The Leader of the House of Commons, Jack Straw, has sparked controversy by saying that Muslim women should not wear veils which cover the face. He first made the comments in his weekly column in a newspaper in his constituency, Blackburn, after he had a meeting with a woman wearing a full veil. He has elaborated in further interviews, extracts of which are below.
JACK STRAW IN THE LANCASHIRE EVENING TELEGRAPH
"It was not the first time I had conducted an interview with someone in a full veil, but this particular encounter, though very polite and respectful on both sides, got me thinking.
Jack Straw wrote about his concerns in his newspaper column
"In part, this was because of the apparent incongruity between the signals which indicate common bonds - the entirely English accent, the couples' education (wholly in the UK) - and the fact of the veil.
"Above all, it was because I felt uncomfortable about talking to someone 'face-to-face' who I could not see.
"So I decided that I wouldn't just sit there the next time a lady turned up to see me in a full veil, and I haven't.
"Now, I always ensure that a female member of my staff is with me. I explain that this is a country built on freedoms. I defend absolutely the right of any woman to wear a headscarf. As for the full veil, wearing it breaks no laws.
"I go on to say that I think, however, that the conversation would be of greater value if the lady took the covering from her face.
"Indeed, the value of a meeting, as opposed to a letter or phone call, is so that you can - almost literally - see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say.
"However, I can't recall a single occasion when a lady has refused to lift her veil; most seem relieved I have asked."
After another interview with a constituent, Mr Straw said he had an interesting debate with her about veils.
"Would she, however, think hard about what I said - in particular about my concern that wearing the full veil was bound to make better, positive relations between the two communities more difficult."
"It was such a visible statement of separation and of difference."
JACK STRAW INTERVIEWED ON BBC RADIO LANCASHIRE
"This is an issue that needs to be discussed because, in our society, we are able to relate particularly to strangers by being able to read their faces and if you can't read people's faces, that does provide some separation.
Mr Straw asks women to remove their veils when meeting him
"Now I understand, of course, why some of these ladies decide to wear the veil.
"In the case where I had a really good discussion with a lady last Friday - it was not because, contrary to myth, that she'd been required to do so by her husband, she'd come to her own decision about this.
"She said she felt more comfortable when she was outside wearing the veil and she was less troubled by people. I understand that.
"What I'm saying on the other side is: would those people who do wear the veil think about the implications for community relations?"
JACK STRAW INTERVIEWED ON BBC RADIO 4 TODAY PROGRAMME
"What I've been struck (by) when I've been talking to some of the ladies concerned is that they had not, I think, been fully aware of the potential in terms of community relations.
"They'd thought of it just as a statement for themselves, in some cases they regard themselves as very religious - and I respect that, but as I say, I just wanted to put this issue on the table.
"Communities are bound together partly by informal chance relations between strangers, people acknowledging each other in the street, being able to pass the time of day, sharing just experiences in the street, and that is just made more difficult if people are wearing a veil...that's just a fact of life".
Asked whether he would prefer veils to be abolished completely, Mr Straw said: "Yes. It needs to be made clear I am not talking about being
prescriptive but with all the caveats, yes, I would rather."
"You cannot force people where they live, that's a matter of choice and economics, but you can be concerned about the implications of separateness and I am."
"I come to this out of a profound commitment to equal rights for Muslim
communities and an equal concern about adverse development about parallel communities."