On Wednesday Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf told the Scottish Parliament the Government will amend the controversial ‘stirring up’ offences in the Hate Crime Bill, following increasing pressure from all corners of society. He announced plans to remove the term ‘likely’ from the ‘stirring up offences in part 2 of the bill. The change will mean only those who are proved to have had ‘intent’ to stir up hatred would now be caught by the legislation.
Following the announcement Free to Disagree spokesman Jamie Gillies, commented:
“Whilst the change announced by Mr Yousaf is a step in the right direction, the government has failed to resolve other seismic issues in part two of the Hate Crime Bill. There’s still too low a threshold for offending, the wording is hopelessly vague, free speech provisions are inadequate, there is no ‘dwelling defence’, and people outside Scotland could be caught.
“Withdrawing the ‘stirring up’ offences wholesale is the only way to resolve these complex issues and ensure that other, vital civil liberties are upheld. The fact that the government hasn’t done this means opposition to the bill will continue for months to come. It’s a missed opportunity.”
We are not alone in our concerns. Scroll down to read what others have said in response to the Justice Secretary’s announcement.
Faculty of Advocates
The Faculty of Advocates welcomed the Government’s announcement but Dean of the Faculty Roddy Dunlop QC said: “It does not address all of the Faculty’s concerns about potential impact on freedom of expression, and Faculty will continue to work with government to address those other concerns.”
Law Society of Scotland
Amanda Miller, President of the Law Society, said: “We welcome proposals to strengthen the bill in relation to the new ‘stirring up’ offence to include the requirement of intention. This will alleviate concerns that offences could be committed by people expressing controversial views but where they have no intention of stirring up hatred against any group.
“We are also pleased to see the Cabinet Secretary will consider amendments regarding clarification of reasonable defence and freedom of expression. We would support his aim of reviewing the use of archaic language which should not be a part of modern consolidated legislation.”
JOURNALISTS & BROADCASTERS
Society of Editors
The Society of Editors expressed caution that despite a significant climbdown on Scottish hate crime legislation, the bill still poses a substantial threat to freedom of speech.
Ian Murray, Executive Director of the Society of Editors said: “While we welcome the government’s climbdown on some of our key concerns and the Justice Secretary’s assurances that the intention is now only to criminalise intentional behaviour, the legislation still remains a threat to established principles of free speech. The amendments are a step in the right direction but free speech provisions remain inadequate and there is still too low a threshold for offending.”
He added: “While the Society supports attempts to protect people from prejudice, it is essential that fundamental principles of freedom of expression and legitimate discussion are not lost amid attempts in Scotland – and now in England and Wales – to protect the vulnerable.
“Both the Law Commission and the Scottish government must ensure that fundamental rights to free speech are protected and that legitimate debate and discussion of important issues do not stray into the crosshairs of proposed legislation.”
Stephen Daisley (Spectator commentator)
In a comment piece entitled “The SNP’s hate crime u-turn isn’t enough”, Stephen Daisley warned Yousaf “will have to do much more than tinker with one section of the bill. Without radical reconstruction, Part II should be deleted in its entirety. Until it is, freedom of speech will remain under threat in Scotland.”
The Times Editorial
The Times Editorial stated: “His decision is welcome insofar as it goes, although he is not yet off the hook. Critics say the ministerial climbdown, which removed the word ‘likely’, is a rung or two short of satisfactory.”
Daily Mail comment
A Daily Mail comment piece stated, “he has made a significant concession. But it’s nowhere near enough: The bill still states that convictions will be possible for the vague offence of ‘stirring up’ hatred. A return to the drawing-board would have been a preferable option allowing time for a thorough overhaul of this deeply flawed legislation. Mr Yousaf’s decision to listen to his critics is welcome – but he must go further, or risk jeopardising a fundamental cornerstone of our democracy.”
SECULAR & FAITH GROUPS
A spokesman for the Catholic Church said: While we welcome the minister’s statement, we do still have outstanding concerns around the potential for misinterpretation, appropriate defences and the lack of equity in relation to the freedom of expression provisions.”
National Secular Society
NSS Chief Executive Stephen Evans said the proposed amendment “doesn’t go far enough”.
“We welcome the recognition that prosecution thresholds were too low and a requirement for intent needs to be included.
“However, the stirring up offences remain unnecessary and excessive. They would unacceptably erode freedom of expression and menace free and open debate.
“We share the aspiration of building a more equal and inclusive Scotland. But without far more robust freedom of expression safeguards, this bill will seriously chill free speech.”
Humanist UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson said: “The freedom to question or criticise ideas and beliefs is fundamental to the functioning of open and progressive societies. This announcement is an important step forward in the protection of that liberty, and it is encouraging that the Government is willing to give further consideration to other areas for reform. We hope they will now go further and ensure that robust protections of freedom of speech exist in other aspects of the Bill.”
Humanist Society Scotland Chief Executive Fraser Sutherland welcomed the Justice Secretary’s announcement, but added: “We will continue to engage with the government and opposition parties at the Scottish Parliament on other aspects of the bill that we have raised questions about.”
The Christian Institute
The Christian Institute’s Deputy Director for Public Affairs, Simon Calvert, said:
“Humza Yousaf has agreed to change one aspect of his unpopular hate crime bill. This is a start and is welcome as far as it goes.
“But the criticisms levelled at the legislation by institutions and individuals across Scotland are much more far-reaching, and so more changes are needed.
He added: “Unless the Part 2 offences are amended further, they will continue to present a danger to freedom of speech.”
CARE stated: “Whilst this change to the Bill is welcome, this legislation still opens the door to serious limitations on freedom of expression. For example, proving someone’s intention is very difficult and could be very much open to interpretation.
Director of Care for Scotland, Stuart Weir, commented: “It’s really encouraging that Mr Yousaf has been listening to the Hate Crime bill’s critics. His moves are welcome but he must go further. We cannot legislate against intent, only real acts.”
Evangelical Alliance said: “The biggest single danger from this bill is the wide scope and vague definitions of many of the key terms in part two, meaning that in many areas what might be robust disagreement (or even comedy) could meet the criteria for stirring up hatred. There are many areas of legitimate disagreement on all sorts of issues and it is important that reasonable disagreement is protected in a mature society even when offence may be caused.”
Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr MSP
Liam Kerr said: “The minor amendments do not go anywhere near far enough.
“Our fundamental right to freedom of speech remains under threat.”
He also said:
“[The Justice Secretary] makes no mention of the threshold for criminality with regards to ‘threatening’ or ‘abusive’, which represents a significant difference to the legislation south of the border. There’s still no protection for anything said in the privacy of your own home and the vague clauses on inflammatory material are not mentioned.
“In the face of such outrage over part 2 of the bill, why has the Cabinet Secretary for Justice committed only to the consideration of amendments for the protection of freedom of speech, rather than lodging them now, as the Parliament demanded two weeks ago?
“What amendments will he lodge to protect people from prosecution for things that are said in the privacy of their own home? Why did he refuse to listen to the unprecedented backlash against the new stirring up of hatred offences, and why did he not simply scrap part 2 to allow the rest of the bill to proceed to full scrutiny and swift enactment?”
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur MSP
Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur MSP said: “The statement today was a step in the right direction, but is by no means problem solved for the Scottish Government.”
Labour front bench spokesperson Rhoda Grant MSP
Labour MSP Rhoda Grant said: “When stakeholders say that the changes largely meet their needs, do they still want further protections in the bill for freedom of speech?”
The Justice Secretary responded: “In relation to the direct question that she asked about freedom of expression clauses, the short answer is yes—a number of stakeholders raised that concern, from the Roman Catholic Church to the Equality Network and many in between, so I will give further consideration to that area, as I mentioned in my statement.”
Conservative front bencher Liz Smith MSP
Liz Smith MSP said: “Is the cabinet secretary now confirming that he recognises that there are serious flaws in several key sections of the bill, including wording that is open to misinterpretation, and that, notwithstanding what he has announced today, he will address those other concerns before the scrutiny by the Justice Committee takes place, so that there is no hint of our making bad law?”
Labour front bencher Alex Rowley MSP
Labour MSP Alex Rowley said: “Beyond the amendments that are proposed today, the Faculty of Advocates has suggested that some of the definitions in the bill—for example, those that concern perceived religious affiliation—are too broad and too vague. To avoid a repeat of the problems of the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, is the cabinet secretary considering amendments that would tighten the definitions in the bill?”
Conservative front bencher Donald Cameron MSP
Donald Cameron said: “As the cabinet secretary will be aware, the references to freedom of expression in sections 11 and 12 are controversial, because they relate only to two protected characteristics: sexual orientation and religion. Why is that? The Faculty of Advocates said of those provisions: “The current wording does not appear to afford any significant protection”. What is the cabinet secretary’s response to that?”