CONTROVERSIAL hate crime legislation will be further watered down to address widespread concerns over its impact, the Justice Secretary has confirmed.

Humza Yousaf said sections of the Hate Crime Bill dealing with the performance of plays and religious protections will be amended or removed.

It comes just weeks after he announced the legislation will be altered to ensure 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 previously had a lower threshold covering behaviour "likely to" stir up hatred, whether this was done intentionally or not. 

Elsewhere, Mr Yousaf confirmed Baroness Helena Kennedy will chair a working group to explore options around a potential standalone offence of misogynistic harassment.

The Hate Crime Bill has been the focus of months of controversy, with critics arguing it threatens freedom of speech. 

The Scottish Tories said it still needs a "major overhaul". 

Giving evidence to Holyrood's Justice Committee, Mr Yousaf said section four of the Bill will be removed. 

This deals with the stirring up of hatred during the performance of a play, and has been criticised by figures in the theatre industry who voiced concerns over self-censorship.

Mr Yousaf told MSPs: "I recognise the concerns expressed by the performing arts community that the provision appears to single them out, and the anxiety that has caused. 

"The Public Order Act 1986 does include similar provisions, and it was on that basis that it was included in the Bill. 

"However the evidence this committee heard has led me to conclude that section four can be removed from the Bill."

Elsewhere, he said section 11 of the Bill will be amended. This covers the protection of freedom of expression with regards to religion. 

Mr Yousaf said it will be changed so that it covers the absence of religious belief and to clarify that "mere expressions of antipathy, dislike, ridicule and insult are not on their own criminal behaviour". 

He added: "I'm committed to working with parliament to ensure hate crime law is effective, while protecting freedom of expression."

He said he will continue to reflect on other areas of the legislation.

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

The Hate Crime Bill aims to update existing laws for protected characteristics such as disability, race, religion sexual orientation and transgender identity.

As well as the stirring up offences, the legislation would also add age to the list of protected characteristics and could enable prejudice against a person's sex - such as misogynistic abuse - to be added at a later date.

Scottish Conservative justice spokesman Liam Kerr MSP said: “The Scottish Conservatives have argued for months that the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill was severely flawed, and it still needs a major overhaul.  

“The SNP seem to be U-turning but at a snail’s pace, even though this Bill has faced an avalanche of criticism from police officers, newspapers groups, churches, lawyers, academics and authors.

“So far they have only made minor changes around the margins instead of removing the clear attacks on freedom of speech.

"Humza Yousaf made it clear today that people will still potentially be criminalised for what they say in their own home, around their own dinner tables.

“The SNP still have miles more to shift. As drafted, the Hate Crime Bill remains dangerously flawed and it could be tied up in the courts for years, just as we saw with Named Persons.”