HUMZA Yousaf has signalled a retreat on the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill, saying he plans to update Holyrood through a special ministerial statement.

The Justice Secretary said he was reviewing the “stirring up” section of the Bill, which critics claim could stifle freedom of speech and criminalise mere insults.

Holyrood’s justice committee has already received a record 2,000 responses to the legislation, which the Government wants to pass before May’s Holyrood election.

The Bill 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.

Scotland’s judges have collectively queried this part of the Bill, asking in a written submission “likely according to whose perception?... a reasonable person.. or to a person bearing the particular protected characteristic, or someone else?”

The Scottish Police Federation and Law Society of Scotland have also criticised the vague language.

At Holyrood yesterday, Mr Yousaf was asked by SNP MSP Christine Grahame, a lawyer by training, if the Government was reviewing the “likely” to stir up part of the Bill.

She said the phrase caused “concern” and urged the Justice Secretary to include the “essential ingredient in a crime, which is intent”, adding: “In my view, ‘likely to’, does not meet that test”.

Confirming he was looking at the “likely threshold”, Mr Yousaf said he was considering an existing hate crime law that included intent as a possible template.

He said: “I am listening carefully to the comments that have been made about the stirring-up offence.

“We have had a racial stirring offence for almost 35 years.

“The threshold for that offence is behaviour that is threatening or abusive or insulting - there is that additional threshold -but it is based on not only intent, but the potential for or likelihood of stirring up hatred. That law has operated in Scotland for nearly 35 years with almost no controversy.

“We can look to that example. The protection that we hope to provide for other vulnerable groups with other protected characteristics is broadly based on the racial stirring-up offence.

“It is not a mirror, but it is based on that. Notwithstanding all that I have said, I am exploring that area.”

Tory MSP Liam Kerr said it would be “sensible to rethink” the stirring-up part of the Bill, as it would allow the other, far less controversial parts of it to be scrutinised and passed on time.

Mr Yousaf said he would update parliament “as soon as I can”.

He said: “Our job is not to avoid criticism. Our primary aim as legislators is to pass good legislation that protects people and also protects their freedom of speech.”

Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur said: “The provisions of this Bill relating to ‘stirring up’ offences have led to serious, widespread and legitimate concerns about the impact on freedom of expression.

“The Justice Secretary insists he hears those concerns and is ready to act. However, parliament’s Justice Committee will need time to properly scrutinise and proposed changes.

“Whether Mr Yousaf’s proposals go far enough in addressing the concerns that have been raised remains to be seen, but I welcome the commitment to update parliament in the coming days”.