The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 is an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom (citation 2006 c. 1) which creates an offence of inciting (or 'stirring up') hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion. The Act was the Labour Government's third attempt to bring in this offence: provisions were originally included as part of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill in 2001, but were dropped after objections from the House of Lords. The measure was again brought forward as part of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill in 2004-5, but was again dropped in order to get the body of that Bill passed before the 2005 general election.
The Act is notable because two amendments made in the House of Lords failed to be overturned by the Government in the House of Commons.
Most of the act came into force on 1 October 2007.
After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, the Government in Britain brought forward the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill. Clause 38 of that Bill would have had the effect of amending Part 3 of the Public Order Act 1986 to extend the existing provisions on incitement to racial hatred to cover incitement to religious hatred. When the Bill reached the House of Lords, an amendment to remove the clause was passed by 240 votes to 141. The Commons reinstated the clause, but the Lords again removed it. Finally, the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, accepted that the Commons had to accede to the Lords' insistence that the clause be left out of the Bill.
On 8 January 2002, a Private Member's Bill was brought before the House of Lords by Lord Avebury, who sought in his Religious Offences Bill to amend the Public Order Act 1986 to include religious hatred offences, in exactly the same manner as the Government's 2001 Bill. Although the reaction to the Bill itself was not favourable, the House did appoint a Select Committee to look into the whole law relating to religious offences, including the possibility of repealing the law relating to blasphemy. There were no specific recommendations from the Committee, and in a debate on its conclusions on 22 April 2004, the Government confirmed that it intended to press ahead with the creation of an incitement to religious hatred offence.
The Government brought the proposal back before Parliament in the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill in the Session leading up to the general election in May 2005. During the Lords debate on the relevant section of the Bill, on 5 April 2005 (the day on which the general election was called), the provision was removed. When the Bill returned to the Commons on 7 April, the Government announced that it was dropping the measure so as to secure the passage of the Bill as a whole before the Dissolution of Parliament.
At the general election, the Labour Party confirmed that, were it to be re-elected, it would bring in a Bill to outlaw incitement to religious hatred: "It remains our firm intention to give people of all faiths the same protection against incitement to hatred on the basis of their religion. We will legislate to outlaw it and will continue the dialogue we have started with faith groups from all backgrounds about how best to balance protection, tolerance and free speech" (Labour Party manifesto, 'Forward not back' (2005), p111-112).
Critics of the Bill (before the amendments noted below, adding the requirement for the intention of stirring up hatred) claimed that the Act would make major religious works such as the Bible and the Qur'an illegal in their current form in the UK. Comedians and satirists also feared prosecution for their work. While sympathising with those who promoted the legislation, in particular British Muslims, actor and comedian Rowan Atkinson said: "I appreciate that this measure is an attempt to provide comfort and protection to them but unfortunately it is a wholly inappropriate response far more likely to promote tension between communities than tolerance." Leaders of major religions and race groups, as well as non-religious groups such as the National Secular Society and English PEN spoke out against the Bill.
Supporters of the Bill responded that all UK legislation has to be interpreted in the light of the Human Rights Act, which guarantees freedom of religion and expression, and so denied that an Act of Parliament is capable making any religious text illegal.
The House of Lords passed amendments to the Bill on 25 October 2005 which have the effect of limiting the legislation to "A person who uses threatening words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening... if he intends thereby to stir up religious hatred". This removed the abusive and insulting concept, and required the intention - and not just the possibility - of stirring up religious hatred.