A controversial new hate crime law has been passed by MSPs.
The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill was backed by 82 votes to 32 with four abstentions, bringing to an end one of the most heated and contentious Bill processes in the 20 years of the Scottish Parliament.
More than 2000 people responded to a call for views made last year after the publication of the Bill’s first iteration, and concerns over freedom of expression led to a number of changes to the legislation before it was passed on Thursday.
The new legislation creates a criminal offence of stirring up hatred against protected groups, expanding on a similar offence based on race that has been on the statute books for decades, as well as consolidating a number of different pieces of hate crime legislation.
But justice secretary Humza Yousaf was forced to take a number of steps to allay fears over freedom of speech.
The final Bill mandates that there must be intent in the stirring up of hatred and it must pass a reasonable person’s test before an offence has been committed.
Provisions which could have made it an offence to put on a performance deemed to stir up hatred or possess material which could do so were also dropped.
Amendments brought by both Yousaf and Justice Committee convener Adam Tomkins on Wednesday also sought to further strengthen the Bill’s protections for freedom of speech.
Tomkins’ amendment sought to enshrine in the Bill the right to “offend, shock or disturb” in line with article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, while Yousaf’s meant simply criticism or discussion of the protected characteristics could not solely be taken as threatening or abusive.
The justice secretary used his final speech on the Bill to attempt to allay the fears of its critics.
He said: “To those who think they may accidentally somehow fall foul of the law… because they believe sex is immutable, or they believe an adult man cannot become a female or they campaign for the rights of Palestinians… or those that proselytise that same-sex relationships are sinful, none of these people would fall foul of the stirring up of hatred offence for solely stating their belief – even if they did so in a robust manner.
“Why? Because solely stating any belief, which I accept may be offensive to some, is not breaching the criminal threshold.”
However, despite the amendments put into the Bill at stage three, Tomkins’ Conservative colleague Liam Kerr – the party’s justice spokesman – was not satisfied.
“Despite the extensive amendments at stage two and yesterday, the hate crime Bill is still fundamentally flawed,” he told MSPs.
Kerr said that sex not being included as an aggravator in the Bill, what he described as “inherent ambiguity” in the language of the legislation, and claims it does not strike the right “balance” between free expression and protection from hate are reasons his party does not to support its passage.
Yousaf also paid tribute to the level of parliamentary scrutiny around the Bill, saying it had “shown the very best of parliament”.
But other opposition parties indicated they would back the legislation.
Labour’s Neil Bibby said: “I acknowledge there is concern about aspects of this Bill, but I also want to acknowledge the steps that have been taken to address concerns and make improvements to it.”
He added: “In Scottish Labour we believe that hate crime should be dealt with using the full force of the law, we made a promise in our manifesto to take a zero tolerance approach to hate crime.”
He continued: “We need this Bill itself because hate crime has become more widespread, society has become more polarised and divided. All of us can see how raw and unpleasant some aspects of political debate have become and how easily hate can rear its head.”
Bibby said it was “deeply regrettable” that the legislation would not cover attacks based on the victim’s sex, saying it is “clear that women are subjected to hate because of their sex”.
He said this must be addressed as soon as possible, and that Labour would follow “closely” the efforts of a working group set up by ministers to consider this.
Liberal Democrat Liam McArthur said his party would support the Bill, after changes were made to the original proposals.
And he said there were now “broad and consistent freedom of expression protections” in the legislation.
Meanwhile, MSP John Finnie dismissed as “nonsense” suggestions from the Bill’s opponents that family could be “ruined by a flurry of arrests” if people made controversial comments.
He stated: “The Bill, like others, is about balance, and I think the balance between the freedom of expression and the right to private life has been struck by this Bill, and countless organisations agree.”
Finnie added his party “will stand with those who are abused because of the colour of their skin or their disability”.