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Last Updated: Friday, 6 October 2006, 13:16 GMT 14:16 UK
Straw gets the debate he wanted
Jo Coburn
BBC News political correspondent

Jack Straw
A leading contender for deputy leader?

Jack Straw is no stranger to the Muslim community. He has represented the constituency of Blackburn, where between 25% and 30% of the population are Muslims, for nearly 30 years.

In his article for the local newspaper, he revealed that his request to women to lift their veil during consultations at his constituency office is something he has been doing over the past year.

Mr Straw says not a single woman has objected.

So why has he chosen now as the time to trigger a debate on what is generally considered a sensitive issue in sensitive times?

'Wily and experienced'

Jack Straw is a wily politician and far too experienced to have dropped what one MP described to me as "a clanger".

It is obviously something he does feel strongly about.

In his interview with the BBC's Today programme, he said it is important in face-to-face meetings that both sides can see each other.

With all the caveats, I would prefer women not to wear the veil
Jack Straw

A plausible practical explanation. But what has much broader political impact is his belief that veils which cover the face are a "visible statement of separateness" that is "a barrier to social integration".

That sounds more like an agenda.

The fact that he has not rowed back from his comments or apologised as some in the Muslim community have called for suggests he is presenting himself as a man who is not frightened of the difficult issues.

Indeed in his Today interview he went even further, saying that: "With all the caveats, I would prefer women not to wear the veil," going on to talk about his concern about the development of "parallel communities".

In the limelight

Community relations and the issue of multiculturalism have been brought sharply into focus over the past few years heightened by the threat of terrorism.

The Home Secretary and possible leadership contender John Reid waded into the debate during Labour's conference last week, saying there would be "no no-go areas" in Britain after being heckled by a Muslim protestor on a recent visit to East London.

With a number of his cabinet colleagues already declaring their interest in the deputy leader's position, Jack Straw may have decided now was the time to raise his profile.

He has dismissed any connection between the two and has not yet confirmed that he will be running for the post.

A Muslim woman wearing a veil

But in terms of measuring the public mood and speaking out on a controversial subject, he is clearly positioning himself ahead of any future contest.

And while it may have been a gamble in terms of reaction from some of his own constituents, it has not exactly been dismissed out of hand by his colleagues at Westminster.

Fellow MP Ann Cryer, who represents Keighley, has said she agrees with him on the question of the veil, while Muslim MP Shahid Malik says it is time to have a debate.

Even the Prime Minister believes that Jack Straw is fully entitled to his "own personal view" and has a right to express it.

So far so good for Jack Straw - he wanted a full and open debate and now he has got one.

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