Hate Crime Act Scotland: Concerns raised as controversial new laws due to come into force

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act has been the subject of criticism

Police Scotland have been accused of providing no “assurance” that controversial new hate crime laws will protect freedom of expression as it was confirmed the legislation will come into force next month.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act was passed by MSPs in March 2021, but its passage was one of the most difficult of the SNP’s time in government.

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The Bill was heavily criticised throughout the process, with ministers repeatedly forced to climb down on certain provisions, such as the potential impact on performers.

Police Scotland has been asked to provide details on how it will protect freedom of expressionPolice Scotland has been asked to provide details on how it will protect freedom of expression
Police Scotland has been asked to provide details on how it will protect freedom of expression

The legislation will create a new offence of stirring up hatred against protected characteristics, including age, disability, religion, sexual orientation and gender identity, matching a similar offence based on race that has been on the statute book for decades. However, fears have been raised over the impact on freedom of expression.

In a letter to Holyrood’s criminal justice committee, the Edinburgh-based policy analysis group Murray Blackburn Mackenzie (MBM) highlighted a number of outstanding concerns. These include fears women “talking in plain language about how sex can’t be changed, and why and when this matters to them” may face criminal complaints.

"Police Scotland have provided no detail or assurance on how it will protect freedom of expression,” MBM noted. The group also highlighted the lack of promised post-legislative engagement from the Scottish Government.

In the final debate before the Bill’s passage, First Minister Humza Yousaf – then serving as justice secretary – said no-one would be found to have stirred up hatred “for solely stating their belief – even if they did so in a robust manner”.

Ahead of the legislation taking effect, the Government has launched a public awareness campaign aimed at highlighting the impact of hate crime.

Community safety minister Siobhian Brown said: “For those impacted by hatred and prejudice, the results can be traumatic and life-changing. While we respect everyone’s right to freedom of expression, nobody in our society should live in fear or be made to feel like they don’t belong, and the Scottish Government is committed to building safer communities that live free from hatred and prejudice.

“Hate crime is behaviour that is both criminal and rooted in prejudice. It can be verbal, physical, online or face to face. The new law will give greater protections to those who need it and helps to form the basis of understanding about the type of behaviour that is not acceptable in our society.

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“We must do all we can to give victims and witnesses the confidence to report instances of hate crime, which is why we have launched a new campaign Hate Hurts. The campaign is informed by lived experience and explains what a hate crime is, the impact it has on victims and how to report it.”

Chief Superintendent Faroque Hussain, the hate crime prevention lead for Police Scotland, said: “Hate crime is vile and wrong. To target a person, a group or a community because of who they are, how they look or how they choose to live their lives undermines freedoms and rights we are entitled to enjoy as human beings.

“We know it can be hard for people to report a hate crime, and in some cases to even recognise or acknowledge that they have been a victim. We want everyone targeted by hate crime, or those who witness it, to have confidence to come forward.

“They can be assured they will be treated with dignity and respect, and that the circumstances they report will be fully investigated.”

Police chiefs had previously raised concerns about the level of resourcing and training available to police officers to enforce the new laws.

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Russell Findlay MSP said: "Scotland’s police officers have been pushed to breaking point by relentless SNP cuts, so expecting them to enforce this flawed legislation should not be a priority.

“The belated enforcement of Humza Yousaf’s flawed and dangerous Hate Crime Act comes days after Police Scotland admitted they won't investigate a range of other crimes.”

Figures released by the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) last year showed a 2 per cent drop in hate crimes in Scotland in 2022/23.

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A delay to the Bill being enforced was partly caused by Police Scotland’s desire to complete the rollout of their new crime and case management systems, which were replacing the many disparate systems from the local forces prior to the creation of the national force.