JUSTICE COMMITTEE HATE CRIME AND PUBLIC ORDER (SCOTLAND) BILL
SUPPLEMENTARY SUBMISSION FROM NETWORK OF SIKH ORGANISATIONS
The Network of Sikh Organisations (NSO) is a registered charity no.1064544 that links more than 130 UK gurdwaras and other UK Sikh organisations in active cooperation to enhance the image and understanding of Sikhism in the UK.
This submission is supplementary to our original REF: J/S5/20/HC/1756 dated 17th September 2020 and our 2nd submission dated 16th November 2020 REF: J/S5/20/HC/1771, which followed the oral hearing on 10th November 2020 in which our Deputy-Director Hardeep Singh gave evidence to the Justice Committee alongside several other organisations. This 3rd submission is in response to consideration of options tabled for a new overarching free speech clause, which has been proposed by the Secretary for Justice.
1.1 Previously agreed clause for protecting free speech when it comes to matters of religion and belief
We are surprised that only two of the options offered for review as a ‘catch all’ free speech provision by the Secretary for Justice, include an already agreed amendment when it comes to protecting free speech when discussing matters of religion and belief. This was approved unanimously by the committee last week and something we raised along with others in oral evidence to the Justice Committee, and in our previous written submissions. The new and controversial ‘stirring up hatred’ offences must include free speech clauses to protect speech beyond merely ‘criticism’ and ‘discussion’ of religion. The previously agreed amendment would have provided greater protection to expressions of ‘antipathy’, ‘ridicule’, ‘dislike’ or ‘insult’ of religion or belief and brought this free speech protection (in the Hate Crime and Public Order Bill) in line with an equivalent clause in section 29J of the Religious Hatred Act 2006[i] (England & Wales).
During the oral evidence session on 10th November 2020 Anthony Horan Director, Catholic Parliamentary Office of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland, Neil Barber, spokesperson for Scotland, National Secular Society (NSS) , Kieran Turner, Public Policy Officer, Scotland, Evangelical Alliance, and our Deputy-Director Hardeep Singh all supported the echoing of freedom of speech provisions in English law, when it comes to religion and belief.[ii] This was later agreed as an amendment by the committee. It is frankly remarkable how this now appears to have been rescinded in two of, ‘four options for freedom of expression provision.’[iii] We are not alone in our astonishment and disappointment at this development – our allies in the Free to Disagree Campaign, the NSS have rightly described this development as ‘perplexing and farcical.’[iv]
1.2 More time is required to consider the ‘catch all’ free speech clauses
We are alarmed by the speed in which this critical part of the public consultation is now being conducted. Our Deputy-Director was a signatory to a letter calling for deferring scrutiny of the draft stirring up hatred offences proposals until after the May election.[v] This stage of the public consultation was announced on 18th February 2021, and evidence in response to the ‘catch all’ free speech provision has been given the deadline of 10:00 Monday 22nd February 2021. This is only two working days and simply not sufficient notice to provide these ‘catch all’ free speech clauses the attention they deserve. There are also questions as to why the free speech defence for religion and belief (in two of the proposed provisions) which mirrors English law, has not been expanded to other protected characteristics in which only ‘discussion or criticism’ is protected. This not only creates a clear hierarchy of free speech defences but puts those who for example, want to air strong opinions on transgender issues/women’s rights in serious difficulty if this legislation is enacted.
1.3 Parliamentary scrutiny and procedure on previously agreed free speech clause for religion and belief
We would also like to understand the mechanism and process by which the previously agreed free speech clause for religion and belief, has essentially been shelved in all but two of the proposed ‘catch all’ clauses. It would indeed be helpful if an explanation is provided by the Secretary for Justice during the oral evidence session scheduled at 14:30 on 22nd February 2021.
Network of Sikh Organisations
20 February 2021