THE Hate Crime Bill is set to be approved by MSPs after the final debate was concluded at Holyrood.

Scotland's Justice Secretary has sought to reassure opponents of the new legislation that freedom of expression provisions are strong enough to prevent criminalisation.

The Hate Crime and Public Order (Scotland) Bill is expected to pass later this evening, but opponents of the controversial legislation still have concerns about a possible chilling of free speech.

The new legislation creates a criminal offence of stirring up hatred against protected groups, expanding on a similar offence based on race that has been on the statute books for decades, as well as consolidating a number of different pieces of hate crime legislation.

Speaking in the final debate on the Bill in Holyrood, Humza Yousaf sought to allay fears over freedom of expression.

He said: "To those who think they may accidentally somehow fall foul of the law ... because they believe sex is immutable, or they believe an adult man cannot become a female or they campaign for the rights of Palestinians ... or those that proselytise that same-sex relationships are sinful, none of these people would fall foul of the stirring up of hatred offence for solely stating their belief – even if they did so in a robust manner.

"Why? Because solely stating any belief, which I accept may be offensive to some, is not breaching the criminal threshold."

The Justice Secretary has made several concessions during the Bill's process, particularly in the inclusion of an intent mechanism and a "reasonable person test", which would be required before the stirring up of hatred was considered to be criminal.

READ MORE: Freedom of expression amendments added to controversial Hate Crime Bill

He added: "The safeguards of the Bill are so, so important to recognise – and there are really strong safeguards in this Bill."

Amendments brought by both Yousaf and Justice Committee convener Adam Tomkins also sought to further strengthen the Bill's protections for freedom of speech.

Tomkins's amendment sought to enshrine in the Bill the right to "offend, shock or disturb" in line with article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, while Yousaf's meant simply criticism or discussion of the protected characteristics could not solely be taken as threatening or abusive.

However, despite the amendments put into the Bill at stage three, Tomkins's Conservative colleague Liam Kerr – the party's justice spokesman – was not satisfied.

"Despite the extensive amendments at stage two and yesterday, the hate crime Bill is still fundamentally flawed," he told MSPs.

Kerr said the sex not being included as an aggravator in the Bill, what he described as "inherent ambiguity" in the language of the legislation, and claims it does not strike the right "balance" between free expression and protection from hate are reasons his party does not to support its passage.

The National: Scottish Tory MSP Liam KerrScottish Tory MSP Liam Kerr

Yousaf also paid tribute to the level of parliamentary scrutiny around the Bill, saying it had "shown the very best of Parliament".

But other opposition parties indicated they would back the legislation.

Labour's Neil Bibby said: "I acknowledge there is concern about aspects of this Bill, but I also want to acknowledge the steps that have been taken to address concerns and make improvements to it."

He added: "In Scottish Labour we believe that hate crime should be dealt with using the full force of the law, we made a promise in our manifesto to take a zero tolerance approach to hate crime."

He continued: "We need this Bill itself because hate crime has become more widespread, society has become more polarised and divided. All of us can see how raw and unpleasant some aspects of political debate have become and how easily hate can rear its head."

Bibby said it was "deeply regrettable" that the legislation would not cover attacks based on the victim's sex, saying it is "clear that women are subjected to hate because of their sex".

He said this must be addressed as soon as possible, and that Labour would follow "closely" the efforts of a working group set up by ministers to consider this.

LibDem Liam McArthur said his party would support the Bill, after changes were made to the original proposals.

And he said there were now "broad and consistent freedom of expression protections" in the legislation.

Meanwhile, Green MSP John Finnie dismissed as "nonsense" suggestions from the Bill's opponents that a family could be "ruined by a flurry of arrests" if people made controversial comments.

He stated: "The Bill, like others, is about balance, and I think the balance between the freedom of expression and the right to private life has been struck by this Bill, and countless organisations agree."

Finnie added his party "will stand with those who are abused because of the colour of their skin or their disability".