Statement on Hate Crime Bill vote: Free to Disagree campaign

Tonight, Holyrood backed the Hate Crime Bill by a margin of 82 votes to 32. It’s a profoundly disappointing result. Amendments by MSPs on the left and the right to improve the scope of free speech protections and provide a legal defence to protect private conversations in the family home were voted down.

Leading criticism of the decision, our ally and SNP veteran Jim Sillars said: “I believe that this is 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.

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.

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.”

Free to Disagree spokesman Jamie Gillies commented:

“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.”

As Jim Sillars intimated in his comments, opposition to the stirring up offences will continue. When the new law comes into force, we expect to see malicious complaints being made and problems for the police and the courts. Rest assured that we will bring these to your attention.

Can we take this opportunity to say thank you for supporting Free to Disagree. Key changes to the Hate Crime Bill came about because of sustained pressure on the government by you and members of our campaign.

Please continue to follow and support Free to Disagree in the coming months.

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