Hain warns BBC over 'unlawful BNP debate'

Monday, October 19 2009, 14:27 BST

By Andrew Laughlin,

Cabinet minister Peter Hain has warned the BBC that it may face legal action over plans to allow BNP leader Nick Griffin to appear on Question Time.

In a letter sent to BBC director general Mark Thompson, Welsh secretary Hain described Griffin's forthcoming involvement in the show as "abhorrent".

He said that the far-right BNP is currently "an unlawful body" as it operates a white-only policy for membership, despite the party recently indicating that it would amend its constitution.

The situation follows legal action launched by the Equality and Human Rights Commission over the BNP's membership rules, which are alleged to be in breach of the Race Relations Act as black, Asian and non-indigenous white people are not allowed to participate.

Despite the legal issue, Griffin is still controversially scheduled to appear on Thursday's Question Time alongside justice secretary Jack Straw and black writer Bonnie Greer.

"Now that the BNP has accepted they are at present an unlawful body, it would be perverse of you to maintain that they are just like any other democratically elected party. On their own admission, at present, they are not," said Hain in his correspondence to Thompson.

"If you do not review the decision you may run the very serious risk of legal challenge in addition to the moral objections that I make. In my view, your approach is unreasonable, irrational and unlawful."

He continued: "I believe it is clear that you should now suspend the invitation to see if Nick Griffin is able to agree a new constitution with his party. At that point the commission and the court will be satisfied that the BNP pass a basic threshold of legality.

"In the meantime, surely you have no choice but to rescind the invitation and await the court's final decision on the matter? You are giving the BNP a legitimacy even they dare not claim in their current unlawful status."

During last week's Question Time, home secretary Alan Johnson urged the BBC to "reconsider" its decision to give a platform to the BNP leader.

However, the BBC said that it is "right" for Griffin to feature on the programme as the BNP now holds two seats at the European parliament in Strasbourg.

"Our understanding is that if there was an election tomorrow the BNP would be able to stand," said a BBC spokesman.

"Our audiences, and the electorate, will make up their own minds about the different policies offered by elected politicians."

However, the corporation is widely expected to face protests from anti-fascist campaigners should Griffin be permitted to appear on the show.