I became a member of this Parliament after having had quite wide and varied life and career experiences, the majority of which were happy and positive.
However, like many members, I have come across and experienced a wide range of prejudice.
I grew up in the west of Scotland, where sectarianism was fairly rife in our communities. Although I did not understand the murals on the gable ends, I knew that on one street people wore green and on the other they wore blue, and God forbid that they get that wrong.
When I went to high school, I discovered that being called gay was not a compliment. There were virtually no ethnic minority students in my school and I used to wince when, on the way home, I heard the abuse that the owners of the local convenience shop had to endure day in, day out.
Naturally, I thought that, as I moved into adulthood, life would be different, because adults know better—right? However, during my career I have sat in recruitment meetings and heard people say things like, “We have a pile of responses to the job advert. Let’s take out all the ones with foreign-sounding names—that will make life easier for us.” I also have friends who have been beaten black and blue as they have walked home from a night out and who have been abused in a supermarket for holding the hand of the one they love.
The point of those anecdotes is to demonstrate that prejudice and bigotry are often born out of plain ignorance as well as a deep, genuine hatred that is passed on from one generation to another. Hate crime often derives from prejudice, but prejudice often derives from stigma.
As the co-convener of the Parliament’s new cross-party group on LGBTI+, I hope that the chamber will forgive my indulgence if I focus on that subject. As my colleague Annie Wells pointed out, according to the Crown Office, sexual orientation-aggravated crime is not only rising but is the second most common type of hate crime in Scotland. Worryingly, the Equality Network’s 2015 equality report points out that 97 per cent of LGBTI people in Scotland have personally faced prejudice or discrimination. Let us take a moment to think about that. It means that nearly every LGBTI person in this country faces or has faced some form of harassment or discrimination, from homophobic comments to acts of physical violence or discrimination when accessing services, in school or at their place of work. As I said to the Standards and Public Appointments Committee last week, it is true that LGBT acceptance has soared in our society—Scotland is a very inclusive place—but that does not equate to true equality.
As a society, we are still quick to label people and put them in boxes. “A Review of the Evidence on Hate Crime and Prejudice”, which was published recently by the Scottish centre for crime and justice research, points out that the list of protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010 does not always line up with the definitions in Scots hate crime law. Therefore, as policy makers, our task is quite complicated and is more difficult than just making a list of people not to discriminate against.
When we categorise people, even to protect them, we are attributing labels that cannot, by their nature, be applied to everybody. Therefore, the language that we use when discussing hate crime is important. Let me explain what I mean by that. When we discuss, for example, how to protect minorities from hate crime, we are addressing the symptoms of prejudice, not removing its root causes. We must stop painting the picture that the LGBTI community—along with many other so-called minority groups—is a legal and cultural exception to the norm. We should instead work towards a system of law that works for everyone by default. We must do everything in our power to drag the legal, educational and public service systems into the 21st century, which means not just paying lip service to those communities.
What can be done? Plenty of legislation has been passed by Holyrood and Westminster for the prevention and eradication of hate crime. However, as the Law Society of Scotland has pointed out, it is “scattered across numerous statutes”. The Law Society further points out that, if the law were consolidated in one place, that might improve clarity and access to justice for all. We should consider that.
Hate crime rarely happens in isolation, yet we still know very little about it and the people who perpetrate it. Much more research is needed into how hate crime intersects with other social issues such as poverty, ethnicity and religion. There also need to be far greater efforts to open the channels of communication between the affected communities and public authorities. That is why I am encouraged that Police Scotland is training more than 60 officers to work with the LGBTI community to prevent hate crime.
However, this is no time to pat ourselves on the back and say, “Job done.” The Equality Network points out that
“We need to find out whether restorative justice is being used effectively for different kinds of hate crime”.
Tackling online hate crime and criminalising threatening communication, in particular, are two areas in which Scotland has more room for improvement.
Hate crime is everyone’s problem, whether it is anti-semitism, anti-Islamic sentiment, homophobia, biphobia, transphobia or sectarian bigotry.