police should be able to tackle unacceptable behaviour at football matches but at a time when the force is feeling the effect of SNP cuts this is the wrong priority - but it is a priority our police have been forced into because of the SNP Football Act and their backwards approach to tackling sectarianism."

As part of its intelligence and evidence gathering procedures, FoCUS film football fans with credit card style cameras and hand held video cameras.

Police Scotland, however, defended the budget of the 15-officer group saying 96% of its operational budget is on the officer's salaries .

Chief Superintendent Nelson Telfer, of the force's operational support division, said: "The strategic objective of the FoCUS is to provide a consistent approach to policing football with a view to eradicating violence, disorder and hatred from the game to ensure it is a safe and enjoyable experience for those attending.

"The unit, along with every other Police Scotland officer, deals with all strands of hate crime equitably across all parts of the country and should not be viewed simply as an 'anti-sectarian' unit.

He continued: "As 96% of the budget lines quoted refer to salary costs of the Officers concerned, FoCUS provides an invaluable, cost effective resource to Police Scotland and the wider football authorities at a time when value for money is a key consideration."

The Scottish Government however sought to distance FoCUS' operational spending from the Offensive Behaviour Act.

A Government spokeswoman said: "This claim is wrong - the Offensive Behaviour Act makes no provision for policing and resourcing decisions are a matter for Police Scotland.

"FoCUS was established following a recommendation of the joint action group in 2011, for a national football policing unit to ensure a consistent approach to policing football throughout Scotland.

"The work of FoCUS has helped to standardise policing at all football matches, ensuring that responses to offensive behaviour are appropriate and proportionate."

In an evaluation of the Act published in June, 2015 the Scottish Government said Section 1 of the Act was "intertwined" with "complimentary initiatives" such as FoCUS.

The Scottish Liberal Democrats' justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said the Act makes the job of Police Scotland "harder".

He said: "We all want our football grounds and supporters to be safe but there is no point in throwing good money after bad legislation.

"The Scottish Government has said that this unit is 'intertwined' with enforcing the Offensive Behaviour at Football Act - a widely criticised law branded as 'mince' by one Sheriff.

"Police Scotland must have football-related intelligence and sound tactics to prevent the sort of behaviour that marred the cup final. But so long as SNP ministers ask officers to enforce unworkable legislation their job will be a great deal harder."

The Scottish Conservatives said the public "expect" FoCUS's budget to face "scrutiny" to see if it is giving "value for money".

The party's shadow justice secretary Douglas Ross said: "Given the popularity of football in this country it's clear that Police Scotland will have to direct resources to provide intelligence with the aim of preventing any disorder at matches.

"We want football to be as welcoming an environment as possible to encourage more families back to matches and by stamping out unacceptable behaviour and making the clubs and stewards aware of potential problems that should help in this aim.

"We are, however, dealing with ever reducing budgets within Police Scotland and the public will expect this section of the force to face the same scrutiny as any other to ensure it is providing value for money."

According to the latest figures there has been 231 people convicted under the Offensive Behaviour Act since it came into force in 2012.

The Scottish Greens were approached for comment.