The British National Party was today forced to move to amend its constitution so that it does not bar members on grounds of race or religion.
The move came after the Equality and Human Rights Commission started a county court action against the far-right party, accusing it of breaching the race relations laws. But proceedings at Central London County Court were adjourned after lawyers said that the party leader, Nick Griffin, would put a revised constitution before a BNP party meeting next month.
In the meantime, Robin Allen, QC, for the Commission, said that Mr Griffin had said that the party had agreed not to accept any new members until the new constitution was in place.
The concession was hailed as a victory by the Commission. John Wadham, legal director said: “We are pleased that the Party has conceded this case and agreed to all of the Commission’s requirements. We believed that the BNP’s constitution was unlawful because its membership criteria discriminated on grounds of ethnic minority status and colour. This is not a political issue — the policy of the BNP is not a party for us. It is about obeying the law, which everyone is obliged to do.”
The Commission had statutory powers and duties to ensure that no-one discriminated against another, he added. “We could not ignore a political party that was acting unlawfully.”
Chris Roberts, spokesman for the BNP Eastern region, accused Mr Wadham as they left the court of being a “disgrace” and warned him that he would face a charge for “crimes against the British people”.
Mr Roberts said: “I don’t know what the membership will vote to do but I think we will take a common sense approach.”
He said that the BNP had been forced to give the undertakings by the “liberal Marxist establishment” which wanted to see the BNP put out of business now that it was doing well in the elections. This will not change our core beliefs,” he added. “But if we want to be fighting elections and we are being forced into this, no doubt we will be forced to change our constitution.”
The case was adjourned until January 28 when the judge, Judge Paul Collins, will see if the constitution has been appropriately revised.
But the Equalities Bill, which is going through Parliament, may in any case force the party’s hand as it removes a provision the BNP relies on to justify membership criteria.
Mr Wadham said: “It is unfortunate that the BNP spent several months before conceding and dealing properly with our legal requirements. We will be monitoring the BNP’s compliance with this court order on membership and its other legal obligations, including to its constituents.”
In the order agreed at the court the BNP agreed to use all reasonable endeavours to revise its constitution so that it does not discriminate, either directly or indirectly on any “protected characteristic” - for example on the grounds of race, ethnic or religious status - as defined in clause 4 of the Equality Bill.
The changes must be made as soon as reasonably practicable, and no later than three months from today.
The order also states that from 15th October 2009, until the new constitution comes into effect, BNP Chairman Nick Griffin will close the membership of the Party to all new membership applications.
The Commission sent a letter to the BNP in June setting out concerns about the party’s constitution and membership because “the criteria appeared to restrict membership to those within what the BNP regards as particular ‘ethnic groups’ and those whose skin colour is white”. That exclusion was contrary to the Race Relations Act, it said. It asked the BNP to amend its constitution and to make clear that it did not discriminate against potential or actual members on racial grounds.
After the BNP had failed to comply with these requirements in August, the Commission issued county court proceedings to seek an injunction to force it to act.