JACK STRAW has disclosed that he asks Muslim women who hold constituency meetings with him to remove their veils so that they can truly talk "face to face".
Mr Straw, the Leader of the Commons, said that the wearing of full veils was making "better, positive relations" between communities "more difficult". Concealing a face was "a visible statement of separation and of difference", Mr Straw wrote in the Lancashire Telegraph.
Muslims constitute about a quarter of the population in his Blackburn constituency.
Mr Straw wrote: "The value of a meeting, as opposed to a letter or phone call, is that you can — almost literally — see what the other person means, and not just hear what they say."
He later told BBC Radio Lancashire that this "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".
He understood why some women wanted to be covered, citing a meeting with a constituent who "said she felt more comfortable when she was outside wearing the veil and she was less troubled by people".
"What I'm saying on the other side is, would those people who do wear the veil think about the implications for community relations," he said.
He added that he always made sure that a female colleague was present in the room when requesting someone to remove their veil — and his constituents had so far agreed when he had asked.
Mr Straw also said that he defended the right of women to wear headscarves (the hijab) — which, he said, was the issue in France that had led to recent controversy.
Massoud Shadjareh, of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, said: "It is astonishing that someone as experienced as Jack Straw does not realise that the job of an elected representative is to represent the interests of the constituency, not to selectively discriminate on the basis of religion."
But Daud Abdullah, of the Muslim Council of Britain, said it was up to individual women whether to wear the veil, adding that he understood that the issue could cause discomfort to non-Muslims. "Even within the Muslim community the scholars have different views on this. Our view is that if it is going to cause discomfort and that can be avoided then it can be done," he said, adding: "The veil over the hair is obligatory."
Mr Straw, who held the seat with an 8,000 majority for Labour last time and until recently was Foreign Secretary, has a close relationship with Muslim groups in his constituency. Muslim leaders are on first-name terms with their MP, who has held the seat for 27 years, but his comments in the local paper have caused disquiet.
Hamid Quereshi, of the Lancashire Council of Mosques, said that Mr Straw's request could only be justified on security or identity grounds. Mr Qureshi said: "Women believe that wearing it is God's command. I do not know what principle he is trying to establish. If he thinks it is about community cohesion concerns, he is mistaken. There are thousands of things that we do together.