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Clegg against ban on full veil

It is not "appropriate" for students to wear a full veil in the classroom or for people to go through airport security with their faces covered, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said.

But Mr Clegg said he did not want to see a state ban on the wearing of religious items of clothing in particular circumstances.

His comments came as a Liberal Democrat minister said the Government should consider banning Muslim girls and young women from wearing the veil in public places.

Home Office minister Jeremy Browne called for a national debate on whether the state should step in to prevent young women having the veil imposed upon them. His intervention was sparked by a row over the decision by Birmingham Metropolitan College to drop a ban on the wearing of full-face veils amid public protests.

Mr Browne said he was "instinctively uneasy" about restricting religious freedoms, but he added there may be a case to act to protect girls who were too young to decide for themselves whether they wished to wear the veil or not.

"I am instinctively uneasy about restricting the freedom of individuals to observe the religion of their choice," he told the Daily Telegraph. "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."

Responding to his comments, Mr Clegg said: "I think there is a debate going on already in households and communities up and down the country. My own view, very strongly held, is that we shouldn't end up like other countries issuing edicts or laws from Parliament telling people what they should or should not wear. This is a free country and people going about their own business should be free to wear what they wish. I think it is very un-British to start telling people what pieces of clothing they should wear. I think there are exceptions to that as far as the full veil is concerned - security at airports for instance. It is perfectly reasonable for us to say the full veil is clearly not appropriate there. And I think in the classroom, there is an issue of course about teachers being able to address their students in a way where they can address them face to face. I think it is quite difficult in the classroom to be able to do that."

A number of Conservative MPs have voiced dismay at the way the Birmingham Metropolitan College case was handled. 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 just 48 hours.

Following the college's decision to withdraw the rule, Downing Street said David Cameron would support a ban in his children's schools, although the decision should rest with the head teacher. However the Prime Minister has been coming under growing pressure from his own MPs for a rethink on current Department for Education guidelines in order to protect schools and colleges from being "bullied". Tory backbencher Dr Sarah Wollaston said the veils were "deeply offensive" and were "making women invisible", and called for the niqab to be banned in schools and colleges. Writing for The Telegraph, she said: "It would be a perverse distortion of freedom if we knowingly allowed the restriction of communication in the very schools and colleges which should be equipping girls with skills for the modern world. We must not abandon our cultural belief that women should fully and equally participate in society."

Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive of the Ramadhan Foundation, said he was "disgusted" by Mr Browne's calls to consider banning Muslim girls and young women from wearing the veil in public places. "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 and any attempt by the Government to ban Muslim women will be strongly resisted by the Muslim community. We take great pride in the United Kingdom's values of individual freedom and freedom of religion and any attempt by illiberal male politicians to dictate to Muslim women what they should wear will be challenged." He added: "I call on the Liberal Democrats to disown these illiberal comments from Jeremy Browne and ensure that no government with Lib Dem participation introduces this stupid Bill. If they fail to do this then they will face the consequences at the next general election from Muslim voters. We would expect these sorts of comments from the far right and authoritarian politicians and not from someone who allegedly believes in liberal values and freedom."

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