Please find below my stance on some of the key issues constituents' regularly raise...
HATE CRIME ACT
Thank you for contacting me about the SNP Government’s Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act. Intolerance, bigotry, racism or prejudice of any kind should not be accepted anywhere in a civilised society. We must recognise the profound harm which hate crimes cause to the victim and the community they belong to, but there is a vital balance to be struck between freedom of expression and cracking down on prejudice. The SNP Government’s Hate Crime Act does not strike this balance. In general, I support the findings of Lord Bracadale’s review in 2018 that the best way to punish hate crime is by aggravators which can be added to existing crimes, rather than standalone hate crime offences. The SNP’s offences of ‘stirring up hatred’ threaten freedom of speech, and fail the simple tests of being clear, certain and capable of enforcement. There was an unprecedented response to the Justice Committee’s call for views on the Hate Crime Bill and most of those published raised grave concerns about this area. The Scottish Police Federation stated the bill could ‘devastate’ the relationship between the police and the public. The Scottish Newspaper Society said it ‘poses a serious threat to freedom of expression’ and the Faculty of Advocates warned that the Bill’s flaws mean there is ‘no alternative but to reconsider the draft bill’.
Our amendments which would have protected free speech were voted down by the SNP and all other parties. As a result, we voted against the Bill as it threatened freedom of speech and failed to protect the right to privacy.
The Scottish Conservatives would repeal the SNP’s Hate Crime Act with a Protection of Free Speech Bill, to protect our fundamental right to freedom of expression. The SNP ignored its flaws from the start despite widespread opposition from academics, lawyers, journalists, entertainers and faith groups.
I am disappointed that the SNP Government did not include an aggravator for criminals who target vulnerable persons like the elderly. Tougher sentences for these sorts of offenders is something the Scottish Conservatives have campaigned on for a number of years and was recommended by Lord Bracadale and Police Scotland. We also regard this Bill as a missed opportunity to make meaningful steps towards restorative justice – where the victim of crime is put at the heart of the justice process.
I agree that animals are not property but sentient beings and pets are cherished members of families. Therefore stealing one from a loving home is a particularly vicious crime. It is completely right to say that a surge in pet thefts during the pandemic and the links to organised crime have been an under-appreciated side-effect of lockdown.
Although criminal penalties for such offences are a devolved matter, in 2018 several Scottish Conservative MPs came together to support a new Bill addressing this issue specifically and establish a new offence of the theft of a pet, aiming to see the provisions adopted within Scotland via Legislative Consent. Unfortunately this Bill was not able to make progress. In the Scottish Parliament, Scottish Conservative MSPs have continued to press the issue. In June 2020, for instance, during a debate over the new Animals and Wildlife (Penalties, Protections and Powers) (Scotland) Bill, colleagues argued that a review of the operation of the law should be required to consider including pet theft as a specific offence.
We did achieve some success in that Bill when my colleague, Liam Kerr, was able to insert ‘Finn’s Law’ – which removed the defence of fear for attacks on police dogs and other service animals and made sure attacks on such animals could be punished with up to five years in prison and/or an unlimited fine. For too long, attacks on police dogs were treated similarly to a broken window or other vandalism.
I commit to support a review of the law on pet theft with a few to toughening penalties, and looking at ways to increase the priority given to these sorts of crimes by the police right now.
Overall, I believe issues like animal welfare will be sidetracked by the SNP Government’s continual push for a divisive second independence referendum in the next few years when we are trying to recover from the pandemic.
I appreciate your concern on this very sensitive issue. Coping with terminal illness is of course hugely distressing and difficult, both for the patient and their family. These cases are truly moving and evoke the highest degree of compassion and emotion. Should the law in this area ever be altered, I believe it is neither a matter for Government to decide nor a matter for the judiciary, but ultimately a matter for Parliament, and individual MSPs in a free vote.
You may be aware that the original End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill was defeated at Stage 1 in the Scottish Parliament in 2010, and Margot MacDonald’s Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill was also defeated in 2015.
If draft legislation comes before the Scottish Parliament again I will consider it carefully.