UK & World News
Muslim Veil Row After MP Calls For 'Debate'
Downing Street has suggested it supports the possibility of a ban on Muslim veils in public institutions after an MP called for a "national debate".
David Cameron's official spokesman said he believes "institutions such as schools" should be free to decide their own rules on uniform.
The spokesman ruled out the prospect of legislation on the controversial issue, but said this did not prevent organisations setting dress codes.
"The Prime Minister doesn't believe Parliament should legislate on what people do and don't wear on their local high street," he said.
"Nonetheless, that is not incompatible with institutions having dress codes. Schools are an example but it is for institutions to take those decisions. There are legal frameworks within which all institutions operate."
Nick Clegg also said he did not think the full veil was appropriate for airport security or the classroom, but said he did not want people in Britain to be told how to dress.
"My own opinion is that I strongly believe we should not be issuing edicts about what people can and can't wear in this country," the Deputy Prime Minister told Sky News.
The comments came after Home Office Minister Jeremy Browne called on the Government to consider whether it should step in to protect young women.
Mr Browne said there may be a case to act to protect girls who were too young to decide for themselves whether they wanted to wear the veil or not.
"I think this is a good topic for national debate. People of liberal instincts will have competing notions of how to protect and promote freedom of choice," he told The Daily Telegraph.
"I am instinctively uneasy about restricting the freedom of individuals to observe the religion of their choice. That would apply to Christian minorities in the Middle East just as much as religious minorities here in Britain.
"But there is genuine debate about whether girls should feel a compulsion to wear a veil when society deems children to be unable to express personal choices about other areas like buying alcohol, smoking or getting married.
"We should be very cautious about imposing religious conformity on a society which has always valued freedom of expression."
On Monday, a judge in London ruled a Muslim woman standing trial could wear a full-face veil but would have to remove it when she gives evidence.
And last week, Birmingham Metropolitan College was forced to drop a ban on the wearing of full-face veils due to public protests.
The college had originally banned niqabs and burkas from its campuses eight years ago on the grounds that students should be easily identifiable at all times.
But when a 17-year-old prospective student complained to her local newspaper that she was being discriminated against, a campaign sprang up against the ban, attracting 8,000 signatures to an online petition in two days.
After the college's decision to withdraw it, Downing Street said Mr Cameron would support a ban in his children's schools, although the decision should rest with the head teacher.
The Prime Minister has been under growing pressure from his own MPs for a rethink on current Department for Education guidelines to protect schools and colleges from being "bullied".
Tory backbencher Dr Sarah Wollaston, writing in The Daily Telegraph, said the veils were "deeply offensive" and were "making women invisible", and called for the niqab to be banned in schools and colleges.
Mr Clegg, speaking at the Lib Dem party conference on Monday, said: "I think one of the great things about our country is that ... we allow people to express their identity, their faith, the communities to which they belong in the way in which they dress.
"There are some exceptions clearly. I don't for instance think it is appropriate to have the full veil through security checks at airports.
"I think there is an issue about teachers having the right to address their pupils and their students face-to-face and make face contact.
"But otherwise I really do think it is important that we protect the British principle that as long as people are law-abiding citizens going about their business in a law-abiding fashion, we shouldn't be telling people what garments of clothing they can wear."
Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, said he was "disgusted" by Mr Browne's comments.
"This is another example of the double standards that are applied to Muslims in our country by some politicians," he said.
"Whatever one's religion, they should be free to practise it according to their own choices."