CALLS by Holyrood’s Justice Committee for further changes to the Hate Crime Bill were inevitable. As it stands, the bill is a shoddy piece of work: unfit for its intended purpose, a significant attack on free expression and an affront to foundational standards of liberty.

There is a strong case for simply scrapping it, and an obvious precedent, given the eventual repeal of the similarly ill-thought-out Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Act. The committee, however, has said only that, with substantial amendment, it may be possible to enact the general principles of the bill.

Most people accept that the Scottish Government is fundamentally well-intentioned in trying to tackle hatred, and that we should all deplore and challenge prejudice where it exists. But good intentions, as the old saw points out, are not in themselves a sound pavement or an assurance of reaching the intended destination.

To raise objections to proposed legislation is the function of parliamentarians – and for that matter, the press, activists, or any concerned citizen. Doing so is not an expression of bad faith, bigotry or deliberate obstruction. The Justice Secretary, Humza Yousaf, has already welcomed the committee’s report; it remains to be seen whether his response on Monday will do enough to placate the serious worries it raises.

The Government’s record on this front is not reassuring. It has been far too ready to see any objection raised against its proposals as an affront, or a slight on ministers’ motives.

But pointing out potential conflicts, dangers and shortcomings is precisely the objective of the legislative process. To say that the bill is deficient unless the commitment to freedom of expression is “deepened and strengthened”, or that there must be a clearer definition of what constitutes a defence of reasonableness against newly-created offences of “stirring up” is not petty quibbling. It is attempting to avoid outcomes in the real world that may be even more undesirable than the ills the legislation means to tackle.

An offence in criminal law cannot be defined by someone – anyone – simply taking offence. Indeed, one of the bill’s sensible provisions is the repeal of blasphemy laws. There are many issues where traditional religious teaching clashes with current sensibilities, and the convictions of those who subscribe to the former should not proscribe the free speech of those who do not.

But nor is it acceptable to criminalise those who hold unpopular opinions, even – in fact, especially – those we may find deplorable, unless there is firm evidence that they are intended to foment and promote hatred. Simply being out of step with current nostrums, or expressing views that hurt the feelings of any group or individual should not be a crime. For that reason the utmost care, and the closest scrutiny, must be given to the wording of any bill trying to reduce hatred and improve civility and public discourse, because failure to do so risks making matters worse.


BY the end of the weekend, we should know whether current talks with the EU are to continue or be abandoned. That is, we should: previous form suggests there is no guarantee of that.

That there is still uncertainty can be nothing but an indictment of those who have brought us to this point – chiefly the last three UK prime ministers, but also those, on both sides of the argument and on both sides of the Channel, who wilfully impeded all potential compromises. Those blunders, and the confusion and uncertainty they created, have had a real and shattering impact on people’s lives and livelihoods, and one that, alas, looks set to continue.

No deal will unquestionably be a failure – the people who conducted these negotiations said so themselves. A poor deal, produced like a rabbit from a hat, will be no triumph. Whatever the intrinsic merits of the cases for and against Brexit once were, its subsequent handling cannot be described as anything but dismal.