Blair backs Straw on veil

Tony Blair has backed Jack Straw’s comments about the Muslim veil, saying his concerns that it was harming community relations were “perfectly sensible”.

The former foreign secretary provoked outrage last week by saying he asked Muslim constituents wearing the full veil to remove it when they came to his MP’s surgery.

Mr Straw appeared isolated this weekend after two of his cabinet colleagues, John Prescott and Patricia Hewitt, both said they would not make such a request. But today Mr Blair said he was right to raise the issue.

“I don’t think anyone’s suggesting it is not a matter of personal choice for people in the end to do what they want,” the prime minister told BBC One’s Breakfast.

“But actually I think what Jack Straw was saying was perfectly sensible, which was that if we want to break down barriers between people, and between different cultures and religions, then it is important these issues are raised and discussed.”

He said Mr Straw had raised the issue in a “measured and considered way” and “I see nothing wrong with that”, adding: “I think we can have these discussions without people becoming hysterical either way about it.”

Mr Blair noted that many people felt strongly about the issue of the Muslim veil and the questions it raised, such as how people could integrate into mainstream society.
“It is a difficult and tricky debate to enter into.but actually I think he raised it in a very sensible and measured way,” he said.

Mr Straw, who is now leader of the House of Commons, made his concerns public in his local newspaper last Thursday, revealing that he found it difficult to communicate properly with female constituents when he could not see their faces.

Questioned about his views the following day, the Blackburn MP went further, saying he personally would prefer women did not wear the full veil at all – although he stressed it was their choice.