By Liam McArthur

Sitting before the Board of the Scottish Police Authority last February, Deputy Chief Constable Will Kerr said that the number of sectarian incidents and disorder at football appeared to be increasing, but he couldn’t confirm that because it was “hard to quantify”.

However in a new twist, it turns out that there is, in theory, two years’ worth of data and details on unacceptable behaviour at Scottish football. But the public, Parliament and campaigners are not allowed to see it.

Research by the Scottish Liberal Democrats, in collaboration with anti-sectarianism charity Nil by Mouth, has revealed that this data is in fact being recorded and monitored. It is gathered by the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL), and shared with the government and the police. This arrangement, however, is subject to one important caveat – government and the police are sworn to secrecy.

Establishing this much has been like navigating a maze.

READ MORE: SNP Government in secrecy row over football sectarianism report

Months ago I asked the Justice Secretary about comments made by Kilmarnock manager, and now Scotland boss, Steve Clarke, who was taunted by sectarian slurs while standing on the touchline at a game. Reflecting on the abuse, he rightly branded it the stuff of the "Dark Ages". Upsettingly, he also said he was pleased Chelsea had taken him away from Scotland so his children and grandchildren didn’t have to grow up under the same cloud.

His assessment was as frank as it was uncomfortable, and a moment of shame for both the game and our country. But we don’t know whether the incident that prompted it is contained in the SPFL’s secret database. The same goes for every other incident that has occurred up and down the country over the last two seasons, whether it is sectarian chanting, chair throwing, fireworks, assaults or abuse.

Is sectarianism on the rise? Has it got worse this season? Is it only a minority of fans acting this way? The answer is we don’t know, because up until now the impression was given no one had the numbers.

Professor Duncan Morrow is a world-renowned expert on sectarianism, hate crime and community cohesion. He was twice commissioned by the Scottish Government to delve into the problems in Scottish football and society more widely, and he concluded by recommending that incidents should be monitored and regularly published. This would help tackle sectarianism by boosting transparency and laying the groundwork for informed public debate. Nothing there to argue with – or so you’d imagine.

But what resulted was a pathetic compromise. Despite Professor Morrow’s original ambition being openness, informed debate is only allowed to happen behind closed doors at SPFL, government and police headquarters. Instead of encouraging debate, they have muted it.

This is a problem on a number of levels. The most fundamental is that we need baseline figures if we’re really going to measure progress. Banning this information from every seeing the light of day means football fans are less safe.

Herald View: Time for a new approach on sectarianism

As DCC Kerr rightly said in that same February meeting, we cannot let this become normal. Hateful chants, violence and sectarianism ruin the game for everyone else. It means the vast majority of respectful fans get a bad name and in time could miss out on the chance to watch their teams because others think they can get away with unacceptable behaviour.

It’s absolutely scandalous that the Scottish Government are playing the puppet for the football authorities. It appears that they have used their cooperation as leverage. Ministers seem to have signed up to some sort of gagging deal. The Scottish Government now says that releasing the statistics they have been given could cause them to be cut off. It apparently wouldn’t be in the public interest to disclose the information. No competent administration could weave themselves into such a mess.

Ministers need to step up and explain this to Scottish fans. Who signed away their silence and what exactly does this database show?

Liam McArthur is the justice spokesperson for the Scottish Liberal Democrats