If the hate crime bill is scrapped it might be years before victims get the protection they deserve
Many of us think of Scotland as a progressive, welcoming place, but with the latest figures showing a rise in recorded hate crime, we know this is not the case for many people throughout the country. The need for the new Hate Crime and Public Order Bill is clear. The fact that its publication has been met with a range of views means it must be allowed to proceed through Parliament, where robust scrutiny can take place, if Scotland is to tackle hate crime effectively.
Some have sought to sensationalise the bill, often focussing on whether the new legislation would see people being handed a custodial sentence for sharing views that potentially result in harmful behaviour towards people from marginalised communities. When this is critics’ primary concern, you must wonder if they have the best interests of victims of hate crime at heart.
It is disappointing that just weeks after the outpouring of commitments to educate ourselves to do better and be actively anti-racist in the wake of Black Lives Matter, these are the messages and headlines which have received the greatest media attention.
Victim Support Scotland believes hate crime victims’ needs and experiences must be at the heart of this new legislation.
The impact of hate crime is frequently more devastating and longer lasting than that of other types of crime because an aspect of an individual’s core identity and sense of belonging is attacked, something they have no control over. This means the individual is acutely aware of their vulnerability to future victimisation. Hate crime can cause physical, emotional and psychological harm; housing, employment and financial issues; fear; shame; hyper vigilance; isolation; movement restriction; suicide ideation and more. It not only negatively impacts individual victims, but whole communities and marginalised social groups.
Many bill critics appear to have forgotten that it was widely recognised that Scotland needed to do more to eradicate hate crime, with many organisations, agencies and political parties calling for updated legislation. In 2017 Lord Bracadale conducted a comprehensive review of existing hate crime legislation with a consultation process that many contributed to, including numerous hate crime victims and Victim Support Scotland.
The Hate Crime Bill has been influenced by this review. We must remember that the spirit of this legislation is about recognising the profoundly harmful impact of hate crime as well as widening the protections for people with protected characteristics.
For example, some of the most vulnerable victims of hate crime are currently excluded from existing hate crime legislation, such as elderly people, asylum seekers, refugees, Gypsy/Travellers and homeless people.
If this bill is scrapped and is not allowed to proceed through Parliament, it may be years, before victims of hate crime have another chance to be given the protection that they deserve.
Most critics have been constructive, expressing concerns that will need to be considered if the legislation is to be workable. Thankfully, the parliamentary scrutiny process provides opportunities to take further evidence, consider legitimate concerns and make suitable amendments.
Many are seeking that the defence of ‘reasonableness’ in the bill be tightened up, with clearer guidance to courts on factors to provide for context, such as journalistic use or artistic freedom of expression. This would allow for certain behaviours to be considered reasonable.
With regards to ‘stirring up’ offences, amendments to the bill can be lodged about whether this particular provision will be a crime of intention only, a move which would address the concerns raised by many reasonable critics.
There is clearly more consideration needed on the inclusion of sex (already considered a protected characteristic) in the bill as an aggravator in ‘stirring up’ offences. With a working group in place to consider this, it would be possible to include a standalone offence of misogyny to the draft legislation at a later point, which would be effective and fit for purpose, something Victim Support Scotland supports.
This bill was always going to be controversial and this has led to more engagement with the issues it raises than most other legislation. However, debate must not result in hate crime victims feeling less valued or less empowered. My concern is that some mainstream media and social media representation at times conveys a lack of understanding of the issues and the impact of such crimes. The voices and experiences of people who have been victims of hate must not be lost amongst the swell of unhelpful narratives.
Scrapping the bill before there has been a chance for these views to be heard or further debate to take place serves no one, least of all those who are victims of hate crime.
Kate Wallace is the chief executive of Victim Support Scotland