CONTROVERSIAL hate crime legislation will be watered down following a backlash over freedom of speech, the Scottish Government has confirmed. 

SNP Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf announced the climbdown as he admitted the proposed law could have led to self-censorship as well as uncertainty over whether legitimate acts of expression were open to prosecution.

He said ministers will amend the Hate Crime Bill to mean a conviction for new offences of "stirring up" hatred would only be possible where it was shown that someone intended to stir up hatred through their actions or behaviour.

The draft legislation currently has a lower threshold covering behaviour "likely to" stir up hatred, whether this was done intentionally or not. 

The move follows months of controversy over the Bill, which critics say threatens freedom of speech.

But opponents said the change did not go far enough.

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr MSP said: "The most controversial piece of legislation in Scottish Parliament history won’t be fixed by tinkering around the margins.

“Our fundamental right to freedom of speech remains under threat.”

Among other concerns, he said there is still "no protection for anything said in the privacy of your own home". 

Announcing the move, Mr Yousaf said: “I have listened to and reflected carefully on concerns raised over the Bill, particularly over the operation of the new stirring up hatred offences and concerns that these offences do not require that the accused intended to stir up hatred. 

"I recognise that there is a real risk that if the offences don’t require intent to stir up hatred, people may self-censor their activities through a perception that the operation of this aspect of the offences may be used to prosecute what are entirely legitimate acts of expression.

“The Scottish Government will therefore lodge stage 2 amendments to the Bill to make the new stirring up hatred offences ‘intent only’.

"I hope this fundamental change will provide necessary reassurance that the new stirring up hatred offences strike an appropriate balance between respecting freedom of expression while protecting those impacted by people who set out to stir up hatred in others.

“I am keen to find common ground and will look at other areas of the Bill for possible reform, in doing so we will of course engage with stakeholders and opposition as the Bill goes through the usual parliamentary scrutiny. 

"I am confident that, going forward, the debate around the Bill will help build consensus on how we effectively tackle hate crime and how we can keep working together to ensure Scotland is an inclusive and forward thinking society.”

Mr Yousaf said more than 5,600 hate crimes were reported to prosecutors last year.

As well as the stirring up offences, the Hate Crime Bill updates the characteristics protected in law from hate crimes.

The Faculty of Advocates welcomed the "significant change" announced by Mr Yousaf, but added that concerns remain over freedom of expression. 

Roddy Dunlop, QC, dean of the Faculty, said: "This change, however, will ensure that criminalisation applies only to intentional behaviour, which is consistent with the policy aims of the Bill that Faculty has always supported."

Kate Wallace, chief executive of Victim Support Scotland, said she hoped the move "eases concerns about the implications of the Bill".

She added: "It should allow a renewed focus on its overall purpose: to tackle offending behaviour, and to give the necessary protections for some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people and groups."

Scottish Liberal Democrat justice spokesman Liam McArthur MSP said: "The statement today was a step in the right direction, but is by no means problem solved for the Scottish Government. In light of a marked rise in all forms of hate crime, it is right that Parliament takes steps to ensure our legislation is fit for purpose. 

"But this is a complex area of law and ministers and Parliament need to be alive to the risks."

Justice Committee convener Adam Tomkins welcomed the announcement but said the committee should be able to see the wording of proposed changes before it begins stage one proceedings next month.