Government’s willingness to bolster Hate Crime Bill free speech protections welcomed

Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf MSP

Free speech campaigners have welcomed a commitment by Cabinet Secretary for Justice Humza Yousaf to consider further changes to the Hate Crime Bill.

Earlier today, members of Holyrood’s Justice Committee quizzed Mr Yousaf on the proposals, which would introduce new ‘stirring up hatred’ offences widely regarded as a threat to free speech. The Cabinet Secretary told Committee Members that he will “seek common ground, consensus and, where necessary, compromise” as the bill moves through parliament.

Mr Yousaf said he is minded to reconsider free speech provisions accompanying the stirring up offences. Responding to a question from Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur on the “narrowly drawn and generic” provisions, Mr Yousaf said he is “very actively considering both the breadth and the depth of the freedom of expression clauses”.

In particular, the Cabinet Secretary is considering widening the provisions to cover each protected characteristic covered by the new offences – age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identify and variations in sex characteristics. At present, they only cover religion and sexual orientation.

He is also “open-minded” towards the idea of dropping the narrow wording of “discussion and criticism” in favour of more robust free speech clauses allowing expressions of “antipathy, dislike, ridicule and insult”. He said: “I would anticipate some further change in regards to the freedom of expression clauses at Stage 2.”

Appearing after Mr Yousaf, retired High Court Judge Lord Bracadale QC, who carried out a review of hate crime laws on behalf of the Scottish Government, also agreed that the provisions should be revisited. He said introducing wider provisions covering expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule and insult – as in parallel legislation in England and Wales – would “be an expression in the bill of the line we want to identify in terms of freedom of speech”.

Spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign Jamie Gillies commented:

“We are grateful to Mr Yousaf for his willingness to make further changes to the Hate Crime Bill. The wording of the free speech provisions is a central concern to critics. As drafted, they do not go far enough to ensure freedom of speech and expression will be upheld. Amendments along the lines of those mooted today would provide much-needed reassurance.”

Mr Gillies added: “It must be said that there are a number of outstanding concerns, some of which were not touched on today. Many feel that the term ‘abusive’ would create too low a threshold for offending, provisions on ‘inflammatory material’ are not adequately defined and there is no ‘prosecution lock’, as in other stirring up legislation in England and Wales. We trust that these concerns will be considered by Justice Committee MSPs in the coming weeks.”