"We need to strengthen the law on hate crime"
by ROBIN HARPER, Lothians MSP for the Scottish Green Party.
LAST week was Equalities and Diversity Week at the Scottish Parliament with MSPs of all parties celebrating the progress we have made to become a fairer society. But there is still much we can do.
A recent study found more than half the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people surveyed in Edinburgh had been victims of physical assault at some time. Among disabled people, another study found that 47 per cent had experienced hate crime because of their disability, with 31 per cent experiencing verbal abuse, intimidation or physical attack at least once a month.
And research involving people with mental health problems revealed that 41 per cent of those questioned had been harassed in public, compared to 15 per cent in the general population.
Behind these figures are real people living in Edinburgh and elsewhere in Scotland who have experienced what has come to be known as "hate crime" - crime motivated by malice or ill-will towards a social group.
To quote one gay Edinburgh resident's experience: "My friends and I were physically assaulted. We were targets because we were gay men in a straight bar. My teeth were broken."
And a visually impaired person told the Disability Rights Commission: "A friend with a guide dog was attacked. They kicked and punched him, then took the harness of his dog and scared the dog away."
It seems a long time since 2002 when the Scottish Parliament backed my call to consider strengthening legislation on hate crimes. A working group was established but, despite its recommendation to the then Scottish Executive that Scotland needed new laws, no action was taken.
My Green Party colleague, Patrick Harvie MSP, has now lodged a Bill proposal to strengthen the law to tackle hate crimes against people on the grounds of their disability or sexual orientation. The move will introduce "statutory aggravation" powers to ensure that abuse and violence towards these groups is treated the same as religious bigotry and racism and to provide courts with clear and consistent sentencing powers.
In England and Wales, the law on sentencing for hate crimes already covers disability and sexual orientation, and it has been effective for handling this kind of crime.
If the Greens are successful in getting this legislation through Parliament, it will send hugely important messages: to victims that they should report the crime and it will be dealt with; to offenders, that crimes motivated by hate will be recognised as such and sentenced properly; and to society as a whole, that Scotland is a country which, in the 21st century, clearly says "no" to prejudice and intolerance, especially when these result in criminal offences.