Tory MP warned over requests to remove face veils

Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone wants burkas and niqabs banned from being worn in public

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A Conservative MP has been warned he could face legal action if he refuses to meet constituents who wear burkas or niqabs, which hide their faces.

Lawyers for pressure group Liberty have written to Philip Hollobone stating the Equality Act obliges him to avoid discrimination.

The Kettering MP said he needed to meet voters face-to-face.

He added he would invite those who did not remove their veil to communicate in a different way, such as by letter.

Mr Hollobone was unavailable for comment when the BBC attempted to contact him.

He is trying to bring in a Private Member's Bill to ban women wearing the burka or niqab in public.

A similar bill was overwhelmingly approved by France's lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, on 13 July, but it must now be ratified by the upper house, the Senate, in September before it can become law.

Mr Hollobone's comments have been criticised by Muslim groups, and the idea of a ban has been dismissed by government ministers as "un-British" and unhelpful to women.

Immigration minister Damian Green has said banning the full Islamic veil in public would be "at odds with the UK's tolerant society".

Liberty has now offered to represent any woman wishing to make a legal challenge against Mr Hollobone if she is refused a meeting with him because of her veil.

In its letter to Mr Hollobone, Liberty said it "will be happy to represent any of your constituents that you refuse to meet because they are veiled".

Corinna Ferguson, a legal officer at Liberty, added: "There are a lot of women who wear face veils who feel that it is to do with their religion.

"Of course there are going to be arguments about whether or not it is strictly required by the tenets of Islam, but if individuals feel that it's an important part of their religion then interferences with that must only take place where it's strictly necessary."

She added: "And I think there's a broader point here; in other European countries they might take a different view, but in Britain generally we don't punish people for the way that they dress."

'Separation'

Mr Hollobone is not the first UK MP to criticise the wearing of burkas or niqabs.

Labour's former cabinet minister Jack Straw, the MP for Blackburn, said in 2006 that face veils were a "visible statement of separation and of difference" and suggested they could make community relations harder.

He also said he asked Muslim women to reveal their faces in his constituency surgeries because he thought the veils got in the way of effective communication, but stopped short of saying he would refuse to talk to them if they chose not to.

While the French bill to ban the wearing of burkas and niqabs is continuing to make its way through France's parliament, other European countries including Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium have debated regulating the use of face-covering garments.

In June, the 47-nation Council of Europe, which oversees the European Court of Human Rights, voted unanimously against any general ban on women who wanted to wear the burqa or niqab.

It added there might be a case for legal restrictions "for security purposes, or where the public or professional functions of individuals require their religious neutrality, or that their face can be seen".

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