The leader of the Scottish Conservatives reportedly overruled MSPs on his front bench over the party’s approach to the controversial hate crime Bill at Holyrood.
Concerns have been raised over parts of the Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill amid claims it could impact free speech, particularly in its creation of an offence of stirring up hatred against protected groups.
Opposition parties have been among the critics, with the Tories calling for the legislation to be scrapped.
But leaked emails seen by the Daily Record appear to show senior Tory MSPs, including Adam Tomkins – the convener of the Justice Committee – and the party’s justice spokesman Liam Kerr wanted to see amendments tabled to alleviate the concerns, rather than the wholesale scrapping of the Bill.
Ahead of a debate which saw the Tories call on the Scottish Government to drop the legislation, Mr Kerr told party leader Douglas Ross: “If we do anything that could or would be seen to delay the implementation of the ‘good bits’ of the Bill we will destroy the coalition that is currently looking at us for leadership.
“I think there is a danger if we go any stronger on the motion, another opposition party will propose an amendment which the SNP could vote for which passes and we look isolated and unreasonable.”
Mr Tomkins, a law professor at Glasgow University, responded: “I have to say that I strongly prefer Liam’s motion (and approach) to Douglas’s.
“There is no defect in the Bill that cannot be cured by careful and robust amendment. To demand the Bill be withdrawn rather than scrutinised and amended risks making us look like the unreasonable ones. Let’s not do that.”
Mr Tomkins said the party should want the legislative process to continue up to next year’s election, asking why they would ask for it to be “killed off”.
In response, Mr Ross said: “The First Minister has already agreed to reflect on the consultation responses, so I am concerned that with your wording we would be asking for something they have accepted, while not pushing for what many people are calling for which is a complete change to the current proposals.
“I am acutely aware of the support for parts of the proposed Bill, but there is nothing to stop those elements coming back again but with the bonus of Parliament having shown that the elements that are unacceptable have been voted down.”
A spokesman for the party said: “The Scottish Conservatives have robust debates on policy.
“Ultimately, as evidenced by our debate motion, the party decided that the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill was such a threat to our fundamental right to freedom of speech that it must be withdrawn.”
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf claimed the emails show the Conservative focus is not on the victims of hate crime.
He tweeted: “Explosive report in @Daily_Record of emails between Tory MSPs on Hate Crime Bill.
“Shows their duplicity on issue & also their focus was never victims of hate. Key emails demonstrate Tory Holyrood Branch Office takes orders from London (quelle surprise).”