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Stirring up a storm in a teacup: Police Scotland only investigate nine “stirring up” incidents after first week of hate crime law

Fraser Sutherland, CEO, Humanist Society Scotland

April 10, 2024

The introduction of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act has seen cynical attempts to stoke fears that our freedom of speech is being eroded. But as our CEO Fraser Sutherland writes, police statistics show this is a huge overreaction.

This week Police Scotland published statistics on the new Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act. This followed intense media scrutiny of the law. Indeed, a number of prominent commentators have suggested the act has ushered in the death of free expression in Scotland.

It is clear that much of the confusion is deliberately manufactured by groups with an agenda, especially to undermine race and interfaith relations.

Fraser Sutherland, CEO, Humanist Society Scotland

Freedom of speech

Humanist Society Scotland has long advocated for clear protection of free expression within this law, especially in relation to new “stirring up” offences. Our rights to freedom of speech are, in any case, guaranteed by the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). But it is important that those enforcing the law understand its limits in restricting ECHR rights. Thanks to our campaigning, a number of major amendments were made during the passage of this bill to ensure freedom of expression was protected under the new law.

We still believe that the Scottish Government and Police Scotland could increase public confidence in the new act by committing to use the thresholds on hate speech set out in the UN Rabat Plan of Action. These are carefully formulated to protect both minority groups and free expression. Their use would combat much of the genuine confusion regarding the new law.

This week’s figures from Police Scotland underline the disconnect between the widespread – and often hot-headed – public discourse and how the law is working in practice. 

Fraser Sutherland, CEO, Humanist Society Scotland

Manufactured outrage

However, it is also clear that much of the confusion is being deliberately manufactured by groups with an agenda, especially to undermine race and interfaith relations. For example, several individuals associated with white supremist and ultra-nationalist groups have sought to use the implementation of this act to foment public anger against minority groups.

This week’s figures from Police Scotland underline the disconnect between the hot-headed public discourse and how the law is working in practice. True, 7,152 hate crime reports were made to Police Scotland during the first week of the act. But over 3,000 of these were received on the first day, with numbers dropping significantly in the days after.

Despite front-page headlines suggesting a zealous campaign against self-termed gender-critical Scots, only eight aggravated offences relating to transgender identity were deemed worthy of further investigation, compared with over 120 on race.

Fraser Sutherland, CEO, Humanist Society Scotland

Fraudulent and anonymous reporting

The statistics also show that, of the more than 7,000 reports received, only nine relating to new “stirring up” offences were taken forwards for police investigation. This is despite the impression created by certain media sources that people will be rounded up and imprisoned for speaking their minds. And it’s in spite of the cynical taunts made to the police by prominent bad-faith actors to ‘come and arrest me’.

Figures on investigation of transgender-related hate crime are particularly interesting. Despite front-page headlines suggesting a zealous campaign against self-termed gender critical Scots, only eight aggravated offences relating to transgender identity were deemed worthy of further police investigation. This is compared with over 120 on race, 38 on disability, and 21 on age. Moreover, I would suggest, based on previous trends in this area, that most of those eight investigations will not result in charges.

These figures uncover the truth about last week’s frenzy. Vexatious claims were being made in their thousands to the police. And the ‘complainants’ were more comfortable making such fake claims, often anonymously or fraudulently, online than over the phone.

Fraser Sutherland, CEO, Humanist Society Scotland

Another thing that jumps out from the statistics is the very small number of reports made via telephone. Only 34 of the 7,152 reports were phoned in, an approach that requires the complainant to provide their name. The vast majority were received via an online form which allows anonymity.

Recognising the real threats

There are genuine reasons why people might feel more comfortable reporting hate incidents online. But in my view these figures uncover the truth about last week’s frenzy. Vexatious claims were being made in their thousands to the police, which undermined the police’s ability to undertake their public functions. And the “complainants” were more comfortable making fake claims, often anonymously or fraudulently, online than over the phone.

Since the introduction of stirring up offences against religion in England and Wales in 2006 there has not been a single successful prosecution. Not a single case. In 18 years.

Fraser Sutherland, CEO, Humanist Society Scotland

The online disinhibition effect we see played out all too often on social media has now reached the doors (or rather the webforms) of police stations. In recent years, we have witnessed a clear increase in toxic and degrading comments on social media platforms on issues which deserve nuanced and respectful discussion.

Humanist Society Scotland will continue monitoring the enforcement of stirring-up laws by Police Scotland, in particular to ensure that ECHR rights relating to freedom of expression and belief are not undermined. But a quick look at the situation over our southern border might be instructive here. Since the introduction of stirring up offences against religion in England and Wales in 2006 there has not been a single successful prosecution. Not a single case. In 18 years.

As humanists we need to look beyond the inflammatory headlines, to draw back the curtain of simplistic, rage-inducing arguments that attempt to reduce every debate to a moralistic good against evil fallacy. And, crucially, let’s not forget the real victims of restricted freedom of expression around the world. Like our friend Mubarak Bala, President of the Humanist Association of Nigeria, jailed for 24 years for a series of social media posts questioning the existence of God.

Mubarak is a true victim of religious persecution. And, while we will never abandon our commitment to free expression and belief at home, what is happening in Scotland at the moment is, by comparison, a rather tawdry pantomime.

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