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(Incitement to Religious Hatred)


The Criminal Offence of “Incitement to Religious Hatred” in England and Wales came into force on 1st October 2007 in the form of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006.  This Act was passed after considerable debate and controversy and is significantly different to the Governments original proposals.  The final wording of the offence is in Schedule 1 of the Act


The religious Hatred Law has a controversial history. The Governments first attempt to create such an offence was in Part 5 of the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill 2001 but that proposal was defeated in the House of Lords. 


Another attempt was made in 2002 in the private members Religious Offences Bill   and the proposal was reintroduced by the government in   SECTION 119   and   SCHEDULE 10  of the   Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill 2004 . Both of these attempts ran into serious opposition particularly in the House of Lords and each time the proposals were ultimately withdrawn by the Government in order to get the rest of the Bill passed. 


In the 2005 General Election the Labour Party included the following in its  Manifesto for England and its Manifesto for Wales (though not the Manifesto for Scotland)


"It remains our firm and clear 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."


On the 9th June 2005 the Government introduced into Parliament  The Racial and Religious Hatred Bill  and made it clear that it was willing to use the Parliament Act to force the Bill through Parliament even if the House of Lords votes against it. The Government published  Explanatory Notes  setting out its views on the proposed offence.  The Bill however aroused support and opposition.  Strong opposition was expressed by many people including comedian Rowan Atkinson and Senior Barrister  David Pannick QC. I was also involved in the debate and wrote a number of articles setting out my Personal Views. 


 All four attempts to create this new offence were based on the idea of modifying the existing offences of  Incitement to Racial Hatred found in Part 111 of The Public Order Act 1986 This idea was based on the model previously adopted in Northern Ireland in the  The Public Order (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 PART 111 which has outlawed incitement to Religious Hatred for some years. It is however important to bear in mind that this legislation was introduced because of the very unique political situation in Northern Ireland.


In the Republic of Ireland the  PROHIBITION OF INCITEMENT TO HATRED ACT 1989  prohibits the stirring up of Hatred against  a group of persons in the State or elsewhere on account of their race, colour, nationality, religion, ethnic or national origins, membership of the travelling community or sexual orientation".


In Scotland the idea of creating an offence of Incitement to Religious Hatred was been rejected by the Report of the  SCOTTISH CROSS-PARTY WORKING GROUP ON RELIGIOUS HATRED   which said (para 5.06)  "we believe there could be particular problems relating to freedom of speech under legislation covering incitement to religious hatred". 


On the 25th October 2005 the House of Lords defeated the Government and modified the Bill so as to make the new offence significantly different to the Governments proposals.  In particular the House of Lords wording separated the idea of Religious Hatred from Racial Hatred, made the offence apply only to "threatening" words or behaviour not "threatening, abusive or insulting" words or behaviour. In addition whilst the Governments original proposals would have applied to a situation where the defendant did not actually intend to stir up religious hatred the House of Lords proposals meant that the offence would only apply if the prosecution proved that the defendant had intended to stir up religious hatred. Rather than trying to negotiate a compromise on these changes the Government in effect tried to get the Bill back to what it had been before but lost by one vote in the House of Commons.


The wording of the Religous Hatred legislation is on this website but for those who are interested in the background to this debate I also provide the wording of the Governments original proposals


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