A VETERAN councillor has joined colleagues in voicing his opposition to the Scottish Government’s proposed Hate Crime Bill, insisting it is a major threat to free speech. 

Councillor James MacLaren, who heads up Renfrewshire Council’s Conservative group, has demanded the bill is scrapped - or at least “watered down” - and has called on Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf to listen to opposition parties’ concerns.

The Bridge of Weir, Bishopton and Langbank representative is the fourth Renfrewshire councillor to speak out against the proposed legislation in the last week, after Andy Doig, Eileen McCartin and Eddie Devine all called for the bill to be radically reviewed or binned.

Councillor MacLaren said: “The SNP’s Hate Crime Bill is their latest example of how a good intention is severely threatening to turn into a bad law if this is not watered down or defeated altogether.

“The range of voices that have spoken out against it speaks volumes about the threat it is posing to free speech.

“We risk going down the road of creating a culture where many people feel censored in what they are thinking.

“The Justice Secretary must listen to concerns from opposition parties in the coming weeks as the bill is completely unworkable in its current form.”

Ministers say the bill, which was introduced in April, seeks to “modernise, consolidate and extend” existing hate crime law and aims to give victims greater protection.

The draft legislation updates the list of characteristics protected under hate crime law. On the list are age, disability, race, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity and variations in sex characteristics.

If passed by Parliament, the law would also provide for new ‘stirring up’ of hatred offences that would apply to all characteristics listed. 

‘Stirring up’ of hatred is described as behaviour that encourages others to hate a particular group.

Councillor Doig last week called on the heads of party groups in Renfrewshire to lobby their MSP colleagues on the Justice Committee to object to the bill in its current form. 

Following a consultation which ended on July 24 the committee will now examine the bill and MSPs will vote on whether to pass it before December 18.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The bill does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way. People will still be able to express controversial, challenging or even offensive views as long as this is not done in a threatening or abusive way that is intended to stir up hatred or likely to stir up hatred.

 “The bill includes provisions on freedom of expression to ensure the prohibition on stirring up hatred will not unduly restrict people’s right to express their faith, or to criticise religious beliefs or practices or sexual practices. Stirring up of hatred offences are not new – they have been part of the law for decades for race, with the bill extending these to cover characteristics such as religion and sexual orientation, but where ‘insulting’ is not included as part of the conduct that may constitute a criminal offence.    

 “The law should protect vulnerable groups and minorities and this bill will increase confidence in policing to those communities affected by hate crime. We will continue to engage with Police Scotland and the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service on our proposals and throughout Parliamentary scrutiny of the bill.”

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