Campaigners have welcomed First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s commitment to “respond” to concerns over the Hate Crime Bill and called on the Government to “take action at this early stage”.
This afternoon, Ms Sturgeon was quizzed on the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill by Labour MSP James Kelly, who cited public fears that the bill is an “attack on free speech”.
Responding to his question, the First Minister said: “the Scottish Government will engage, listen and seek to find common ground to help ensure the bill protects people from hate crime…while respecting freedom of speech and expression”.
Mr Kelly went on to criticise draft ‘stirring up of hatred’ provisions in Part 2 of the Hate Crime Bill, saying: “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 and 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?”
Ms Sturgeon replied: “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.”
She added: “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”.
Jamie Gillies, spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign, commented:
“The First Minister’s commitment to listen and respond to concerns, including by amendments to the bill, is welcome. Last week, Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf struck a similar tone when asked about the proposals.
“The key question now is exactly what the Government’s response will look like. In the last four months, numerous groups including lawyers, police officers, academics, faith groups and actors have poured scorn on the ‘stirring up’ provisions in Part 2 of the bill.
“It is our view, and the view of many others in Scottish society, that the best way to address these concerns would be to withdraw the ‘stirring up’ provisions altogether. Doing so would ensure the protection of free speech and clarity in the criminal law.
Mr Gillies added: “There are already good laws in place to protect people. In fact, the bill’s Financial Memorandum makes clear that the hateful conduct outlined in Part 2 of the bill would ‘already constitute existing criminal offences’.
“It is not clear what behaviour the ‘stirring up’ provisions would catch that isn’t already being caught, and therefore how the proposals would further protect victims.”
Mr Gillies concluded: “We call on the Scottish Government to take action at this early stage and ditch Part 2 of the bill. Rather than introducing wide-ranging and unpredictable stirring-up laws, with all the attendant risk and controversy, we suggest that Ministers instead bolster the implementation of laws already on the statute book.”
A poll commissioned by Free to Disagree and published on Sunday (Aug 23) revealed wide support for free speech and opposition to the hate crime plans.
The Savanta ComRes poll of 1,008 Scottish adults shows that almost 9 in 10 (87%) think free speech is an “important right”, 6 in 10 (63%) think disagreement and debate “benefit society” and 3 in 4 (73%) think disagreement is not a sign of hatred.
More than 6 in 10 respondents (64%) voiced support for a classical approach to free speech where “words that incite violence” are criminalised, whereas just 29% said the law should criminalise ‘offensive’ words. More than 6 in 10 (64%) respondents agreed that people today are “too quick to shut down debate”.
A significant number of respondents also expressed opposition to elements that form the basis of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill:
• 7 in 10 (69%) of Scots agreed that “For a criminal offence to be committed, there must be a proven intention to stir up hatred”.
• 3 in 4 (75%) said that the term ‘hatred’ “means different things to different people”.
• While many are uncertain about the specifics of the bill, more than 4 in 10 respondents (41%) agreed that a clause should be included in the bill to protect the freedom to publicly disagree with trans rights, with just 21% disagreeing.
The ‘stirring up of hatred’ provisions in Part 2 of the bill do not require ‘intent’ for an offence to be committed or include a free speech clause on trans. The wording of the draft legislation, including the term ‘hatred’, has also been criticised for being vague and open to abuse.
Free to Disagree has also written to Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf, urging him to scrap the controversial elements of the Hate Crime Bill.
A letter, expressing “grave reservations” over the ‘stirring up’ provisions and signed by campaign members including former SNP Depute Leader Jim Sillars was sent on Friday 21 August.
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;
- Simon Calvert;
- Peter Tatchell;
- The Peter Tatchell Foundation;
- Dr Stuart Waiton, criminologist, Abertay University;
- Madeleine Kearns, journalist and commentator.
- Emma Webb, Civitas;
- Manifesto Club;
- Josie Appleton
Issued on behalf of Free to Disagree by Tom Hamilton Communications. For media enquiries, contact:
Tel: 0141 639 8355
Mob: 07836 603977
Or Jamie Gillies:
Mob: 07761 506 732