Last Thursday the Scottish Government published its promised new amendments to the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill in relation to freedom of expression. Following this, a short notice call for evidence from Holyrood’s Justice Committee was announced, generating more than 600 responses in three days. The committee wanted the public’s views on how the bill could best protect against hate and abuse without threatening the freedom to debate and criticise. An emergency meeting of the committee was subsequently held on Monday, 22 February to discuss these amendments, the issues at stake and possible routes forward.

As mentioned in our previous update on the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill, the Scottish Government had recently decided not to move some of its own amendments on the controversial bill; MSPs only have a few weeks to come to agreement on some of the bill’s most contested areas. See this update for a more comprehensive summary of how the bill has progressed and why it is so controversial.

Last week the Evangelical Alliance met with Humza Yousaf, the cabinet secretary for justice, and then attended the committee meeting on Monday. We gave evidence and contributed to the debate, you can see our contribution here. Through these engagements, as well as our own written submission, we have been consistently pushing for balanced freedom of expression provisions that protect against hatred but also include guarantees on freedom of debate. We believe that the bill itself has good intentions and aspirations, but elements remain that raise concerns over freedom of expression, despite all the improvements that have been made. For a more detailed summary of our concerns, see our Hate Crime and Public Order consultation page. 

Four different options are now being discussed as possible solutions in this area. Each follows a standard formula text offering protection for discussion and criticism across a range of protected characteristics, namely religion and belief, disability, race, gender, sexual orientation, and transgender identity. Two of the options offer additional protection for speech in relation to religion and belief (the first and second), and two remove the characteristic of race from the amendment (the second and fourth). 

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The first option provides the strongest protection currently on offer (including race and additional protection for religion and belief). In our evidence we argued for an option 1+’, as we believe that additional definition is required in the areas of sexual orientation (to cover biblical views related to marriage) and transgender identity (to clarify that holding views such as biological sex being immutable or disagreeing with gender identity theory cannot of themselves be seen as a hate crime). 

As we outlined at committee, we believe greater clarity in the bill will be in the interest of all groups. The criminal sanctions would still apply if someone acted in a way that met the threshold, namely acting in a threatening or abusive manner combined with the intent to stir up hatred. That is quite different to simply stating or debating a view that some people find offensive.

We will continue to make representations on these issues to the Scottish Government and opposition parties ahead of the final debate on 10 March. We will also be in touch with information about how you can pray and contact your MSPs ahead of the final debate.