Scotland’s Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf is spearheading efforts to introduce a new law to better protect hate crime victims, including victims of Islamophobia.
The proposed new law would mean that hate crimes can be treated more seriously by the courts if the offender has shown “malice and ill-will” towards the victim based on their membership – or association with – one of the protected groups.
The new Hate Crime and Public Order bill creates a new crime of “stirring up hatred” against the protected groups – which is defined as “behaving in a threatening or abusive manner, or communicating threatening or abusive material to another person.” This can either be “with the intention” of stirring up hatred against someone from a protected group, or “where it is a likely consequence that hatred will be stirred up against such a group.”
New offences of “possessing inflammatory material” are also created which covers people who “have in their possession threatening, abusive or insulting material with a view to communicating the material to another person.”
And the bill formally abolishes the offence of blasphemy – which has not been prosecuted in Scotland for more than 175 years.
Writing about the bill recently, Humza Yousaf said: “Hate crime has real life consequences – to be attacked or targeted simply because of who you are is a frightening experience. I have been on the sharp end of bigoted abuse and know too well the hugely damaging impact it can have, not just on the individual but on families and wider community…
“I firmly believe the bill strikes the right balance between respecting freedom of speech and tackling hate speech. The general approach taken is based on Lord Bracadale’s independent review recommendations where he was clear that new stirring up of hatred offences would not have the effect of stifling legitimate views or seriously hindering robust debate.
“Let me be clear – the bill will not prevent people expressing controversial, challenging or even offensive views, as long as this is not done in a threatening or abusive way that is intended to stir up hatred or likely to stir up hatred.”
However, the proposed legislation is proving controversial with nearly 2,000 written views being sent to Holyrood’s justice committee.
Concerns have been raised about the potential impact on freedom of speech, with opponents arguing that the full implications of the proposed law have not been thought through.
The National secular Society said: “The bill has worryingly created the risk that new offences relating to religious hatred will enact a de facto clampdown on freedom of expression…
“Making society more welcoming for people from all religious backgrounds is a worthy goal. But disempowering ordinary people by restricting their freedom of expression is likely to antagonise, rather than create social harmony.
“This vague law will undermine open debate, along with citizens’ confidence that they’ll be treated equally under the law and they won’t be prosecuted unfairly. And it won’t achieve what it’s set out to achieve. Ministers should take another look at it.”
Figures released in June showed that the number of people charged with hate crimes in Scotland has increased over the past year.
Racial offences remain the most commonly reported hate crime, with a total of 3,038 charges last year – an increase of 4% on the previous year.
The figures also showed that:
- The number of sexual orientation charges increased by 24% to 1,486.
- There were 660 religiously aggravated charges, which was also an increase of 24%.
- The number of disability aggravated charges increased by 29% to 387.
- There were 41 charges reported with an aggravation of transgender identity, compared to 40 the previous year.
Members of Holyrood’s Justice Committee have been tasked with scrutinising the near 2,000 written views which were sent during a recent consultation period.
They will also start hearing evidence from witnesses in late October. The committee will aim to complete its Stage 1 report by December 18.