Scotland Hate Crime Bill: what is hate crime - and why is the Scottish Government’s new law so controversial?

MSPs have passed the new hate crime law

Friday, 12th March 2021, 4:29 pm

A controversial new hate crime law has been passed by MSPs.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill extends the protection of vulnerable groups and includes the new offence of “stirring up hatred”.

It was passed by 82 votes to 32 on Thursday 11 March, following a five-hour debate the day before as MSPs considered a raft of amendments.

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Humza Yousaf's controversial Hate Crime Bill has raised concerns about its perceived impact on free speech (Getty Images)

The bill was first introduced in April 2020 but has been met with controversy, with opponents criticising its impact on free speech.

So, what is hate crime, what is the Hate Crime Bill - and why is it so controversial?

Here is everything you need to know.

What is hate crime?

Hate crimes are criminal offences that are targeted at a person because of prejudice towards their religion, race, disability, sexual orientation or transgender identity.

Police Scotland defines hate crime as: “Crime motivated by malice or ill will towards a social group.”

Often, marginalised and vulnerable members of communities are targeted by hate crimes.

A hate incident is any incident that is not a criminal offence, but something which is perceived by the victim to be motivated by hate or prejudice.

In Scotland, racial offences remain the most commonly reported hate crime.

There were a total of 3,038 people charged with a racial offence in 2020, which was an increase of four per cent on the previous year.

What is the Hate Crime Bill?

The Scottish Government asked a senior judge, Lord Bracadale, to undertake an independent review of the country’s hate crime laws.

The purpose of the examination was to ensure it was still fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Subsequently, the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was introduced to the Scottish Parliament last April, in response to Lord Bracadale’s recommendations.

The bill adds hate crime based on a person’s age to the list of protected groups.

Offences are considered “aggravated” under the bill if they involve prejudice on the basis of age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation or transgender identity.

The bill aims to make the law more simple by bringing together various existing hate crime laws into one piece of legislation.

It also creates new offences of “stirring up hatred” against someone from a protected group, which previously only applied to race.

This is defined as "behaving in a threatening or abusive manner, or communicating threatening or abusive material to another person".

The government said the Hate Crime Bill "makes it clear to victims, perpetrators, and communities and to wider society that offences motivated by prejudice will be treated more seriously and will not be tolerated by society".

The bill also formally abolishes the offence of blasphemy, which has not been prosecuted in Scotland for more than 175 years.

Why is it so controversial?

Concerns about the bill have been raised by religious and cultural groups due to its potential impact on freedom of speech.

Opponents have argued that the definition of “stirring up hatred” is too vague and open to interpretation.

Writers, including crime novelists Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre, journalists, artists and campaigners wrote an open letter which claimed the “well intentioned” law would have “unintended consequences".

And the Scottish Police Federation said the bill would result in officers "policing what people think or feel", which it said could affect public opinion of the legitimacy of the police.

An early draft of the bill was also criticised by the Law Society of Scotland for having a perceived low threshold for prosecution.

Responding to concerns, the Scottish Government announced on 23 September 2020 that the bill would be revised to ease fears about its impact on free speech.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf told the Parliament that the changes meant “stirring up hatred” would only be considered an offence if it was intentional.

He said: "I want people across this chamber and across Scotland to come together so we can ensure hate crime law can deal with the problem of stirring up hatred in an effective and appropriate way.

"That is why I think it is important to put the concerns over the question of the operation of the new offences beyond doubt."

Mr Yousaf said he was satisfied that the revisions would ensure there was a very high threshold for prosecution.

Could the Hate Crime Bill be passed?

The controversial legislation was passed by MSPs on Thursday 11 March, a day later than expected.

But opponents of the bill still said they had concerns about its impact on free speech.

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf said: "I am delighted Holyrood has backed this powerful legislation that is fitting for the Scotland we live in.

"Parliament has sent a strong and clear message to victims, perpetrators, communities and to wider society that offences motivated by prejudice will be treated seriously and will not be tolerated."

There was a five-hour Holyrood session debating a raft of amendments to the bill on Wednesday 10 March.

The final debate and vote on the new hate crime law was delayed until the next day after MSPs ran out of time.

During the heated debate, the government accepted some amendments but most were rejected.

Two amendments designed to strengthen the protection of free speech were passed unanimously, but another from MSP Johann Lamont - which would have included women as a protected group under the bill - was defeated.

Instead, the government has set up a working group to look at whether misogynistic abuse should be a separate crime.