NICOLA Sturgeon has suggested controversial hate crime proposals could be overhauled to “listen to concerns” that new laws may threaten freedom of speech.

The First Minister announced that the hate crime bill will continue along with six other existing pieces of legislation that will be considered by Holyrood before next May’s election.

The new laws would expand laws against “stirring up” of hate, which already cover racism to cover a host of other characteristics. But the plans have faced criticism from a range of voices over worries that freedom of speech will be eroded.

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In her speech setting out her Programme for Government, the First Minister acknowledged that “concerns have been raised” about the proposals.

She added: “I want to give an assurance that we will listen carefully. Freedom of speech and expression is fundamental in any democracy.”

Ms Sturgeon was later quizzed about the proposals by Scottish Conservative justice spokesperson, Liam Kerr, who called on the Scottish Government to bin the new laws.

He said: “The hate crime bill has been criticised by amongst others, the Law Society of Scotland, the Scottish Police Federation and several cultural figures as a threat to freedom of speech.

“Will the First Minister listen to these criticisms and withdraw and re-think the hate crime bill that so many have spoken out against?”

The First Minister pointed to existing laws protecting against stirring up racial hatred, which she said have existed “for some time”.

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She said: “There’s really good reasons why we need to make sure we’ve got laws in this country that are capable of tackling hate crime because it is pernicious and horrible and we should have zero tolerance to it.

“We’ve got to do that in a way that respects and protects people’s legitimate freedom of speech and expression. As with so many really important things we do in society, these are not always straight forward things – they involve striking balances and they involve getting into the real detail of how we get this right.”

Ms Sturgeon added: “We’re at the start of a legislative process. I think the right thing to do is to listen to concerns, to go through the committee scrutiny process and if there are amendments we need to make to reassure people who have legitimate concerns, we certainly give an undertaking to do that.

“We hear these concerns and we want to navigate a way through this bill that does what we want to do around hate crime but doesn’t leave people thinking the legitimate right to freedom of speech is being compromised.”