We have just heard an illustration of why it is really important that we tackle hate crime in any form.
The bill proposals seek to find a balance between protecting those who suffer the scourge of hate crime and respecting people’s freedom of speech and expression, which is extremely important. The bill approaches the matter through the prism of the European convention on human rights.
We know that hate crime is damaging and disruptive—we just heard that. It is rooted in prejudice and intolerance. As the Cabinet Secretary for Justice made clear in the Parliament last week, the Scottish Government will engage, listen and seek to find common ground, to ensure that the bill helps to protect people from hate crime—which I hope that everybody will agree is important—while respecting freedom of speech and expression.
Action on hate crime is welcome and important, but it is clear that there is a serious problem with the offence of “stirring up hatred”, as proposed in the bill. The Law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation, the Catholic Church and a range of stakeholders have lined up to criticise the bill’s vague language and to express their concern that it is a threat to freedom of speech.
Does the First Minister accept that the Government has got its approach to the bill badly wrong and that the stirring up hatred offence needs to be fully deleted or heavily amended?
I do not accept that. What I accept—and I hope that everyone will enter into the legislative process in the same spirit—is that we have to consider these things, listen to views that are expressed and decide whether amendments to the bill are required. That is the right way to go about this. Nobody should go into the process with a closed mind, and that includes Opposition members, just as much as it includes the Scottish Government.
I hear the concerns that have been expressed. The Government will consider all of them carefully. That said, the concept of stirring up hatred offences is not new to Scots law; long-standing stirring up racial hatred offences have operated effectively in Scotland since, I think, the mid-1980s. The bill includes explicit provisions on freedom of expression and its provisions require to be interpreted in accordance with the European convention on human rights.
It is important that people express their views on this bill or any bill at the start of the legislative process and that they try to do so constructively. The Government has a duty to listen; we will listen and we will respond appropriately. However, let us not lose sight of what we were talking about in the previous question. Hate crime is a real problem in Scotland and we all have a duty to tackle it—that goes wider than legal ways of tackling it, but our approach must certainly include legal ways of doing so.