First Minister responds to Hate Crime Bill concerns

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has responded to concerns that the Hate Crime Bill threatens free speech.

During First Minister’s Questions today, Labour MSP James Kelly asked Ms Sturgeon what action the government is taking to address concerns that the bill is an “attack on free speech”. Read the exchange below.

James Kelly MSP (Lab): “To ask the First Minister what action the Scottish Government is taking to address concerns that the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill is an attack on free speech.”

First Minister: “I think we’ve just heard an illustration of why it’s really important that we do tackle hate crime in all and any form. The bill proposals seek to find a balance between protecting those who do suffer from the course of hate crime while also respecting people’s freedom of speech and expression which is extremely important and the bill approaches this through the prism of the European Convention on Human Rights. We know that hate crime is damaging and disruptive – we’ve just heard that. It is rooted in prejudice and intolerance and as the Justice Secretary made clear in the chamber last week, the Scottish Government will engage, listen and seek to find common ground to help ensure the bill protects people from hate crime, which I hope everyone will agree is important, while respecting freedom of speech and expression.”

James Kelly MSP: “Action on hate crime is welcome and important however it is clear that there’s a serious problem with the ‘stirring up hatred’ offence, as proposed in the legislation. The Law Society, the Scottish Police Federation, the Catholic Church, and a range of stakeholders have lined up to criticise the vague language in the bill ad expressed concerns that it’s a threat to freedom of speech. Does the First Minister accept that the Government has got its approach to this legislation badly wrong and the ‘stirring up hatred’ offences need to be deleted in full or amended heavily?”

First Minister: “No I don’t accept that. What I do accept, and I hope everybody will enter into the legislative process here in the same spirit, we have to consider these things, we have to listen to views that are expressed and we have to decide whether amendments are required to the bill. That is the right way to go about this and I would suggest that nobody go into this process with a closed minds, and that includes opposition members just as much as it includes the Scottish Government. I hear the concerns that have been expressed and the government will consider all of them carefully. That said, the concept of ‘stirring up hatred’ offences is not new to Scots law. There have been long-standing racial ‘stirring up’ offences operating effectively in Scotland since I think the mid 1980s. The bill also includes explicit provisions on freedom of expression and the bill’s provisions are required to be interpreted in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. I do think it is important that people express their views on this or any bill at the start of the legislative process and try to do that constructively. The government has a duty to listen and we will listen and we will respond appropriately but let’s not lose sight of what we were talking about in the previous question. Hate crime is a real problem in Scotland and all of us have a duty to tackle it. That is wider than legal ways of tackling it but it certainly has to include that.”

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