Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act: factsheet

Factsheet setting out what the Act does, why it is needed and how it is being implemented.

Hate crime: what it is

Hate crime is a term used to describe behaviour which is both criminal and rooted in prejudice. This means that the law has been broken, and the offender’s actions have been driven by hatred towards a particular group. Hate crime has a hugely damaging and corrosive impact on victims, their families and communities.

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act: what it does

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021 (“The Act”) - passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2021 and implemented on 1 April 2024 - will provide greater protections for those who are targeted by hate crime.

The Act:

  • maintains and consolidates current protections in law against offences aggravated by prejudice against disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity  - these are the same characteristics across the UK for hate crime - and adds age as a new characteristic
  • introduces new offences of ‘stirring up hatred’ which criminalises threatening or abusive behaviour and the communication of threatening or abusive material which is intended to stir up hatred against a group of people by reason of their possessing, or appearing to possess the above particular characteristics
  • splits the previous definition of transgender identity which included the term ‘intersexuality’ to separate groups – transgender and  variations in sex characteristics are therefore now separate characteristics

See: Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021: information note

Why hate crime legislation is needed

Lord Bracadale, a retired senior judge led an independent review of hate crime law in 2018. He was clear about the need for new laws to help recognise the impact and harm caused by hate crime.

We know the impact on those on the receiving end of such behaviour, whether it’s physical, verbal or online attacks, can be traumatic and life changing. As we developed Scotland’s Hate Crime Strategy, we have heard from people who are scared to leave their homes, who avoid public places and who significantly alter their lives to avoid certain interactions. We also know that for some people, experiencing this type of abuse is considered a normal part of daily life.

Freedom of speech

The Act does not pose a risk to freedom of speech. It does not prevent people expressing controversial, challenging or offensive views, nor does it seek to stifle criticism or rigorous debate in any way. The right to freedom of expression is specifically built into the Act.

The Act is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, including Article 10 which protects everyone’s right to freedom of expression.

There is also a defence available that the behaviour or communication was, in the particular circumstances, reasonable.

Threshold for stirring up hatred

The Act has a high threshold for criminality. For the new offences in the legislation, it has to be proven that the behaviour is threatening or abusive AND that it is intended to stir up hatred.

These new offences therefore have a higher threshold for a crime to be committed than the long-standing offence of stirring up racial hatred. This has been in place since 1986 and includes insulting behaviour as part of the threshold for that offence and a wider approach of behaviour likely to stir up hatred (whether or not that it the perpetrator’s intention) is also included. This is not changed by the Act.

Hate crime statistics

Since 2014 to 2015, the number of hate crimes recorded each year in Scotland has been between 6,300 and 7,000 crimes.

Just under a third of hate crimes in Scotland involved a victim who experienced the incident at their place of work or whilst undertaking duties as part of their occupation. Most of these victims were working in retail or other service industries.

In 2020 to 2021 around one in four recorded hate crimes had a police officer victim  - rising to 37% for religion and 45% for sexual orientation aggravated crimes.

The Police recorded hate crime - characteristics: updated study provides a very detailed insight into the characteristics of recorded hate crime in Scotland. Published in January 2023, the report shows that police recorded 6,927 hate crimes in 2021 to 2022.

Hate crime laws in the rest of the UK/Great Britain

The Act is similar to legislation in England and Wales, where the law recognises five types of hate crime on the basis of the characteristics of disability, race, religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity – the same as in our Hate Crime Act.

England and Wales criminalised stirring up hatred on grounds of religion since 2007 and sexual orientation in 2010. 

In Northern Ireland the law recognises the five characteristics of disability, race, religion and sexual orientation.

Northern Ireland have specific offences in relation to behaviour which is intended or likely to stir up hatred amongst a group in relation to the characteristics of race and religion since 1987 and disability and sexual orientation since 2004.

Police training to prepare for the Act

Police Scotland have given assurances that officers are trained, have sufficient capacity to undertake the legislation and have the systems in place to do so. We have worked closely with justice partners, including Police Scotland, since the Act was passed in 2021 to ensure its’ effective implementation and for the delivery of training and guidance for police officers.

The training for the Act provided to police officers includes a range of scenarios where offences might take place. Police Scotland have had to correct inaccurate media reports about training materials: Hate crime training - Police Scotland.

Non-hate crime incidents

It is an operational matter for Police Scotland to determine how reports of a hate crime or hate incident are investigated and recorded and these are not in any way related to the Hate Crime Act.

The recording of non-crime hate incidents dates back to recommendations in the 1999 Stephen Lawrence Inquiry report and began in Scotland in 2004 and in England and Wales in 2005. The collection of data is an important tool in understanding the experiences of hate crime and shaping interventions.

A similar operational approach is currently taken by Police Scotland on the recording of domestic abuse incidents. The recording of such incidents helps to understand the extent and nature of such incidents.

Third party reporting centres

Third party reporting allows an individual to report an incident without contacting the police directly and has been in place many years before the Hate Crime Act.

Reporting at locations other than police stations is a UK-wide approach and was a recommendation from the 1999 McPherson Report, which stated that all possible steps should be taken to encourage reporting of racist incidents and crimes.

Hate crime strategy

In November 2023, we published the Hate Crime Strategy Delivery Plan which sets out our strategic priorities over the next two years to implement Scotland’s Hate Crime Strategy.

It was developed in partnership with organisations with expertise in tackling prejudice, building cohesive communities and advancing human rights.

Importantly, it has also been informed by people with lived experience of hate crime.

The delivery plan includes actions to ensure improved support for victims of hate crime, improve data and evidence on hate crime and develop effective approaches to preventing hate crime and promoting community cohesion.

We are committed to supporting a range of on-going and participatory engagement to inform every stage of this as we move into strategy delivery.

Related information

Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Act 2021: information note

Back to top