PROPOSED new hate crime legislation in Scotland could “paralyse freedom of speech” and “devastate” the relationship between the public and the police, officers have warned. 

In a scathing submission to MSPs, the Scottish Police Federation said the SNP Bill was intolerably vague, wide open to abuse, and could infringe people’s human rights. 

The Federation, which represents Police Scotland’s 17,000 frontline officers, said it could never support the Hate Crime & Public Order Bill as drafted.

The warning, in written evidence to Holyrood’s Justice Committee, which is examining the Bill, comes amid growing criticism of the Government’s plans. 

The Law Society of Scotland also warned this week that the Bill had “major flaws”.

It said: “We have significant reservations regarding a number of the Bill’s provisions and the lack of clarity, which could in effect lead to restrictions in freedom of expression, one of the foundations of a democratic society.”

The Catholic Church and National Secular Society have also opposed the Bill, which is being promoted at Holyrood by Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf.

The Bill would make it an offence to behave in a “threatening, abusive of insulting manner” with the intention to stir up hatred against a group of people based on their race, colour, nationality, ethnic or national origins, or if it was “likely that hatred will be stirred up”.

It would also be an offence to behave in a threatening or abusive (but not insulting) manner towards people because of “age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, transgender identity, or variations in sexual characteristics” with the intension, or likely effect, of stirring up hatred against that group. 

The SPF said it could not support a Bill “which appears to paralyse freedom of speech” and would create an offence for “mere insult”.

It said threatening conduct was already an offence under the law, and the new Bill could lead to prosecutions “for the mere expression of opinion which may be unpopular”. 

It said: “Individuals, organisations, or others with an interest in doing so, could shut down debate on important matters by simply labelling it criminal hatred. Whether or not they are correct, the impact is likely to be that free speech is stifled regardless.”

The SPF said parts of the Bill only complicated the law and were “too vague to be implemented”

It warned that people using the Bill to silence others would put “considerable pressure” on officers, with more people taken into custody and “into adversarial contact with the police”.

It went on: “It will see more people reported for consideration of prosecution, and will see more pressure placed on the courts. 

“It is impossible to see how this could not lead to more convictions for those who had no reason to believe their conduct could be deemed to be stirring up hatred.”

The Federation also the Bill was inconsistent in applying the “insult” offence to some protected groups but not others, and queried whether ministers were trying to duck “hotly-contested issues such as the housing of refugees, or trans rights and how they affect biological women”.

Warning the free expression of opinion, however unpopular, was enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights, it concluded: “We should never forget that the police in Scotland police with the consent of the people.

"We are firmly of the view that legislation that would see the police policing speech would devastate the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public. That can never be an acceptable outcome.”

The SPF also estimated it could cost £4m to give every officer a day’s training on the Bill.

SPF General Secretary Calum Steele said: “Police officers are all too aware that there are individuals in society who believe that to feel insulted or offended is a police matter. 

“The Bill would move even further from policing and criminalising of deeds and acts to the potential policing of what people think or feel, as well as the criminalisation of what is said in private.

“If the Bill as presented is passed, those accused of the new offences of stirring up hatred will not have the opportunity to prove that they did not intend to stir up hatred or that they had no reason to suspect their conduct would do so.

“We do not for one second suggest that prejudice, racism or discrimination are desirable qualities in our society but the need to address those matters when they reach a criminal level is met by laws already in place and the cost to free speech of going further with this Bill is too high a price to pay for very little gain.”

Tory MSP Liam Kerr added: “The SNP government must amend this bill to protect freedom of speech.

“Lawyers, police officers and a wide range of civic organisations have now expressed serious reservations about the scope and effect of this legislation.

“These informed and thoughtful interventions are from experts in their field.

“The Justice Secretary’s response to these serious and reasonable concerns appears to be little more than name calling.

“The SNP’s hate crimes legislation is far too vague, it poses an extreme danger to freedom of speech and it will criminalise well-intentioned members of the public who pose no threat.

“Mr Yousaf must now listen to these experts and amend his deeply flawed bill.”

Labour MSP James Kelly added: “The Police Federation comments add further weight to the criticism of the SNP Hate Crime Bill.

"It is deeply worrying that that rank and file officers are uncomfortable with making judgements on freedom of speech.

"With police officers, lawyers and religious groups expressing concerns about the ‘stirring up hared’ proposals, it is clear Humza Yousaf has got this badly wrong.”

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.”