The Scottish Government has been told by the Parliament’s Justice Committee it needs to make substantive changes to its controversial hate crime Bill .
While some changes have already been announced, Convener Adam Tomkins MSP said the Committee, which has been tasked with evaluating the Bill, is “unanimous” that additional changes are needed.
In a report on the Bill, the Committee said free speech provisions need to be “deepened and strengthened”, and that more clarity is needed for how certain words are defined in the legislation.
Freedom of speech
In a statement, Tomkins said “balancing freedom of expression and legislating to ensure hateful actions can be prosecuted is a difficult task”.
“We believe that, if amended in line with our unanimous recommendations, this Bill should be fit to protect the communities it affords extra protections to without encroaching on the ability of citizens to have robust debates, hold views others find unpalatable and express themselves freely.”
The Bill has been particularly criticised over its lack of a ‘dwelling defence’. Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf insists that ‘hateful speech’ in the home deserves to be criminalised, but the Committee said care should be taken to ensure people are not prosecuted for expressing views privately if there is “no public element”.
Its report also stated that the Bill must not prohibit speech that others may find offensive, saying the “right to freedom of speech includes the right to offend, shock or disturb”.
Jamie Gillies, spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign, which is among those opposing the Bill, welcomed the report and praised its “sensible amendments”.
“It’s particularly good to see a call for more clarity on the subjective terms ‘abusive’ and ‘inflammatory’ and a ‘deepening’ of free speech provisions. Amendments along these lines will help to mitigate the threat to free expression described by so many groups over the last six months.”
He also called for a specific free speech clause on transgender issues, and reiterated the group’s calls for a dwelling defence, adding: “If MSPs adopt these added safeguards, they will increase public confidence in the proposals.”