In a disappointing U-turn, Scottish justice secretary Humza Yousaf has indicated that there will be last-minute changes to the highly controversial Hate Crime bill. The Scottish Government, in agreement with opposition parties, has not moved some of their own key amendments to the bill; parliamentarians only have four weeks to come to agreement on how to balance freedom of expression and protections from hatred for protected groups.

What is the Hate Crime bill and why is it so controversial?

The bill was first introduced in 2020 as a means of both simplifying and clarifying Scotland’s various hate crime provisions into a single piece of legislation as well as extending protections to target the act of stirring up hatred’ towards certain groups. These groups are distinguished by their link to protected characteristics’, including religion, race and sexual orientation, among others. In effect, the bill seeks to add extra weight to crimes that specifically target these groups and characteristics. 

As we’ve said previously on the bill, we recognise its good intentions and aspirations. Our desire for all people to never suffer abuse or hatred because of any aspect of their identity or character is core to our beliefs; we will always stand for love and dignity and against hatred. 

However, there have been elements in the bill, recognised from the beginning, that raise concerns over the future of freedom of expression and debate in some areas. For more detail on our areas of concern, see our article on the Hate Crime and Public Order bill, written when the bill was first introduced to the Scottish Parliament, as well as our page on the Hate Crime and Public Order consultation.

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Where do we stand now?

Under Scottish parliamentary procedure, potential legislation passes through three stages. The first stage establishes that parliament agrees with the general principles of the bill, in the second stage MSPs vote on amendments to the bill, and the third stage of the bill allows MSPs to actually vote the bill into law. The second stage for the bill as now ended. 

After the bill was introduced, when concerns were raised on all sides of the different debates over the bill’s balance between freedom of expression and hatred protections, there was extremely positive engagement through talks and consultation over how the original bill might be amended. Through this fruitful engagement, the Evangelical Alliance and other organisations reached a broad consensus on how to protect these groups without stifling speech and debate. 

However, through a series of tweets just before the bill’s second stage, later confirmed through the stage two proceedings, the Scottish Government revealed it would not put some of its own key amendments forward. The Scottish justice secretary Humza Yousaf indicated that, with the support of opposition parties, the Government was seeking to return to the drawing table and design a freedom of expression clause to cover all the protected characteristics. The only freedom of expression amendment that was pushed by the Government was for religion and belief; it is worth stating that we welcome this provision to allow debate around religion and belief. 

In effect, this move means that the Government has largely abandoned the fruits of these months of engagement and must now produce a single new freedom of expression clause, covering all protected characteristics, in only four weeks. 

Our concern is that a single freedom of expression clause covering all protected characteristics (race, disability, sexual identity, gender identity, age) could, for instance, stifle debate around sexual or gender identity or, say, permit harmful debates around race or disability. Vague definitions and such a wide scope of protected characteristics being covered in a single clause could undermine debates or even give room for baseless accusations of stirring up hatred’. Also, we are concerned that parliamentarians only have four weeks to complete this work. This could result in such crucial work being rushed.

What are we doing?

In the run up to the final stage of the bill, we will be raising our concerns with the Scottish Government and other key parliamentarians in order to reach a consensus that tackles the key purposes of the bill without infringing on freedom of expression or debate. As part of this, we will continue to work with groups on both sides of the debates involved, as well as other Christian and faith organisations, to engage constructively with the government.

Working with the Catholic Church in Scotland and the Free Church of Scotland, we have written a joint letter to justice secretary Humza Yousaf asking for him to meet with us to build on our previous engagement and seek clarity on what is happening over the coming weeks. Different areas of the church have been brought together by the desire to see both robust protections against hatred and guarantees on freedom of debate.

How can you get involved?

Having voices from churches and individuals join our own in our concern over recent and future developments with the Hate Crime bill would help us make the church’s voice heard. You can help by contacting your MSP, by email or phone, and letting them know your thoughts on the bill and the future of freedom of expression. While we would like to see as many people as possible getting involved and contacting their MSP, this call for action is especially important for people in Cowdenbeath, Highlands and Islands, Coatbridge and Chryston, Dundee City East, North East Scotland, and Orkney Islands as MSPs for these areas sit on the Justice Committee. You can check the membership of the Justice Committee and find your own MSPs on the Scottish parliament website. Please remember to be courteous and clear when contacting MSPs.

Another way to get involved is to pray. Please continue to pray for the process of the bill, our progress on the bill and for your MSPs themselves.