Legal Q&A: Race and Religious Hatred Act

On 1 October 2007, the Race and Religious Hatred Act 2006 came into force. Despite being relatively unpublicised and concerned with the prevention of so called ‘hate crimes’, employers should not necessarily allow the Act to slip by unnoticed.

Q What is so important about this new piece of legislation?

A The Act, which amends the Public Order Act 1986, introduces a new criminal offence of stirring up racial hatred against a person on racial or religious grounds. If found guilty of the offence, the punishment can include a fine or even a prison sentence of up to seven years.

Q It’s not like we walk around with big placards and whistles. Do we really need to know about this?

A Yes, you do. The Act extends the offence from individuals to businesses if it can be shown that the hatred has been stirred up with the consent or connivance of the director, manager, company secretary or any person purporting to act in any such capacity. However, given the nature of the offence and the obvious social and political sensitivity that a conviction may attract, any prosecution under this Act must be approved by the attorney general.

Q Does this mean that we need to retrain all our employees?

A For most employers the answer will be no. You have been, or should have been, aware since the Employment Equality (Religion and Belief) Regulations 2003 of the rights your staff have in relation to their religion and belief. This new offence is just a further extension of these rights. If your equal opportunities and anti-harassment policies are well-drafted and well-adhered to by your employees then you should have very little to worry about. If not, then now may be a good time to think about introducing them.

Q We’ve had these policies since 2003 and my staff were told about them when they were introduced. So are we covered?

A The chances are that your staff are probably aware of the policies, and adequate provisions are made to ensure that no employees’ rights are violated. However, as these policies may be more than four years old, this might be a good excuse to review them and make sure that any new starters since 2003 are aware of them.

Some simple, but effective, steps may include:

  • Reminding workers, clients and customers of the business’s equal opportunity and anti-harassment policies
  • Reiterating to workers, clients and customers that harassment will not be tolerated in any way
  • Remind employees of the procedures for lodging complaints of discrimination and harassment
  • Ensure managers and supervisors understand their responsibilities under the business’s equal opportunity and anti-harassment policies
  • Provide further/refresher training on equality and anti-discrimination legislation together with the new Act
  • Review your policies and make sure they are up to date.

If you follow these you should find that you will be all right. While you are doing so it might be a good idea to incorporate some awareness training of the other equality rights that your employees have while they are at work. Are your staff fully aware of their rights and also the business’s possible liabilities in relation to their sex, age, disability and sexual orientation?

Q Is there anything else we need to know before we start organising training sessions?

A You should remember that if you do have a problem with harassment or discrimination within your business, and even if it doesn’t fulfil the definition of this new offence, your employees are still afforded protection under the Race Relations Act, the 2003 Regulations, the Protection from Harassment Act, and also even through a claim for constructive dismissal if the behaviour breaks down the mutual trust and confidence between the employee and the employer.

Q Is there any other guidance available?

A Official guidance from the government is currently being drafted and is expected to be published early next year. Until then your best bet will be to follow the advice stated here.

But, in the meantime, if you are interested in the actual wording of the new Act then the Office of Public Sector Information has the official transcript online.

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