Government Hate Crime Bill changes don’t go far enough

PRESS RELEASE: Free to Disagree campaign

Changes to the Hate Crime Bill announced today are a “step in the right direction” but don’t go far enough to allay free speech fears, campaigners say.

This afternoon, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf told the Scottish Parliament the government will bring forward amendments to the bill to remove the term ‘likely’ from controversial ‘stirring up’ offences and require proof of intention to stir up hatred for an offence to be committed.

Yousaf was responding to sustained pressure from critics of the legislation including lawyers, police officers, religious groups and others, who warn that ‘stirring up’ offences in part two of the bill could undermine freedom of speech.

Free to Disagree response

Jamie Gillies, spokesman for the Free to Disagree Campaign – a coalition of civil liberty groups and free speech proponents set up to oppose the ‘stirring up’ provisions – 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.”

Mr Gillies added:

“Crucially, the government and other proponents have not demonstrated how these specific proposals would reduce hate-related crimes, or lend greater protection to citizens. Existing laws already catch violence, harassment and abuse. The Criminal Justice and Licensing Act criminalises those who intentionally or recklessly cause fear or alarm. And there are aggravated offences for crimes motivated by hatred and prejudice.

“Tackling hatred and prejudice can be achieved by other means – good education, support for families and communities, training for public bodies, rather than punitive measures. In championing these things, the Scottish Government can help to engender an atmosphere of kindness, tolerance and respect in Scotland, without undermining other important rights. We call on Mr Yousaf to reconsider and take this better approach.”

10 problems with the ‘stirring up’ offences

Over the last few months lawyers, academics, police officers, authors, actors, comics, civil liberties groups and others have underlined numerous problems with the ‘stirring up’ offences. There are at least ten major flaws that need to be addressed:

1The term ‘abusive’ (rude and insulting) could create a low threshold for offending.
2The term ‘hatred’ is subjective and hard to define in criminal legislation.
3Free speech provisions are alarmingly vague. They only permit ‘discussion and criticism’ to do with religion and sexual orientation. This is the language of academics, not ordinary people discussing issues they feel strongly about.
4A trans free speech clause is conspicuously absent, despite the obvious need for one given the heated debate on trans issues in Scottish society. 
5Discussion about marriage is also excluded from the free speech protections, despite it being included in equivalent laws in Northern Ireland, England and Wales.
6People could be prosecuted for remarks made in the privacy of their own homes because there is no ‘dwelling defence’, unlike the rest of the UK.
7Actors and directors would commit an offence if a play includes ‘abusive’ language.
8Vague provisions on ‘possessing inflammatory material’ would punish those who possess ‘abusive’ material “with a view to communicating the material to another person”. An inexhaustible number of books, religious texts, leaflets, posters, articles, social media posts, emails and text messages could be caught.
9Publishers based in other parts of the UK whose material is read in Scotland could be investigated by Police Scotland.
10Stirring up’ prosecutions in England, Wales and Northern Ireland must be approved by the Attorney General and the Director of Public Prosecutions respectively. But there is no requirement for the Lord Advocate to sign off on prosecutions in Scotland, under the draft offences.


Notes for Editors

The Free to Disagree campaign is supported by:

  • Jim Sillars, former Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party;
  • The National Secular Society; 
  • The Christian Institute; 
  • The Peter Tatchell Foundation;
  • Dr Stuart Waiton, criminologist, Abertay University;
  • Madeleine Kearns, journalist and commentator.
  • Emma Webb, Civitas;
  • Manifesto Club;
  • Index on Censorship
  • Ruth Smeeth, ex-Parliamentarian
  • Kapil Summan, Editor, Scottish Legal News

Jamie Gillies, spokesman for Free to Disagree

07761 506 732

Issued on behalf of Free to Disagree by: Tom Hamilton Communications

07836 603 977