Humza Yousaf has pledged to make further changes to the Scottish Government’s Hate Crime Bill to strengthen protection for freedom of expression.
Holyrood’s Justice Committee last week said amendments to the Bill were still needed before it could be agreed – with Yousaf saying he had accepted the “overwhelming majority of the recommendations”.
The Scottish Government said there would now be a strengthening of the protection for freedom of expression provisions in the legislation.
Ministers will also propose new limits on police powers of search and entry within the Bill, and the Scottish Government has confirmed it will seek to remove entirely Section 5 from the Bill – which deals with offences relating to possession of inflammatory materials.
That comes after Scotland’s Catholic bishops raised concerns that possessing the Bible could become an offence under the proposed legislation – which is to be debated in Holyrood on Tuesday.
The latest changes come after Yousaf last month announced plans to amend the legislation following an outcry over proposals on offences of “stirring-up hatred”, which critics fear will stifle freedom of expression.
The justice secretary said he had “accepted the overwhelming majority of the recommendations from the committee”.
As a result of this he said he would “bring forward amendments at Stage 2 designed to, amongst other matters, strengthen protections for freedom of expression”.
The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill aims to update existing laws for protected characteristics such as disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity.
And while Yousaf said he would continue to listen to critics of the Bill, he also stressed the need to tackle hate crime.
He said: “Through the whole process I have listened to concerns raised and proposed amendments to be introduced at Stage 2 of the Bill to address these concerns.
“That approach will not change. I will continue to listen to concerns members may have about any aspect of the Bill and, where possible, will try and reach common ground.
“Confronting hate crime is central to building the safer, stronger and inclusive Scotland that we all want to see.
“Our plans to legislate will ensure the law is fit for the 21st century and the Stage 1 debate will provide the opportunity for MSPs to come together to support the general principles of this legislation to tackle hate crime, giving sufficient protection to those who need it.”
Jamie Gillies, a spokesman for the Free to Disagree campaign, welcomed the proposed amendments, saying: “We’re grateful to Humza Yousaf for promising more, significant amendments to the Hate Crime Bill.
“Strengthening the free speech provisions, adding an objective test to the term ‘abusive’ and removing the provisions on ‘inflammatory’ material will help protect freedom of expression – a vital right cherished by all citizens – and increase public confidence in the proposals.
“We have two additional suggestions for the cabinet secretary – a prosecution lock and a dwelling defence. Adding these additional safeguards will bring the Bill in line with other stirring up hatred laws in the rest of the UK.”