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MAREE TODD: Reaction to hate crime bill is stoking division

By Maree Todd

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Holyrood Notebook by Maree Todd

There was a big reaction to the introduction of the Scottish Government's hate crime bill. Picture: Adobe Stock
There was a big reaction to the introduction of the Scottish Government's hate crime bill. Picture: Adobe Stock

I’ve been a bit stumped by the focus and reaction to the introduction of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act this month.

The reaction to it has stemmed from those making deliberate attempts to misinterpret the Act in order to peddle misinformation and spark public concern.

Beneath the hysteria lies a good piece of legislation, recommended by Lord Bracadale and endorsed by legal experts, that will help address the harms caused by hatred and prejudice in society. Something, I’m sure, most of us would like to see.

In 2021, the Bill received cross-party support, with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and the Greens, all backing it – the Tories were the sole opposition. Interestingly, despite Alba's call for the Act's repeal, their only MSP actually seconded the motion as well as voted to support it.

With so much misinformation circulating, it’s worth taking some time to set out the facts.

The Act introduces new offences for threatening or abusive behaviour which is intended to stir up hatred based on prejudice towards characteristics including age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, and variations in sex characteristics.

Apart from age, which the Scottish Government added for the first time, these characteristics are not out of step with the rest of the UK. The Act is also similar to legislation in England and Wales which has criminalised stirring up hatred on grounds of religion since 2007 and sexual orientation since 2010.

The legislation does not prevent people from expressing controversial, challenging, or offensive views, nor does it seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way. The right to freedom of expression is specifically built into the Act.

The threshold for criminality is high. For the new offences in the legislation, it must be proven that the behaviour is threatening or abusive and intended to stir up hatred. It’s important to stress that “stirring up hatred” is a very high threshold and the law does not penalise people for being offensive, rude – or even vile – to other people on social media.

Take JK Rowling as an example. While the remarks she made on social media may be viewed as offensive to trans people, they are not classified as criminal under the Act. As the First Minister said, the Act does not seek to address situations where individuals are just offended, insulted, or upset.

The Act does not overlook sex either. While standalone legislation to protect women against misogyny will be brought forward later this year, the 2021 Hate Crime Act also includes a Ministerial power to add sex as a protected characteristic in the Act should circumstances and time demand it.

Given women are not a minority group – we make up 51 per cent of the population – separate legislation to protect against misogyny is sensible and in line with the recommendations of Baroness Helena Kennedy KC, who led the Scottish Government’s commissioned report on misogyny and criminal justice.

The truth is that most people have no intention of committing a hate crime and will be unaffected by the changes that came into effect this month. What we have observed over recent weeks is another example of opposition politicians and other influential figures deliberately stoking division for political gain.

This has resulted in the spread of misinformation and the polarisation of debate, all to the detriment of some of society’s most marginalised groups.

Maree Todd at Wick.
Maree Todd at Wick.

• Maree Todd is the SNP MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Ross.

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