Tony Blair has said that the veil worn by many Muslim women in Britain is a "mark of separation" that makes people from other backgrounds feel uncomfortable.
The Prime Minister came off the fence in the heated debate over Muslim customs by urging them to integrate more fully into British society. His remarks confirmed a significant shift in the Government's thinking amid fears that its support for multiculturalism may have encouraged the growth of "parallel lives" that never meet.
Ministers will step up their drive to ensure integration by warning today that independent faith schools could lose their charitable status if they fail to integrate with their local community. That includes 114 Muslim schools.
The sanction would apply to existing faith schools as well as new ones. Ministers have already announced new faith schools could be forced to admit up to 25 per cent of pupils from other religions or none.
Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, will tell a conference in Brighton today that there should be teacher exchanges between different faith schools so pupils and teachers are exposed to the ethos and approach of other religions. "I would like independent faith schools to do more to co-operate with non faith schools in their area as they work with the new requirement for them to demonstrate their charitable status, " he will say.
The Charity Commission will police new guidelines for independent schools that enjoy charitable status.
Mr Johnson will add: "We must be careful that, rather than driving people into defending their faith, we instead encourage an open celebration of our diversity. Schools should cross ethnic and religious boundaries, and certainly not increase them, or exacerbate the difficulties in this sensitive area."
At his monthly Downing Street press conference, the Prime Minister was asked if a woman who wore the veil could make a full contribution to British society. He paused before replying: "That's a very difficult question. It is a mark of separation and that's why it makes other people from outside of the community feel uncomfortable."
He added he was not suggesting women should be ordered to remove their veils. "No one wants to say that people don't have the right to do it, that's to take it too far, but I think we do need to confront this issue about how we integrate people properly with our society," he said. "All the evidence is that when people do integrate more, they achieve more as well."
The Prime Minister said: "Difficult though these issues are, they need to be raised and confronted. People want to know that the Muslim community in particular, but actually all minority communities, have got the balance right between integration and multi-culturalism." Mr Blair said he could "see the reason" why Kirklees Council had suspended 24-year-old Aishah Azmi, a teaching assistant, for refusing to remove her veil in the classroom at Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.
While stressing such decisions were a matter for local authorities, he added: "I do support the authority in the way they have handled this." Last night, Ms Azmi's lawyer urged Mr Blair to retract his remarks and threatened legal action to stop him repeating them in case they influenced her employment tribunal case.
Nick Whittingham said: "It's a new area of law. It's not been fully worked out yet and it involves complex legal and factual issues, so it's something which we consider very irresponsible for the Prime Minister to be interfering with by making direct comments about."
Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham, who will formally launch his campaign to become Labour's next deputy leader today, will accuse ministers of playing "fast and loose" with religious tensions during the row.
He will say: "The solution does not lie in an ever more muscular bidding war among politicians to demonstrate who can be tougher on migrants, asylum-seekers and minorities. Nor is it in using racial or religious symbols to create controversy. That only makes the situation worse.
"It is not the role of politicians to play fast and loose with symbols of difference, especially when they drive the political centre of gravity to the right as a consequence."
Home Office seeks stricter controls on terror suspects
Ministers are threatening to opt out of European human rights legislation in the wake of the row over two terrorist suspects who escaped while being monitored on control orders.
Tony Blair attempted to turn the blame for the fiasco on to the courts and opposition politicians yesterday for opposing tougher anti-terror laws.
As police continued the hunt for the two missing men, the Home Office admitted that the control order system needed "sorting out".
It said it was determined to impose a stricter regime of control orders, forcing people to stay at home for longer periods and face tougher limits on contacts with other people.
Such restrictions could fall foul of the European Convention on Human Rights, which forbids the deprivation of liberty, but Ministers have made plain they are prepared to take the dramatic step of derogating from the convention if necessary.
Tony McNulty, the Policing and Security minister, said: "We're not going down this road yet... That remains an option and we keep these things constantly under review."
Opting out of the convention would be a challenge for the Government as it would have to be approved by the Commons and Lords. A Home Office source said last night: "We will have to consider that if we're backed into a corner."
The Home Office has been forced to admit that two of the 15 men subject to control orders have absconded. An Iraqi has been missing for several months and a British national of Pakistani descent has been on the run for two weeks.
The search for them was continuing last night, but police believe one or both may have fled the country.
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