Scotland’s Hate Crime Bill needs a rethink – leader comment

Supporters of free speech and those opposed to bigotry both have justice on their side and there must be a way to amend the Hate Crime Bill to ensure its good intentions do not have unintended consequences.

Police officers are the people who will have to enforce the provisions of the new Hate Crime Bill (Picture: Lesley Martin/AFP via Getty Images)
Police officers are the people who will have to enforce the provisions of the new Hate Crime Bill (Picture: Lesley Martin/AFP via Getty Images)

When considering a new law, politicians need to pay attention to the views of those who will ultimately be responsible for enforcing it. So after the Scottish Police Federation joined the growing chorus of voices expressing concern about implications for free speech of the Hate Crime Bill, they should be taken seriously.

The SPF did not mince its words, with Calum Steele, its general secretary, warning the proposed new law would “see officers policing speech and would devastate the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public”. “The Bill would move even further from policing and criminalising of deeds and acts to the potential policing of what people think or feel, as well as the criminalisation of what is said in private,” he added.

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Rank and file police body warns of ‘dangers’ of proposed hate crime law
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Opposition politicians, the Law Society of Scotland and other civil society bodies have already expressed similar fears. However, if rank-and-file police officers were to decide to turn a blind eye or deaf ear to offences under the law – should it be passed – because it was practically unenforceable, it would risk falling into disrepute and potentially being repealed in a similar manner to the mishandled but well-intentioned legislation designed to outlaw sectarianism at football matches. The repeal of that Bill sent an unintended, tacit message to the terraces that it was open season for sectarianism once again. What kind of message would repealing a Hate Crime Bill send to those minded to act in such an appalling way?

Current laws protect people from hate crimes based on racism, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and disability.

The new Bill would add ageism and discrimination on the grounds of sex may also be included, but the main problem appears to be that a provision enabling people to be prosecuted for “stirring up hatred” even if they did not intend to do so is too vague and open to interpretation.

Free speech is a basic human right and a fundamental part of democracy, but no citizen’s life should be blighted by the kind of abuse, harassment, discrimination or violence experienced with depressing regularity by minorities of one form or another.

The Scottish Government needs to rethink the Bill and find a better way to achieve its good intentions. This cannot be allowed to turn into a battle between those who support free speech and those opposed to bigotry. Both have justice on their side.

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