MSPs vote to reform rather than scrap hate crime bill
MSPs have opted to reform the Scottish Government’s hate crime bill rather than drop it following a Conservative-led debate on the bill in Scottish Parliament.
SNP and Green amendments to the Tories’ motion to scrap the controversial Scottish Government bill were passed, changing the motion from removing the bill altogether to listening to views on making changes to the current bill.
However, Labour and the Lib Dems both said they would withdraw their support for the bill at a later stage if it was not amended.
Concerns have been raised that part two of the bill, which creates a new crime of stirring up hatred against protected groups, will have a damaging effect on free speech.
Proposing the motion to drop the bill and come back later with a new one, Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson Liam Kerr noted that around 2,000 submissions had been received by the Justice Committee in its call for evidence on the bill, and said that the timetable of 1 December for the committee to produce its stage one report would not allow time for enough scrutiny.
“With such a heavy focus on part two of the bill, there is a serious danger of not doing justice to the other parts of the bill and ensuring the effective scrutiny,” he said.
Discussion of part two of the bill would “suck oxygen” from properly scrutinising part one, which creates new statutory aggravations, he said.
“We must do all that we can to ensure the first part of this law that deals with statutory aggravations is not only capable of tackling hate crime but does so completely and unambiguously and that means subjecting the bill to intense scrutiny,” he said.
Opposing the motion, justice secretary Humza Yousaf said the Scottish Government would “work tirelessly” with opposition parties and stakeholders who want to amend and improve the bill.
Yousaf said he was “not trying to rush the parliamentary process … there are very clearly legitimate concerns that people have in relation to the stirring up offences, so in that regard I will absolutely listen to the evidence the justice committee brings forward.
“I will also listen to external stakeholders and I give an absolute assurance on the record and for the record that I will actively look to see where we may be able to find compromise”.
Labour’s Rhoda Grant said the bill was not fit for purpose in its current form.
“As it stands, it’s not fit for purpose,” she said. “It will pitch the very people it sets out to protect against each other.
“Section two of the bill is where the greatest concern lies. The language, the terminology strays into covering material and behaviour that is merely insulting, contrary to the Bracadale review and contrary to what is the case elsewhere in the UK.
“It will catch much more than hate crime and will breed intolerance and resentment, the opposite of what it is aiming to achieve.”
She also affirmed the need for intent is an important principle in criminal law.
Grant welcomed Yousaf’s commitment to work with others and said the Scottish Government couldn’t their heels in but would have to listen to concerns and act on them.
She said that SNP committee members must not push through the bill and their job was “not to defend defective drafting, it is to defend the national interest”.
“They must listen to the concerns expressed and find out ways of making this legislation work. If they cannot do this, then we will withdraw our support,” she said.
Proposing his amendment, the Greens’ John Finnie affirmed his confidence in the parliament to make appropriate changes during the course of the bill.
“Where is the locus for airing, scrutinising and interrogating, as I think Mr Kerr, were the terms used?” Finnie asked.
“In a unicameral setup like ours it’s the committee, and I have every confidence that the Justice Committee will look at this.
“My past experience is that deficiencies in legislation have always been highlighted in a stage one report, they’ve always been responded to, and if the government doesn’t amend, I can assure you, I, and I suspect Mr Kerr, would as well.”
Liam McArthur criticised the Conservatives’ move to scrap the bill altogether but said it needed “urgent, and in places rather radical, surgery”.
McArthur said: “I don’t take issue with the need to update the law in relation to hate crime, nor the Scottish Government’s motivation in looking to do so… [but] I think the concerns that we have seen expressed in relation to the way that part two of this bill engages with those freedoms [of speech] are ones that we need to take seriously.”
He welcomed Yousaf’s announcement that he intended to come forward with new proposals during stage one rather than stage two of the bill so they could be weighed up as part of the stage one scrutiny.
Following the vote, the Scottish Conservatives suggested that the Scottish Government had not “learned the lessons of named persons”.
Liam Kerr said: “There is consensus that we need legislation to tackle hate crime in Scotland but it’s extremely disappointing that the parliament could not find similar consensus to support freedom of speech.
“As drafted, the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill threatens our fundamental right to free speech, as dozens of organisations made clear in the avalanche of criticism that the committee received on this bill.
“Other than the Scottish Conservatives, it appears that other parties have not learned the lessons of Named Persons.
“The SNP’s Hate Crime Bill is so deeply flawed that, just as Named Persons did, it will tie the parliament in knots, cost the Scottish public far more than it should, and ultimately not produce the necessary legislation to protect victims of abhorrent hate crimes.
“It is clear from today’s vote that only the Scottish Conservatives can be trusted to stand up every time for the right to freedom of speech.
“We will consider all avenues going forward to address the serious concerns and flaws with the legislation.”