A cabinet minister has launched a last-minute bid to block the leader of the British National Party (BNP) from appearing on BBC 1's Question Time. Peter Hain, the Welsh Secretary, who has already criticised the BBC for including the far-right party in this Thursday's programme, has written a letter to the corporation warning it will run a "serious risk" of a legal challenge if it allows Nick Griffin to participate.
The BNP leader apparently accepted last week that his party's constitution may breach race-relations legislation. Mr Griffin agreed to use "all reasonable endeavours" to change his party's rules barring black, Asian and Jewish people, after being taken to court by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It has agreed not to accept new members until its membership rules are altered.
However, its constitution will not be reformed before next month, while the case against it has been adjourned until January. In a letter to the BBC's director general, Mark Thompson, Mr Hain said that the corporation would be offering coverage to an illegally constituted party by handing Mr Griffin a place on Thursday's Question Time panel. The BBC maintains that its decision to invite Mr Griffin was made to fulfil its obligation to offer impartial coverage after the BNP won two seats in the European parliament in June.
"Now that the BNP has accepted it is at present an unlawful body, it would be perverse for you to maintain that it is just like any other democratically elected party," Mr Hain writes. "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."
The Government's decision to send a representative to appear on the show opposite Mr Griffin has split the Cabinet, with Mr Hain and the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, refusing to take part. Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, has agreed to go on after the Cabinet decided against simply leaving an empty chair on the panel. Chris Huhne, the home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, and Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, the shadow minister for community cohesion, will also take part, along with the black playwright Bonnie Greer.
A BBC spokesman said that it did not take a view on the BNP's legality. "If there were to be an election tomorrow, the BNP would be able to stand," he said.
The media regulator, Ofcom, confirmed that the BBC was under no legal obligation to invite the far-right party on to the programme and was acting under its own interpretation of impartiality. "It is a matter for the BBC Trust [the corporation's governing body] if it wishes to invite BNP on to a programme," a source said.
The trust's chairman, Sir Michael Lyons, has told Mr Hain that he could take a view on the matter as a "last stage of the complaints process" should Mr Thompson fail to resolve the issue.
Dozens of BBC workers are planning to join a protest against Mr Griffin's appearance outside the BBC's Television Centre in west London, where it is believed the programme will be recorded on Thursday evening. The broadcasting industry union, Bectu, has also warned Mr Thompson that it will launch industrial action if members are forced to work on the programme.
Mr Griffin attempted to play down his Question Time debut yesterday, claiming that, while it signalled his party had "arrived in the British political system", it was "not hugely important".