Britain's opposition Labour Party must explain allegations of anti-Semitism that have been lodged against it, the country's equality watchdog said on Thursday, escalating a crisis that contributed to lawmakers splitting from the party last month.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission said it wanted to hear from Labour before deciding whether to launch a formal investigation.
Labour has faced accusations of anti-Semitism for over two years. Nine lawmakers quit the party last month citing the leadership's handling of anti-Semitism in the party, as well as its Brexit stance, as their reason for leaving.
Last week, Labour suspended a lawmaker who is close to party leader Jeremy Corbyn and said it would investigate his conduct after remarks he made over the party's handling of anti-Semitism accusations.
"Having received a number of complaints regarding anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, we believe the Labour Party may have unlawfully discriminated against people because of their ethnicity and religious beliefs," the commission said in a statement.
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"Our concerns are sufficient for us to consider using our statutory enforcement powers. ... We are now engaging with the Labour Party to give them an opportunity to respond."
A Labour spokesperson said the party rejected any suggestion that it acted unlawfully and would cooperate fully with the commission, which upholds Britain's equality laws.
The EHRC came into effect in October 2007 and says on its website that its job "is to help make Britain fairer. We do this by safeguarding and enforcing the laws that protect people’s rights to fairness, dignity and respect."
Westminster gossip website The Red Road reported Thursday that the EHRC probe would give it the right "to demand access to emails and text messages between party staff.
"It would also mean that former Labour Party staff ... will see their nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) made void for the purposes of investigation. NDAs were offered alongside large redundancy payments to many senior staff, to avoid the risk of them leaking to the press after they left their roles in Labour’s HQ.
"Failure to comply with an investigation could leave those in charge of the Labour Party in contempt of court," it added.
The EHRC's only reported previous action against a political party came in 2009-10, when it took the extremist right-wing group the British National Party the court. In 2010, the High Court ruled that the BNP's constitution was racially discriminatory.