DESPITE scrapping most of their planned legislative agenda because of time constraints, including what was meant to be a new flagship Education Bill, astonishingly the SNP’s Programme for Government announced this month managed to find the time in the middle of a global pandemic not only to try to push through their plans to rip apart the United Kingdom, but also pass the Hate Crime Bill which represents a serious risk to the democratic freedoms we all cherish.

Not only has the bill been criticised by organisations ranging from the Law Society of Scotland and Scottish Police Federation to the Catholic Church and National Secular Society, it has further been lambasted by a group of more than 20 prominent Scottish authors, comedians, journalists and academics – including vocal SNP supporters – who believe the proposals to be a threat to free speech.

No one wants to see hate crime in Scotland and it is incumbent on all political parties, together with wider voices within civic society including victims’ groups and representative bodies, to work to stamp out this kind of malicious behaviour. To this end there is unanimous agreement that new hate crime laws are required – however, the proposals as they stand represent a serious overreach.

Just like with the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (Scotland) Act 2012, opposition politicians have tried to convince the SNP to change their approach amid warnings that their proposals encroach on fundamental human rights – but to no avail. This is why my Scottish Conservative colleagues at Holyrood attempted last week to scrap this bill altogether and force the SNP to go back to the drawing board.

When it comes to criminal offences, we should all listen to the experts, and who better than the police, whom we entrust to enforce the law and keep us safe? The Scottish Police Federation has stated that the proposals would make officers “police what people think or feel” which would “devastate the legitimacy of the police in the eyes of the public”.

Furthermore, the Faculty of Advocates has advised that malicious complaints as a result of the legislation could lead to “extensive disruption to life and livelihood, and to the legitimate operations of businesses and institutions”, and expressed “significant reservations... arising from the drafting of the bill in terms of its breadth, and its restrictive effects on freedom of expression”.

As a Tory from the East End of Glasgow I’m well used to being demonised for having the audacity to think and speak differently from what society expects of me. I cherish that right and will fight tooth and nail alongside my Scottish Conservative colleagues to preserve it on behalf of the communities we serve.

It is clear that new laws are needed to tackle hatred and bigotry in this country, not least against visitors from England who were hounded as “plague carriers” and just a few weeks ago told they were not welcome in Scotland by nationalist protesters – with tacit support from SNP elected representatives. Those laws need to be targeted and well drafted and avoid the criminalisation of our democratic values.

Remember – reportedly, the SNP don’t even allow their MPs to speak out against the party, even when it’s in the interests of their constituents. If they’re willing to curb the free speech of their own members, just think of what they’re willing to do to the rest of us.