MSPs urged to halt Scottish Hate Crime Bill until after election

Campaigners have called on MSPs to halt the passage of controversial hate crime legislation through the Scottish Parliament until after the Holyrood elections in May.

Humza Yousaf has pledged a "catch-all" clause in the bill to protect freedom of expression

Civil liberties campaigner Peter Tatchell and former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars are among a number of signatories to an open letter that warns the prospect of workable safeguards being produced before the current Parliament stops sitting next month are “entirely impracticable”.

It comes amid ongoing concerns over freedom of speech protections.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

MSPs on Holyrood's justice committee passed the Hate Crime Bill at stage two today. The Bill will now face its final parliamentary hurdle in a vote of all MSPs in the next few weeks.

A further meeting with justice secretary Humza Yousaf will now be be held on his plans to introduce a ‘catch-all’ free speech clause to the bill, in time for stage three. He had previously withdrawn amendments to the legislation that had been aimed at providing such safeguards.

But Tuesday’s letter raises concerns that distinct provisions to protect expression in areas like religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity will now be lost.

The letter states: "The idea that a workable ‘catch-all’ provision covering these topics, as well as the characteristics of age, disability, and variations of sex characteristics, can be agreed upon by the government and other parties before final, stage three proceedings take place is, frankly, untenable.

“Manufacturing such a clause over the next few weeks, behind closed doors, will also necessarily preclude the views of Parliament, stakeholders and the public from being taken into account.

"We strongly believe that producing workable provisions on the stirring up of hatred in this Parliament is now entirely impracticable."

Other signatories to the letter include Ruth Smeeth, chief executive of the Index on Censorship, Emma Webb, associate fellow with Civitas, and Ian Murray, executive director with the Society of Editors.

Dr Stuart Waiton, sociologist at Abertay University and Trina Budge, director for Women Scot, have also signed up.

Jamie Gillies of the Free to Disagree campaign, another signatory, said: "It would be prudent for MSPs to defer scrutiny of the stirring up hatred offences until after the May election.

"New proposals could be brought forward and discussed over time, with renewed input from a wide range of stakeholders.”

The justice committee is now to hold a further roundtable discussion next Monday with Mr Yousaf and other interested groups on the formulation of an amendment on freedom of expression. It will explore whether a consensus can be reached on this issue.

Committee convenor Adam Tomkins said: “There is a broad desire in the committee to ensure the law protects fundamental free speech, while still protecting some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

“As we seek to achieve this consensus, it is important everyone involved is as open and transparent as possible. As justice committee convener, I am pleased we can provide a helpful forum.

“The committee’s previous scrutiny of this Bill has resulted in unanimous, yet robust conclusions on this most contentious of topics, proving that solutions are possible. We hope to be able to do so once again.”

A message from the Editor:Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by Coronavirus impacts our advertisers.

If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.