By Tom Gordon

Political Editor

MSPs have received almost 2,000 submissions on the SNP Government’s Hate Crime Bill in an ”unprecedented” response to a piece of legislation.

Holyrood’s Justice Committee said it would start considering the controversial Bill next month after its 12-week consultation was deluged with evidence from organisations and the public.

The MSPs hope to report on the Bill’s general principles by Christmas, although the work could go into the New Year because of the volume of material to consider.

The Government wants to complete the remaining stages and pass the Bill into law before the 2021 election.

The Bill has proven one of the most contentious proposals in the SNP’s time in office.

It would update the characteristics protected in law from hate crimes and introduce offences for behaviour likely to “stir up” hatred, whether this was done intentionally or not.

Critics of the Bill say it would stifle freedom of speech and criminalise a “mere insult”.

The Scottish Police Federation, which represents rank-and-file officers, has warned the Bill “appears to paralyse freedom of speech in Scotland” while the the Faculty of Advocates has raised concerns over “unintended consequences” for free speech.

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

Last month a series of high-profile objectors from the arts, including comedian Rowan Atkinson and crime writer Val McDermid, warned the Bill, while well-intentioned, risked “stifling freedom of expression and the ability to articulate or criticise religious and other beliefs”.

They said: “The right to critique ideas, philosophical, religious and other, must be protected to allow an artistic and democratic society to flourish.”

Glasgow Tory MSP Adam Tomkins, the convener of the Justice Committee, said: “The number of submissions we have received is unprecedented and reflects that this Bill is contentious. Hundreds of individuals and organisations have written to us setting out their views on the offences that this Bill would both create and abolish.

“Given the importance of this legislation – and the strength of feeling it is generating – it is vital that sufficient time is allowed for scrutiny. Our Committee has already agreed that it will revisit the deadline of 18 December should it become necessary.”

Setting out her Government’s legislative programme for the coming year on Tuesday, Nicola Sturgeon acknowledged there were misgivings about the Bill.

She told MSPs: “There are very good reasons why we need to ensure that we have laws in this country that are capable of tackling hate crime, because it is pernicious and horrible and we should have zero tolerance for it.

“However, we have to do that in a way that respects and protects people’s legitimate freedom of speech and expression.

“If we need to lodge amendments to reassure people who have legitimate concerns, we give an undertaking to do so. “

Jamie Gillies, of the Free to Disagree campaign, commented:

“Adam Tomkins is right. The Hate Crime Bill has generated great strength of feeling in Scotland since it was published in April. Almost two thousand responses were submitted to the Justice Committee’s call for views over a period of just twelve weeks, and in the midst of a global pandemic. That’s highly significant.

“We don’t doubt that there are good intentions behind the Hate Crime Bill.

“However, given the serious risks outlined and the lack of evidence that new ‘stirring up’ provisions are necessary, we would urge MSPs to oppose Part 2 of the Bill.”

Mr Yousaf said: “I am grateful to all those who have responded to Parliament’s call for evidence, which we will consider very carefully.

“I know from experience, both personally and from the powerful testimonies of others, the physical and mental distress that hate crime can cause victims.

“What is apparent from the many responses made public so far is that there is wide support for the main purpose of the Bill – to make clear that crimes motivated by hatred and prejudice will not be tolerated in modern Scotland.

“The Bill does not seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way but aims to achieve the correct balance between protecting those who suffer from the scourge of hate crime whilst respecting people’s freedom of expression.

“As Parliament considers the details of the Bill, we will work to find common ground and compromise where necessary. This is an issue around which Scotland’s Parliament can and must come together in order to protect the rights of everyone to live their lives free from harm or fear.”