Race equality head backs Straw on wearing of veil

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Britain's race watchdog has said Jack Straw was "completely right" to express his concerns about Muslim women wearing veils.

Trevor Phillips, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, also gave his full support to schools that ban girls from wearing veils in lessons.

And the Government signalled yesterday that it would withhold cash from any Muslim group that fails to tackle extremists in its ranks.

With the row intensifying over Muslim dress, Mr Phillips told MPs he believed that Mr Straw, the Leader of the Commons, had taken a "perfectly reasonable" stance last week. "I think it's right for him to say 'would you mind not making me feel uncomfortable' in this case, as long as it is clearly understood the answer to that can be 'no'."

He added: "Jack Straw was completely right to raise this. It is not a question of public policy, but a question of social etiquette and manners."

Mr Phillips also said he believed the wearing of veils for religious reasons should not override school-uniform policies, providing they have been "arrived at properly".

"If I were the headteacher in a school, I would probably say veils should not be worn in the classroom," he told the Commons Education and Skills Committee.

Bill Rammell, the Higher Education minister, also showed his support yesterday for universities and colleges that ban students and teachers from wearing the veil. "I'm not dictating hard and fast rules, as dress codes are a matter for university authorities. But Imperial College [London] recently banned the face veil and I think that this is arguably the best decision." Ruth Kelly, the Secretary of State for Communities, told moderate Muslims yesterday that they could no longer "sit on the sidelines" in the fight against extremism.

She pledged the Government's support to Muslim groups which took on the arguments of radicals, and indicated there would be a "significant shift" in state funding and engagement in favour of organisations which spoke out clearly against extremism. But she was critical of groups and individuals who chose to boycott commemorations such as Holocaust Memorial Day.

Although she did not name it, the Muslim Council of Britain has not taken part in the event.

Speaking to a Muslim audience in London, Ms Kelly said: "I do not come here to say that tackling extremists is your problem as Muslims alone. This is a shared problem. It is a shared battle for the kind of society we want to be and the values that we all hold dear. But I do say that, without you fully on side, we will fail. Your voice is more powerful than mine. And your actions can be more effective."

Harriet Harman, the Constitutional Affairs minister, delivered the strongest attack by a government member on veils. In an interview with New Statesman magazine, she said: "If you want equality, you have to be in society, not hidden away from it. How can you stand as an MP when men's faces are on posters, and voters can't see yours? The veil is an obstacle to women's participation, on equal terms, in society."