The Scottish Government is at the centre of a secrecy row over a dossier which lays bare the scale of sectarianism at football matches.

Ministers are refusing to publish nearly two years of data on “unacceptable conduct” in football grounds by claiming it is confidential.

The SNP administration believes the public interest is served by withholding data that was provided by the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL).

Nil By Mouth, an anti-sectarianism charity, has now lodged an appeal with the Scottish Information Commissioner to have the figures released.

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They have accused the SPFL of 'going to any lengths' to ensure there isn't the necessary transparency and said it was a law unto itself.

Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said: “Sectarianism is poisoning Scottish football. Secrecy isn’t the answer. This data needs to be released immediately.”

Football clubs are being urged to take firm action against sectarian abuse that has been directed against fans, players and managers.

In February, the then Kilmarnock manager Steve Clarke, responding to chants of “sad Fenian b******” that echoed around Ibrox, said it was reminiscent of the “Dark Ages”.

Derek McInnes, the Aberdeen manager, also hit out after he said Celtic fans had branded him a “sad Orange b******” during a Scottish Cup semi-final.

He said: "They'll keep continuing to sing their songs because we don't have the leadership in this country to deal with it.”

However, the spotlight has now shifted to the records of bad behaviour collated by the SPFL, which runs the top four leagues in Scotland, and shared with the Government.

In 2017, academic Dr Duncan Morrow recommended a monitoring system in his progress report for the Government on tackling sectarianism.

“The outcomes of robust monitoring and evaluation on this basis should be published annually to allow for a genuine debate about the extent of sectarian behaviour and attitudes in football, its impact on culture and the effectiveness of measures to reduce it, and to help further reviews,” he wrote.

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In May, the Government informed McArthur that the football authorities had collected the data on “unacceptable conduct”, which is wider than sectarianism, from the start of the 2017/18 season.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf wrote that the “baseline” information was shared with the Government and Police Scotland “in confidence”, at the request of the football authorities.

After Nil By Mouth, one of the country’s top anti-discrimination charities, tabled requests under freedom of information legislation, the charity was refused the figures by the SNP Government.

Officials said releasing the data would be an “actionable breach of confidence” because the information was obtained from the SPFL.

They added that the information was provided in circumstances which “imposed an obligation” on the Government to “maintain that confidentiality”.

Civil servants also claimed that releasing it would undermine the SPFL’s trust in the Government, adding that the “public interest lies in favour of upholding the exemption”.

Dave Scott, the campaigns director at Nil By Mouth, pointed the finger at the SPFL for the secrecy conditions.

“Scottish football thinks it is a law unto itself and despite the investment of millions of pounds of public money into the game over recent years the SPFL seems to feel it doesn’t have to be publicly accountable. Duncan Morrow’s report called for football to be transparent in its dealings on this issue and it’s clear that the SPFL will go to any lengths to ensure this isn’t the case.

“Government and Parliament can’t allow the SPFL to call the shots and if the commissioner finds in our favour we will be contacting Holyrood’s Health and Sport Committee asking it to undertake an investigation into the report’s findings allowing a cross party group of MSPs to fully question the SPFL in public session.”

He added: “For too long the SPFL has operated its own system of ‘self-regulation’ where no one is ever held to account and the issue of bigotry is swept under the carpet. As a direct result the problem of sectarianism within the game festers with a third of all Scottish Premier League Managers speaking out in recent months about repeated instances of sectarian abuse toward them, at games.

“The SPFL cannot be allowed to dodge, deflect and deny its way out of its responsibilities the problem and we are confident the Commissioner will rule publication to be firmly in the public interest.”

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Labour MSP James Kelly said: "The SPFL and the Scottish Government should be up front and open when it comes to the levels of unacceptable conduct being recorded in football stadiums.

"Without this transparency not only are we unable to view a clear picture of the scale of the problem, but we have little idea of what individual incidents are being classed as such.”

Scottish Tory MSP Donald Cameron said: “There’s no point in having Freedom of Information laws if data like this is kept secret. It’s yet another example of the SNP trying to do government behind closed doors.

“What’s also concerning is that such secrecy and obstruction just serves to heighten suspicion about what’s being kept under wraps.

“In fact, Scottish football fans are among the best behaved in the world, and the authorities should therefore have nothing to fear from releasing this information.”

The BBC reported earlier this year that a number of match delegates – employed by the SPFL – had spoken of their frustration that no action was being taken about sectarian incidents.

"It was so frustrating," said one former delegate. "It seems like the Scottish Professional Football League is content to sweep the issue under the carpet."

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Our strong preference was, and remains, that SPFL should make the data publicly available. However, the information has been provided to us on the condition that it was in confidence.

“That followed discussions between the Scottish Government, Scottish FA, SPFL, Police Scotland and other stakeholders, where the football authorities agreed to collate data on unacceptable conduct in Scottish football for the first time from the start of the 2017-18 season – but on the condition that it remained confidential.”

This newspaper asked the SPFL whether they would agree to publish the information. An SPFL spokesman responded: “We absolutely condemn all forms of unacceptable conduct at SPFL matches. Our focus is on supporting the extensive work that our clubs and the police do to identify and punish the small minority of individuals who engage in this type of dangerous behaviour. “