Scotland's Hate Crime Bill: How the SNP have let women down with this flawed legislation – Murdo Fraser MSP

In the run-up to an election such as the one we are facing in a few weeks’ time, opposition parties have a dual role.

Conservative MSP supported an amendment to the Hate Crime Bill tabled by Labour's Johann Lamont to include sex as a protected characteristic, along with race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and others (Picture: John Devlin)
Conservative MSP supported an amendment to the Hate Crime Bill tabled by Labour's Johann Lamont to include sex as a protected characteristic, along with race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and others (Picture: John Devlin)

They have to point out the failings of the incumbent government seeking re-election, and also set out a positive alternative agenda as to how they would take the country forward should they be rewarded with an election victory.

This second part was delivered in spades by the Scottish Conservatives over the course of the weekend, at our annual conference, taking place virtually.

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Under the theme of “Rebuilding Scotland”, a whole series of new policy initiatives were laid out. At its heart was a pledge to boost skills with individual “Retrain to Rebuild” accounts, with every single Scottish worker being offered training courses and qualifications to a value of some £500 a year – a vital resource at a time when the economy is changing rapidly and many individuals will have to adapt to new opportunities.

In the field of education, we propose a new £1 million innovation fund to restore excellence in schools, on top of existing pledges to recruit more teachers and reform the Curriculum for Excellence. There is also a new commitment to invest £120 million to help children catch up on lost schooling, to avoid creating a Covid generation who are left behind.

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There are measures to tackle poverty for families with young children, with a promise to fund five extra hours of wrap-around, after-school childcare per week for all children in Primaries one to three, in addition to the previously announced commitment to extend free school breakfasts and lunches for all primary school-aged children.

In the field of justice, Scottish Conservatives are already committed to the introduction of a Victims’ Law, to whole-life tariffs for the most serious criminals, and to the end of automatic early release. We have also pledged the introduction of “Suzanne’s Law” which would mean that authorities could deny prison release to killers who refuse to reveal the location of victims’ bodies.

There is also a promise to repeal Part 2 of the Hate Crime Bill, passed by the Scottish Parliament just last week. Potentially one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation that has gone through Holyrood, this is a law which attracted widespread opposition because of its impact on free speech.

A broad coalition of faith groups, secularists, writers, comedians, lawyers and human rights advocates came together to oppose Part 2 of the Bill, and the introduction of new offences around “stirring up hatred”. Whilst the Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf did recognise some of the concerns expressed, and brought forward amendments to try to protect freedom of speech, for many stakeholders these simply did not go far enough. There remains a serious worry that the Bill will have a chilling effect on free speech.

I contributed to the Holyrood debate on the Bill last week, and was struck by the powerful contributions from a number of female MSPs, among them Johann Lamont, Elaine Smith and Jenny Marra from Labour, and Joan McAlpine from the SNP What united them, across party boundaries, was a concern that the Bill did not extend the same protections to women as it did to other groups.

A specific amendment from Johann Lamont to amend the Bill to include sex as a protected characteristic, along with race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, and others, was rejected by the SNP government.

So women are not even given the protection that the Bill affords to cross-dressers: those who dress in the clothing of the opposite sex as a fashion choice, or for sexual gratification. As I pointed out in the parliamentary debate, this means that we are now in the ludicrous position that a man who dresses in women’s clothing has more protection under this Bill than a woman herself.

In the context of the horrific killing in London last week of Sarah Everard, this rejection by the SNP government of protections for women is extraordinarily insensitive. When there is a lively debate about what more might be done to protect women, the Scottish government failed to take the opportunity of this Bill, and amendments being supported on a cross-party basis, to take a step in the right direction.

Like my Scottish Conservative colleagues, I supported Johann Lamont’s amendments. Without their inclusion, and without sufficient protection for free speech, we were left with no alternative but to vote against the Bill in its entirety.

I have been struck since then by the volume of correspondence I have had from women, from all parts of Scotland, who are deeply concerned about the passing of the Bill in its final form, without protection for women, and the message that it sends about the priorities of the SNP government. Many of these women tell me that they have never voted Conservative in the past, but are now seriously considering doing so, as the party best able to oppose the SNP government on these issues.

It is hard to see how the SNP believe they can make progress with female voters going into an election defending their track record in this area. They have let women down, and they will pay the price. In contrast, a Scottish Conservative pledge to repeal Part 2 of the Hate Crime Bill would remove from the statute book the anomaly that cross-dressing men have more protections than women, and is winning support from those who have never backed us before.

With the opinion polls showing a softening in SNP support and growing appeal for the Scottish Conservatives, our positive policy platform is the right springboard for greater electoral success in May, and the chance of a new start for Scotland.

Murdo Fraser is a Scottish Conservative MSP for Mid-Scotland and Fife

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