Employees in the UK have workplace protection from discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief and age. Employees can claim against employers in the Employment Tribunal, if they have been less favourably treated or harassed on these grounds.

The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 (the “Act”) received Royal Assent in February 2006. It amends the Public Order Act 1986 to create a new criminal offence of stirring up hatred against a person on the grounds of their religion. The offence is punishable by a fine or a prison sentence of up to seven years. The offence applies to words or behaviour which is threatening and intended to stir up religious hatred. Religious hatred refers to hatred against a group of people who are defined by reference to their religious belief or lack of belief.

Most provisions of the Act were due to come into force on 1 October 2007. Employers should be aware that any act of religious discrimination within the workplace, as well as exposing the employer to claims of religious/ race discrimination, may now also constitute a criminal offence under the new Act. If a company is liable under the Act, and it can also be shown that “the offence was committed with the consent or connivance of a director, manager, secretary or other similar officer” then the individual, as well as the company, will be guilty of the offence and liable to a sanction.

Effect on employers

It is possible that harassment claims, or claims under the Race Relations Act 1976 or Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2003, could now be supplemented by a claim under the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006. Although such a claim cannot be brought before the Employment Tribunal, claimants may try to use the Act as an alternative to an Employment Tribunal claim of discrimination or harassment, especially if they have failed to comply with the shorter time limits applicable to Tribunal claims.