With scrutiny of the Hate Crime Bill set to begin in earnest, an unlikely alliance of groups has formed ranks against the government’s plans. Actors, authors and comics, lawyers, academics, religious and non-religious organisations warn that vague new ‘stirring up of hatred’ offences threaten civil liberties.
Critics have raised the spectre of decent, law-abiding citizens having their collars felt by the police for expressing certain opinions; warrants being issued for the arrest of provocative playwrights; and Christian street preachers being manhandled into the back of police vans after quoting from the Bible. These scenarios don’t exactly cast police officers in the best light.
It’s worth remembering that one of the fiercest interventions on the Hate Crime Bill in recent months was from the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), a union representing 90 per cent of frontline officers in Scotland. The SPF is keenly aware of the threat the ‘stirring up’ provisions pose and is not keen to see them enshrined in law.
The SPF warns that the ‘stirring up’ offences would put police officers in an impossible position. Calum Steele, General Secretary of the organisation, has said: “We are firmly of the view this proposed legislation would see officers policing speech and would devastate the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public.”
He adds: “Police officers are all too aware that there are individuals in society who believe that to feel insulted or offended is a police matter. The Bill would move even further from policing and criminalising of deeds and acts to the potential policing of what people think or feel, as well as the criminalisation of what is said in private.”
In a submission to Holyrood’s Justice Committee, the SPF argues that the ‘stirring up’ proposals are wholly unnecessary: “We do not for one second suggest that prejudice, racism or discrimination are desirable qualities in our society but the need to address those matters when they reach a criminal level is met by laws already in place and the cost to free speech of going further with this Bill is too high a price to pay”.
The SPF also warns that the financial burden the hate crime proposals would cause is “grossly underestimated” by Ministers. A Financial Memorandum accompanying the Hate Crime Bill estimates that a change in the law would cost a paltry £50,000 for training and £50,000 for updates to IT.
Dismissing this analysis, the SPF states: “Given the sheer scale of emotion that discussions on the hate provisions of the Bill are capable of, and have already generated the SPF would consider that as a minimum police officers would require detailed training (spanning several days) to learn from various groups and bodies on why their particular point of view required to be considered… A very conservative estimate of the cost of a single day’s training for every police officer in Scotland is £3.5 – £4M.”
Though less outspoken on the hate crime plans, Police Scotland has also warned of significant ‘unquantified’ costs associated with the government’s proposals for the Police Service of Scotland (PSoS).
In a submission to Holyrood’s Finance Committee, the group states that training police officers to enforce the new law would cost £932,000 – almost 20 times the Government’s estimate of £50,000. It adds the the cost of ongoing training and increased investigations is not possible to “quantify” at present. And all of this at a time of huge financial pressure on the police service in Scotland.
Indignation about the ‘stirring up’ proposals has rightly focussed on their potential to undermine the rights of Scottish citizens, putting them at risk of criminal charges for exercising free speech rights. However, we must also spare a thought for the thousands of ordinary police officers across Scotland whose professional lives could be blighted by these proposals.
Dealing with crime is a complex business at the best of times. If the ‘stirring up’ proposals were to pass as drafted, officers may also have to deal with numerous, sometimes vexatious, complaints arising from private arguments between citizens. This would inevitably cause tension between police officers and the public and result in a breakdown in trust – a highly negative outcome for all concerned.
The police service in Scotland has been feeling the pinch for years. However, this year has been particularly tough. Keeping the public safe during a global pandemic has required a superhuman effort from officers, who already give their all as public servants. Foisting new, broad-ranging hate laws on them at this time would add to an already unmanageable burden.
Critics of the Hate Crime Bill should get behind police officers and join with them in opposing the ‘stirring up’ offences. We all value freedoms. Together, we can see them protected.