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Scotland finally passes ‘milestone’ hate crime bill hailed an ‘important step forwards’ to equality

Josh Milton March 12, 2021
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homophobic hate crime scotland

Perthshire Pride, Scotland, 2019. (Stewart Kirby/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty)

Lawmakers have passed a Scottish hate crime bill branded a “milestone” by cabinet ministers and an “important step forwards” by LGBT+ campaigners.

The Scottish hate crime bill adds a new hate crime offence that would prosecute those who “stir up hatred” on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, among other protected characteristics.

Drawing cross-party support following drawn-out debates, a worn-out Holyrood (the Scottish parliament) voted largely in favour of the Hate Crime and Public Order bill.

Ministers posed the legislation as a long-needed update to and consolidation of Scotland’s patchwork of hate crime laws.

The bill was passed Thursday (11 March) by 82 votes to 32 with four abstentions, a day later than planned – flustered MSPs ran out of time Wednesday after a marathon five-hour debate over a rafter of amendments, according to BBC.

The length of the debate signalled the hostility of some conservative and trans-hostile lawmakers towards the bill, some suggesting that providing trans people with the same protections afforded to other minority groups would somehow stifle freedom of speech.

LGBT+ rights groups in Scotland welcomed the bill’s passing, coming at a time when anti-queer hate crimes are surging in Scotland. With the exception of 2014-15, homophobic hate crime has increased year on year since it was first included in hate crime legislation in 2010.

“With hate crimes rising against LGBT+ people we hope the passing of this bill sends a clear signal that hatred towards marginalised groups, including LGBT people, is not tolerated in Scotland,” Stonewall Scotland tweeted.

The Equality Network, one of the country’s top LGBT+ charities, and the Scottish Trans Alliance praised it as an “important step forwards” in a joint statement.

“Of course, legislation is only part of the answer to hate crime,” it stressed on Twitter. “We also need public awareness-raising, police training, effective prosecution and sentencing, and monitoring.”

The group also expressed its relief at proposed amendments “that would have undermined the bill for trans people”, such as removing the “stirring up” offence altogether, being struck down by parliamentarians.

“All the amendments that we supported were passed yesterday,” such as improving how law enforcement and prosecutors collect hate crime statistics, it added.

Scotland hate crime bill ‘makes clear that we are listening to the victims of hate crime’

The legislation’s journey was in no way smooth.

Anti-trans groups seethed when SNP justice minister Humza Yousaf unveiled plans to prosecute people and groups that intentionally “stir up hatred”, which would include those who “aggressively campaign” against trans people.

He made clear people would not be prosecuted for saying “trans women are not women” – only those who stoke hatred with “threatening behaviour” could face action.

Trans rights groups responded with fear and agitation when Yousaf see-sawed in the opposite direction, adding an amendment that would seek to exempt “criticism of transgender identity” from hate crime law. It was a move he quickly rowed back on.

Overall, critics characterised the bill as a threat to freedom of speech, wary that spewing a controversial opinion would lead to criminal charges. Not quite, Yousaf stressed in the bill’s final debate.

He allayed fears by tweaking the final bill with free speech safeguards – for actions to be considered “stirring up hatred”, there must be intent and it must pass a reasonable person’s test before an offence is considered.

“To those who think they may accidentally somehow fall foul of the law,” Yousaf said,  “because they believe sex is immutable, or they believe an adult man cannot become a female or they campaign for the rights of Palestinians.

The Scottish government's justice secretary Humza Yousaf.
The Scottish government’s justice secretary Humza Yousaf. (Getty/Fraser Bremner)

“Or those that proselytise that same-sex relationships are sinful, none of these people would fall foul of the stirring up of hatred offence for solely stating their belief – even if they did so in a robust manner.

“Why? Because solely stating any belief, which I accept may be offensive to some, is not breaching the criminal threshold.

“This bill makes clear that we are listening to the victims of hate crime.”

One particular point of contention was the question of whether to add “sex” as a protected characteristic.

The decision not to drew some bipartisan concern, with MSPs voting down an amendment to add sex as an aggravator amid an independent working group considering whether the creation of a standalone bill would better tackle misogynistic abuse.

Helena Kenndy, a human rights lawyer spearheading the group, has stressed that misogyny law must protect trans women as well as cis women.

This passionate debate over the bill was even praised by Yousaf, the MSP for Glasgow Pollok MSP, saying it had “shown the very best of parliament”.

“Through the passing of this landmark bill, parliament has sent a strong and clear message to victims, perpetrators, communities and to wider society that offences motivated by prejudice will be treated seriously and will not be tolerated,” Yousaf said in a statement on the government’s website.

“I am delighted Holyrood has backed this powerful legislation that is fitting for the Scotland we live in.”

Related topics: Hate crime, Scotland

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