The Scottish Parliament voted in favour of the controversial Hate Crime Bill yesterday despite a groundswell of opposition from civil society groups including the Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO).
The NSO joined the efforts of the campaign group Free to Disagree last year, because we realised proposals in the Bill would have a significant impact on civil liberties and a ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. We worked with our allies in playing a major part in pushing back against controversial elements of the Bill, with some success, and gave both oral and written evidence to the Scottish Justice Committee.
The NSO lobbied alongside the National Secular Society, Catholic Church, the Free Church of Scotland and The Humanists Society to secure an amendment to extend free speech for discussion of religion and belief. Expressions of ‘antipathy, dislike, ridicule or insult’ towards religion are now protected, whereas prior to this only, ‘criticism and discussion’ was safeguarded when it came to matters of religion. This is more in line with parallel legislation in England & Wales and allows for more robust discussion, without fear of investigation or censorship.
Notably, the original Bill was drafted without including the need for ‘intent’ to bring a conviction, and the threshold was merely ‘stirring of hatred’ was ‘likely’ to occur – something that would have put actors, or those working in theatrical arts (amongst others) in real difficulty. Lobbying efforts succeeded and the ‘intent’ modification is included in the legislation.
Our Deputy-Director who led on our campaigning, was quoted on BBC Politics Live and in the stage three debate yesterday in Holyrood by the Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Justice Liam Kerr MSP, who said:
‘Let me finish with a quote from Hardeep Singh, ‘for ordinary people there will be a serious ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. MSPs must therefore put free speech first when making the decisive vote on this ill-conceived legislation. The only way to do that is to vote against it. At decision time tonight presiding officer, the Scottish Conservatives will do just that’.’
As we pointed out in evidence to the Justice Committee, the Hate Crime Bill puts women who want to discuss women’s rights and transgender issues in real difficulty, as there is not enough free speech protection for them. It also does not protect conversations in the privacy of one’s home, as there is no dwelling defence – something that is included in legislation in England & Wales. There is now a risk conversations around the dinner table could be investigated.
Hardeep Singh said: ‘The Bill is deeply flawed and will no doubt be used by people to silence or attempt to criminalise critics. It may well lead to a culture of vexatious complaints and heralds a very dark moment for free speech in Scotland. Of course, we are disappointed it has passed, but are grateful to have worked with brave and principled individuals in the Free to Disagree campaign. Thanks to these joint efforts, there have been some important amendments which have helped improve the legislation during its passage.’