A “contentious” Hate Crime Bill will be considered by MSPs next month, the Scottish Parliament has announced.
The controversial proposals by the Scottish Government aim to update the characteristics protected in law from hate crimes and introduce “stirring up” of hatred offences.
A consultation about the plans by Holyrood’s Justice Committee received more than 2000 submissions, described by convener Adam Tomkins as an “unprecedented” response.
Mr Tomkins confirmed the committee would begin hearing evidence from witnesses towards the end of October with the intention of producing a stage one report about the evidence by December 18.
MSPs will then vote on whether the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill should proceed to stages two and three for further scrutiny, amendments and ultimately approval or refusal for the proposed legislation becoming law.
Mr Tomkins said: “The number of submissions we have received is unprecedented and reflects that this Bill is contentious.
“Hundreds of individuals and organisations have written to us setting out their views on the offences that this Bill would both create and abolish.
“Given the importance of this legislation – and the strength of feeling it is generating – it is vital that sufficient time is allowed for scrutiny.
“Our committee has already agreed that it will revisit the deadline of December 18 should it become necessary.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the reforms of hate crime legislation would seek to find a balance between free speech and fighting intolerance.
Critics of the Bill – including high-profile dissenters such as comedian Rowan Atkinson and writer Val McDermid – have suggested that freedom of speech could be curtailed if it becomes law.
The Scottish Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, also claimed the Bill “appears to paralyse freedom of speech in Scotland” while the Faculty of Advocates also raised concerns over “unintended consequences” for free speech.
Justice secretary Humza Yousaf previously stated he would consider whether changes needed to be made to the proposed Bill, given the backlash.
Mr Yousaf said he was “aware of the strong views that have been expressed on the Bill”, and said he is “listening to the feedback that is received”.
He said: “I know from experience, both personally and from the powerful testimonies of others, the physical and mental distress that hate crime can cause victims.
“What is apparent from the many responses made public so far is that there is wide support for the main purpose of the Bill – to make clear that crimes motivated by hatred and prejudice will not be tolerated in modern Scotland.”
“The Bill does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way but aims to achieve the correct balance between protecting those who suffer from the scourge of hate crime whilst respecting people’s freedom of expression.”