By Dr Lesley Sawers

IN recent days the public conversation about the Scottish Parliament’s Hate Crime Bill has taken an unfortunate turn away from considering how to best protect people from the devastating effects of hate crime.

As Scotland’s national equality body and the regulator of the Equality Act, as well as one of Great Britain’s National Human Rights Institutions, we firmly support the ambitions of the bill. It will bring together the majority of existing hate crime legislation and update the language in our laws to reflect 21st Century Scotland. At the same time, the bill aims to clarify – for everyone’s sake – where the boundary sits between making sure people can speak honestly and respectfully about important topics while also supporting people with particular characteristics to live their lives without being deterred by fear and harassment.

Achieving the balance between freedom of expression and protections for people is not an easy task. Freedom of speech is the cornerstone of our democracy and a fundamental human right – there is no right to be offended. However, freedom of expression is not a free pass. It does not mean that someone can discriminate against or harass other people on the basis of their race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. In June, the publication of the latest hate crime statistics for Scotland showed an uncomfortable truth: an increase in the number of charges, including a 29 per cent increase in hate crimes against disabled people and a 24% increase targeting people because of their sexual orientation.

It is a sad reality that regardless of our ambition for Scotland to be a country that is welcoming, tolerant and respectful of all, hate crime remains a problem that needs be tackled, a scourge on Scotland’s progressive and modern outlook which occurs with alarming frequency. It is critical that we consider not only how to reduce these incidents, but that we turn our efforts to tackling the underlying discriminatory attitudes which underpin them.

At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement has encouraged discussions about race and racism in the mainstream with individuals and institutions reflecting on our past, our present and our future as part of a society which strives to be anti-racist. It is the responsibility of us all to take this important moment, to build on it and to take action which will protect this progress.

The Hate Crime Bill provides us with the opportunity to do that. To grasp this moment we all must come together in the spirit of collaboration, inclusion and support. By passing the Bill into law, we can consolidate and modernise legal protections to tackle crime fuelled by hatred and prejudice wherever and whenever it happens. It will give the public confidence that our criminal justice system will take hate crime seriously and help to change societal attitudes to get us to a place where prejudiced attitudes and behaviour are no longer acceptable or tolerated. And we can do this whilst also protecting the right to freedom of expression which is fundamental in any healthy democracy.

We have an opportunity to make Scotland a place where all victims of hate crime are treated with dignity and respect. Indeed, in the debate now and as the Hate Crime Bill progresses through the Scottish Parliament, it is vital that the voices of the people who need its protection are heard.

Dr Lesley Sawers is the Scotland Commissioner for the Equality and Human Rights Commission