Black and Asian Britons must be allowed to join the British National Party (BNP), it was claimed yesterday, after the far-right organisation caved in to legal action and agreed to change its membership rules.
The climbdown follows court proceedings brought by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which accused the BNP of having a constitution that discriminated against racial and religious groups.
In an order issued at the Central London county court, the BNP agreed to use "all reasonable endeavours" to revise its constitution so it did not unlawfully discriminate against sections of British society.
The decision could expose deep divisions in the party when its leader, Nick Griffin, tries to persuade the ultra-extremist sections of his organisation of the wisdom of the settlement.
Yesterday, the BNP claimed that its decision to consult on changing its constitution had meant it had "outflanked" the EHRC. In a statement issued last night, it accused the EHRC of acting "maliciously" by attempting to bankrupt the organisation with court costs. The proposals go before an emergency general party meeting next month.
John Wadham, the head of legal affairs at the EHRC, said yesterday: "We are pleased the party has conceded this case and agreed to all of the Commission requirements. Political parties, like any other organisation, are obliged to respect the law and not discriminate against people.
"It is unfortunate 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."
But Shami Chakrabarti, the director of the human rights group Liberty, said: "A shiny new constitution does not a democratic party make. It would be a pyrrhic victory, to say the least, if anyone thought that giving the BNP a facelift would make the slightest difference to a body with so much racism and hatred pumping through its veins."
Commenting on the decision, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said: "Even if the BNP complies with this judgement, its unpleasant, intolerant and racist objectives will remain. The BNP will continue to peddle hatred and fear." Richard Barnbrook, the BNP representative on the London Assembly, said he believed party members would vote in favour of a reformed constitution.
He said: "I believe the vote will go for yes, the first reason being that trying to fight this court case would bankrupt the party, and we have more important issues to deal with, including elections."
The BNP has also agreed in the settlement to freeze its membership list until the changes have been made.
The EHRC has a statutory duty, under the Equality Act 2006 to enforce the provisions of the act and to work towards eliminating unlawful discrimination. This duty includes preventing discrimination by political parties.
The Commission sent a letter to the BNP on 22 June setting out its concerns about the party's constitution and membership criteria, which appear to restrict membership to those within what the BNP regards as particular "ethnic groups" and those whose skin colour is white.
This exclusion is contrary to the Race Relations Act, with which the party is legally obliged to comply.
In its letter, the Commission asked the BNP to provide written undertakings that it would amend its constitution and membership criteria to ensure it did not discriminate against potential members on racial grounds.
Following the BNP's failure to comply with these requirements, on 24 August the Commission issued county court proceedings against Nick Griffin and two other party officials, Simon Darby and Tanya Jane Lumby. The court heard Mr Griffin would be given 10 days to submit a signed undertaking confirming the proposed changes. The case was adjourned until 28 January.
Outlawed: The BNP constitution
The British National Party has given an undertaking to change its membership rules to allow non-whites to join.
According to the BNP's constitution, which has now been suspended, membership was restricted to people derived from "Indigenous Caucasian" stock. Those who qualified as being from "indigenous British ethnic groups" included the "Anglo-Saxon folk community" and the "Celtic Scottish folk community".
A revised constitution is to be presented to members next month.