Jim Sillars, former Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party, has expressed profound disappointment that controversial hate crime proposals brought forward by the Scottish Government have been backed by Holyrood.
This evening, MSPs voted to approve the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill which will create broad new offences on the ‘stirring up of hatred’. Over the past ten months, numerous organisations have cautioned that the offences threaten to undermine freedom of expression.
Several amendments to mitigate the threat to free speech were considered by MSPs. Labour MSP Johann Lamont and SNP MSP Joan McAlpine lodged amendments to make clear that merely ‘offensive’ speech should not be considered a crime under the new offences. They warned that women speaking out on trans issues could be accused of ‘hate crime’ if this is not clear.
Scottish Conservative MSPs Liam Kerr and Adam Tomkins argued for a ‘dwelling defence’ to protect conversations in the family home. Mr Kerr also lodged amendments to withdraw the controversial new offences altogether.
In a heated debate lasting more than five hours, all of these amendments were rejected. Only one change, to include a reference to the European Convention on Human Rights on the face of the bill, was adopted.
Responding to the vote, Jim Sillars said he considers the hate crime proposals to be “one of the most pernicious and dangerous pieces of legislation ever produced by any Government in modern times in any part of the United Kingdom”.
Speaking from his home in Edinburgh, he said:
“I spent two years at Law at Edinburgh University. And the very first lecture delivered by Professor Black, now the Emeritus Professor, the first thing he wrote: ‘as students of law you have to understand all words are ambiguous’. That’s a very important point. People who legislate, never mind lawyers, have to understand that one word can have a meaning for you and it can have a different meaning from me.
“The new legislation is going to open up lots of people – who do not intend to direct hate at anyone – to find themselves being reported to the police for hate crimes. And there will be lots of malicious and vexatious complaints because most people are not lawyers and will tend to define hate crime as they see it, and not necessarily as the law sees it.”
Mr Sillars added:
“The important thing is that this bill, when it becomes an Act, will ultimately be tested in court. I believe it is very badly flawed legislation. And so the definitions that Humza Yousaf has insisted on putting into this bill will be tested in the forensic forum of a court, and I believe that’s when suddenly all will be revealed about its flaws.
“The next campaign will be to repeal certain sections of this Act as being against the public interest. What is the fundamental public interest in a free democracy? The ability to think what you like and say what you like.”
Spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign Jamie Gillies added:
“Today is a dark day for freedom of expression in Scotland. In the run up to this vote, MSPs were repeatedly warned that there are still problems with the stirring up hatred offences. Free speech protections are considered inadequate and, chillingly, no defence exists to protect private conversations in the family home. Amendments from MSPs on the left and the right to address these issues were voted down. The impact of these omissions will be seen later in the courts and in the lives of ordinary citizens.
“We all oppose hatred and prejudice. However, it has never been clear how, precisely, the new stirring up offences will counter hatred. There was no gap in the law to bridge. Good laws already exist to deal with threatening and abusive behaviour, incitement and breach of the peace. As laudable as the stirring up offences sound, they simply aren’t necessary and, ironically, they could do harm to, rather than improve, social cohesion in Scotland.
“The Hate Crime Bill could have been worse. Very significant changes were made early on and that is of some comfort. However, I do fear that we are seeing history repeating itself here. We have, in the Hate Crime Bill, another Offensive Behaviour at Football Act. It won’t work well in practice and it will have to be revisited down the line. That is surely not something that any parliamentarian should have entertained.”
Notes to Editors:
The Free to Disagree campaign is supported by: Index on Censorship; Manifesto Club; Adam Smith Institute; Emma Webb, Civitas; Peter Tatchell, human rights campaigner; Jim Sillars, former Deputy Leader, SNP; the National Secular Society; The Christian Institute; Network of Sikh Organisations; Freedom Association; Kapil Summan, Editor, Scottish Legal News; Dr Stuart Waiton, sociologist, Abertay University; Madeleine Kearns, journalist. See www.freetodisagree.scot
For more information contact:
Jamie Gillies: firstname.lastname@example.org