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Yousaf: Government could have communicated on new hate crime law better

The First Minister said at the STUC Congress in Dundee that the Government would reflect on its communications around the legislation.

Humza Yousaf

Scotland First Minister and Justice Secretary have both said the Government could have done more to communicate to the public what new hate crime laws entail.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act came into effect on April 1, sparking a deluge of complaints in the ensuing few days – although new figures have shown a near-75% drop off in reports between the first and second week.

Critics have slammed the Scottish Government’s communications around the Act, claiming it is not clear what would be classed as a hate crime under the new, stirring-up offences created for some protected characteristics.

Others have railed against the impact on free speech and the potential pressure on the police from increased complaints.

On Tuesday, First Minister Humza Yousaf said “bad faith actors” had submitted “vexatious” complaints in the early days of the Act’s implementation, but he told journalists at the STUC Congress in Dundee the Government would reflect on its communications around the legislation.

“I think that they (bad actors) were always going to put in some vexatious complaints when the Act first came into force and there’s some reflection in Government that we could have done more in relation to proactive comms, I think that’s a fair challenge back,” he said.

“But even if we had done all the comms in the world, that wouldn’t have stopped for example … members of the far right co-ordinating a campaign to put in vexatious complaints, that was always going to tail off, hence why the police have said there has been a minimal impact on frontline policing.

“Some of the misinformation, I’m sure, has not been deliberate but there has been some that has.”

Angela Constance
Angela Constance addressed MSPs in Holyrood on Tuesday (Jane Barlow/PA)

In a statement to Holyrood later, Justice Secretary Angela Constance added: “I accept that the Scottish Government could have done more to inform people about this Act as well as our wider approach to tackling hate crime and prejudice.

“We have, therefore, today published a factsheet, to go with the already published general information note on the Act.

However, let’s be clear, even if the Government had produced more information, bad faith actors who are intent on spreading disinformation would have done so regardless.

“I am clear that the purpose and intent of the Hate Crime Act, which was passed by 82 members of this democratically elected parliament, is to protect those in our country at risk of hatred and prejudice.”

Ms Constance also said that just seven of the 445 hate crimes recorded in the first two weeks of the legislation being active were stirring-up offences.

Data from Police Scotland showed the force received 1,832 online hate reports between April 8 and April 14 – with this down from 7,152 the previous week.

The force said the “vast majority” of complaints received during the second week were anonymous, with most resulting in no further action being taken when assessed against the legislation.

However, there were 213 hate crimes recorded, with this down from 240 in the first week the legislation was in force.

A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “We have seen a significant reduction in the number of online hate reports and these continue to be managed within our contact centres with minimal impact on frontline policing.

“All complaints received are reviewed by officers, supported by dedicated hate crime advisers, and dealt with appropriately, whether that is being progressed for further assessment, or closed as they do not meet the criteria under the legislation.”

The new figures come as the Tories have launched a bid to scrap the legislation, tabling a motion at Holyrood to be debated on Wednesday.

Given the SNP and Greens enjoy a majority in the Scottish Parliament, all opposition parties would need to back the Tory attempt to repeal the legislation, as well as 13 rebels from the Government benches.

Mr Yousaf, speaking at the Scottish Trades Union Congress’ annual congress in Dundee, said there had been “very deliberate misinformation” about the legislation.

He told the event: “Despite the expectations and perhaps even the wishes of some, (the Act) is taking place within Scotland’s criminal justice system in a proportionate way.”

With high profile figures such as Harry Potter author JK Rowling amongst those who have spoken out against the legislation, the First Minister said that there had been not “so much airtime” given to the “everyday victims of hate crime”.

Mr Yousaf said: “We’ve heard virtually nothing about the people who experience hate whilst at work – frontline workers who, just for doing their job, sometimes suffer the most disgraceful discrimination, abuse and threats.

“They may not have the powerful connections to get their stories told – but all of us here are listening to them.”

The Act currently does not include a stirring-up offence for the protected characteristic of sex, with the Government opting to create a standalone misogyny Bill that would protect women.

The First Minister said that legislation, which is yet to be introduced, will also cover trans women.

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland on Tuesday, Mr Yousaf said: “Women and girls will be protected and, of course, trans women will also be protected, as well, because they will often also be the ones who suffer from threats of rape, for example, or threats of disfigurement.”

He pledged to “put some urgency and pace” into the legislation.

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