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Scotland on Sunday
Sun 11 Sep 2005
Gay hate crimes to face tougher court penalties
CRIMES motivated by hatred of gay, lesbian or bisexual people are to receive stiffer penalties under a crackdown by ministers.
New legislation is to be brought forward, under which such 'hate crimes' will be considered an aggravated offence.
For example, if it is proven that a gay man or a lesbian has been attacked because of their sexuality, the offender will receive a harsher penalty.
The new law follows similar moves against sectarianism where longer sentences have been handed out to those committing a crime while showing prejudice towards religious groups such as Muslims and Catholics.
Similarly, racially aggravated offences have been set in law since 1998.
Gay campaigners last night hailed the new moves, claiming that they would send out a message that homophobia was unacceptable.
But religious groups who believe homosexuality is a sin warned they faced being stigmatised by the new law.
The plans are to be contained in a new Scottish Sentencing Bill unveiled by First Minister Jack McConnell last week.
They originate from studies conducted by a Working Group on Hate Crime which recommended that the new aggravated offence should be introduced to crack down on homophobic thugs.
The moves follow police figures last year which showed that there had been a marked increase in the amount of homophobic crime in many of Scotland's regions. That has been mirrored by similar rises in London, where the Metropolitan Police has registered a 12% rise, and in Liverpool, where forces have noted a 49% rise in cases.
Across Britain as a whole, men are almost four times as likely to be attacked if they are homosexual.
Tim Hopkins, spokesman for the Equality Network in Scotland, said: "This is a very real problem. The majority of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender [LGBT] people have been abused in public and a very significant minority have been attacked.
"They are significantly more likely to be attacked than the population at large."
Hopkins said the new aggravated offence, which has already been introduced in England, was overdue.
"It will send a message that homophobic crime is unacceptable. It will encourage people to report their complaints to the police and also put in place a system which registers these crimes as homophobic attacks," he added.
"There is nothing to be made illegal which wasn't already illegal. All this will just flag the crime up as motivated by homophobia."
However, religious groups are concerned that the introduction of the new law will mark the thin end of the wedge.
John Deighan, parliamentary officer for the Catholic Church in Scotland, said: "The trouble with this is where is it going to end up? The working group did say that they didn't want to impinge on the right of free speech, but there is always a worry that this is where it will lead.
"There has been intimidation of religious groups, who felt they had to keep quiet as a result. You get self-censorship developing. People are afraid to say what they believe in on homosexuality because they feel that they will be accused of homophobia."
Gay campaigners insist that there will be nothing to prevent religious groups from continuing to express their views on homosexuality.
But the new laws are also likely to meet opposition from lawyers, who have warned that the addition of an aggravated offence simply makes it harder to convict offenders in court, as they have to prove not just the offence but also the motivation behind it.
The moves are likely to spark a further row over perceived political correctness within the legal system, particularly if, as expected, the Scottish Executive adopts several other of the working group's recommendations.
Alongside the new offence, the group urged ministers to run a campaign against prejudice of LGBT people, along the lines of its high-profile anti-racist campaigns.