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Controversial new hate crime laws come into force

Scotland’s controversial new hate crime laws have come into force.

The new measures aim to tackle the harm caused by hatred and prejudice but have come under fire from opponents who claim they could stifle free speech and be weaponised to “settle scores”.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act came into force on Monday 1 April and aims to provide greater protection for victims and communities.

It consolidates existing legislation and introduces new offences for threatening or abusive behaviour which is intended to stir up hatred based on prejudice towards characteristics such as age, disability, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity.

The new provisions add to the laws on the statute book for race, which have been in place UK-wide since 1986.

The Hate Monster. Pic: Police Scotland
Image: The ‘Hate Monster’ being used to advertise the new act. Pic: Police Scotland

‘Hatred has been far too pervasive in our society’

Speaking to Sky News about the new legislation, First Minister Humza Yousaf said: “In terms of acts of hatred, I think anybody would recognise in the last few years… hatred has been far too pervasive in our society.

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“We have to take strong action against it. We have to have a zero-tolerance approach to it.

“I’ve got every confidence in police investigating matters of hatred appropriately, and of course making sure that we protect freedom of expression so vital to our democracy.”

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Sky’s Connor Gillies explains the new laws

The new laws were developed following Lord Bracadale’s independent review of hate crime legislation which concluded that new specific offences relating to stirring up hatred were needed.

The legislation was passed by a majority of MSPs in the Scottish parliament in 2021.

JK Rowling and Elon Musk have publicly criticised the act, suggesting it erodes free speech.

Those who support the new laws insist they will make Scotland more tolerant.

In a letter to Holyrood’s criminal justice committee published last week, the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents (ASPS) warned the law could be “weaponised” by an “activist fringe” across the political spectrum.

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‘They are seeing this as an opportunity to settle scores’

Speaking to Sky News, the director of campaign group For Women Scotland branded the act a “mess” and said “there will be a lot of malicious reports”.

Susan Smith said: “Much of this is very vague as stirring up offences seems to be based on someone’s perception that someone is being hateful towards them, and they can make a complaint and the police are saying they will investigate everything.

“We know that there are people out there who have lists of people they are looking to target. They are seeing this as an opportunity to settle scores and make political points.”

Susan Smith, director at the For Women Scotland campaign group,
Image: Susan Smith, director of campaign group For Women Scotland. Pic: Sky

Police Scotland has committed to investigating every single hate complaint it receives.

At First Minister’s Questions on Thursday, Mr Yousaf said he had “absolute faith” in the force’s ability to weed out vexatious complaints.

Mr Yousaf has repeatedly said there is “disinformation” being spread about the bill and what it entails, claiming there is a “triple lock” of protection for speech.

The three safeguarding measures in the “lock” are an explicit clause on free speech, a defence for the accused’s behaviour being “reasonable” and the fact that the act is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Scotland's First Minister Humza Yousaf during First Minster's Questions (FMQ's) at the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh. Picture date: Thursday March 28, 2024.
Image: Humza Yousaf during First Minister’s Questions on Thursday. Pic: PA

‘It’s April Fools’ Day but it really is no joke’

The Scottish Conservatives have called for the act to be scrapped and the resources diverted towards frontline policing instead.

Russell Findlay MSP, shadow justice secretary for the Scottish Tories, said: “Humza Yousaf’s hate crime act comes into force on April Fools’ Day but it is really no joke for the people of Scotland.”

Russell Findlay MSP. Pic: Scottish Parliament TV
Image: Russell Findlay MSP. Pic: Scottish Parliament TV

Mr Findlay said it was “farcical that many officers have not yet been trained” and claimed the Scottish parliament’s criminal justice committee has not been given sight of the force’s training material despite requesting it.

He added: “Officers would rather tackle real crimes and keep communities safe, rather than having to investigate malicious and spurious complaints.”

‘Nobody in our society should live in fear’

Siobhian Brown, minister for victims and community safety, said: “Nobody in our society should live in fear and we are committed to building safer communities that live free from hatred and prejudice.

“We know that the impact on those on the receiving end of physical, verbal or online attacks can be traumatic and life-changing. This legislation is an essential element of our wider approach to tackling that harm.

“Protections for freedom of expression are built into the legislation passed by parliament and these new offences have a higher threshold for criminality than the long-standing offence of stirring up racial hatred, which has been in place since 1986.”

Sky News Source