Scottish Hate Crime Bill gets MSPs backing, but with demands for more changes

The Scottish Government’s controversial Hate Crime Bill has cleared its first parliamentary hurdle, although opposition MSPs said it needed further changes before becoming law.

The Hate Crime Bill has passed its Stage 1 hurdle in the Scottish Parliament.
The Hate Crime Bill has passed its Stage 1 hurdle in the Scottish Parliament.

The principles of the Bill were agreed by all MSPs except the Scottish Conservatives, who declared it “bad legislation”. It will now go forward to the second stage where amendments can be proposed.

During the debate on Tuesday, Scottish Conservative shadow justice spokesman Liam Kerr said that while “genuine hate crime must always be punished, this law goes too far”.

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“Our fundamental right to freedom of speech remains under threat,” he said.

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Mr Kerr, who also described the Bill as the “most controversial in devolution history”, said: “As it is currently drafted, this Bill could criminalise what other people may deem to be offensive or disrespectful

“There is no way any politician with a belief in our fundamental right to freedom of speech could support this shoddy and dangerous law. As we said before the parliamentary debate, mere tinkering is not enough and the SNP needs to understand that.

“This Bill is fundamentally flawed and not fit for purpose. Such threats to freedom of speech cannot become law.”

The draft Bill had attracted widespread criticism from religious organisations, charities, academics, legal and policing bodies, while some women’s groups were also concerned that sex was not being added as a protected characteristic to the Bill.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said he was “disappointed" in the decision by the Scottish Conservatives, who "were voting against the general principles of a Hate Crime Bill … I’ve heard many people use the phrase that aspects of the Bill can have a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of speech, but we must also be aware of the chilling effect of hate on any victim of hate crime."

Mr Yousaf had already agreed changes to the legislation, including removing whole sections which would have targeted theatres and the carrying of "inflammatory material". He had also agreed to insert freedom of expression protections on transgender identity and age.

Opposition MSPs, who voted to pass the Bill at stage one, welcomed Mr Yousaf's changes, but said more needed to be done before the Bill could become law.

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson Liam McArthur said: “Scotland is not immune from racism or prejudice, so we should be looking to ensure our laws are fit for purpose.

"At the same time, we must avoid doing anything that undermines our fundamental freedoms, which ultimately makes the task of combating hate crime more difficult. The Cabinet Secretary has already undertaken major surgery to his Bill, but more will be needed if the Bill is to gain Parliament’s support.”

Scottish Labour's Rhoda Grant said she hoped if Mr Yousaf worked with opposition MSPs the Bill could “be a good law which could stand the test of time”.

But she added: “We have real concerns about the way the Bill has been drafted and it’s welcome the Cabinet Secretary has listened to concerns, but he must go further.

"The concern about leaving out sex could give the signal that hate crime on the basis of sex is of lesser importance than other hate crimes.”

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