I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
My Bill—which is not exactly extensive, consisting of just two pages of carefully drafted text—is designed to prohibit the wearing of certain face coverings, and seeks to make it illegal for people to cover their faces in public places. In many respects I am sorry that it has come to this, but there is growing concern among my constituents, and indeed throughout the country, about the increasing number of people who are going about in public places covering their faces. It is causing alarm and distress to many people in our country. I have received numerous letters and e-mails, not only from my constituents but from people the length and breadth of the land who fear that the nation is heading in the wrong direction.
The two main face coverings that give rise to concern are full-face balaclavas—which we see being worn increasingly during demonstrations—and full-face Islamic veils. My contention is that, because of political correctness and sensitivities about unintentionally causing harm to religious minorities, the Government are frightened to act on the issue, which is a great shame.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on getting the chance to introduce this Bill, although I oppose it and will oppose it on Second Reading. As far as I can see, he has 723 Muslims in his constituency. Has he consulted any of them about the proposals he is making to the House today, and if he has, what is their view on whether the Bill should be supported?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As he will know, I am very happy to give way on many occasions whenever I am on my feet in the Chamber, and may I say it is a privilege for me that he has given up his Friday to be here for this debate? I am sure it will be all the better for his presence.
The right hon. Gentleman tells me there are 723 Muslims in the Kettering constituency. I do not count my constituents by their faith? I have no idea whether there are 723 Muslims in my constituency or 7,230. The faith of my constituents is irrelevant to me. I am concerned to represent my constituents whatever faith they may hold, so I do not hold those statistics, but I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for informing me of that.
There is a Kettering Muslim Association and we have had correspondence and conversations about this issue, and I have to say that that dialogue has ended because, despite my offering to speak with members of the association about my Bill, they have declined that opportunity to me. I think that is a great shame, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will feel it is a great shame as well, because, whatever our views on this issue, it is important that they are debated and discussed.
I absolutely agree with the point my hon. Friend has just made, and I am absolutely certain that the vast majority of my constituents will agree with his Bill. I am not sure, though, that I do.
I absolutely agree that people must remove their face coverings where everyone else has to show their face, such as in a bank or at passport control, but does my hon. Friend really want to live in a country where we have the Government telling people what they can wear and what they cannot wear, because that is the bit that makes me very nervous about our having that kind of authoritarian state?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and may I echo my remarks to Keith Vaz by saying what a privilege it is that my hon. Friend is here today to take part in this debate? He is a champion of these private Members’ Bills Fridays and he always brings a very distinctive and very personal view to our proceedings. It is surprising to me that he and I are on different sides of this argument, because we agree on so many things, not least the importance of closed-circuit television in fighting crime. My hon. Friend is perhaps the foremost advocate in this place of the benefits of closed-circuit television, but of course one of the big problems with face coverings is that if someone whose face is covered is captured on CCTV, we cannot identify them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being very generous with his time so early in his remarks. He is touching on an important area that I wish to question him on briefly. One of the reasons this Bill is seen as particularly sensitive is that the two groups he has referred to are very separate. One may be out to break the law—they may be covering their face because they intend to break the law and not be seen—while the others are law abiding and are covering their face because of their religion. It is that conflict between those two groups that causes the difficulty with the Bill.
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. I am triply blessed today, given that he too is in his place and contributing to the debate. He is without parallel in his scrutiny of private Members’ legislation, which is to the advantage of us all. I want to make it clear from the outset that I know that there are strong views on both sides of this argument. There are strong merits and strong demerits to the Bill. I said earlier that, in many respects, I was sorry that it has come to needing legislation. The problem is that law-abiding citizens who cover their face for supposedly religious reasons are, by their actions, alienating so many of our other citizens in this country. It causes alarm and distress to many of our citizens who are not part of those religious groups to see Britain’s high streets being increasingly dominated by, especially, Islamic women who are covering their faces in full. I would be doing my constituents a disservice if I did not bring these concerns to the Floor of the House.
I absolutely agree with everything my hon. Friend has just said; that is something that I hear from my constituents over and over again. My constituency is in a district of Bradford that, unfortunately, has a very segregated population, and the activity that he is describing exacerbates the differences and the segregation. In many respects, I disapprove of this and wish that people would not wear those face coverings, for the reasons he has just given, but does he not agree that we can disapprove of something without banning it?
That is a very good point. I do disapprove of full-face veils, but I have gone a step further than my hon. Friend in saying that they should be banned. That is the difference between us. The reason that I say it is that the number of people who are now covering their faces is such that it is not helping the integration of ethnic and religious minorities into our society.
One of the big problems we have in Britain today is the number of ethnic minority Muslim women who do not speak English. It is very difficult for people who do not speak English to take advantage of all the positive aspects of our society that are open to each and every one of us.
The hon. Gentleman said in response to the intervention by Philip Davies that Muslim women were wearing veils “supposedly” for reasons of religious belief. Does he not accept that they do so because of their religious belief, not “supposedly” because of it? In the Koran, Muslim men and women are instructed to do certain things, and it is their choice whether to do them. It is up to the Muslim women themselves; nobody tells them what to do. If they accept what is written in their holy book, they will choose to do it.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and I am happy to give way to him as many times as he wants to intervene on me. That applies to anyone else in the Chamber. I also welcome the tone with which we have started this debate. These are important issues and there are strong feelings on both sides. It is an important part of our role as parliamentarians to air the concerns of our constituents, even if they are difficult issues, and what better place to do that than in the Chamber of the House of Commons? I will respond to the point that the right hon. Gentleman has just raised after I have taken an intervention from Sir Gerald Kaufman.
The hon. Gentleman was moving on to talk about Muslim women who did not speak English. That is very much widening the scope of his attack and, frankly, makes one question his motivation. Neither of my parents, who were immigrants, could ever read or write English, although they acquired some ability to speak the language. Should they have been excluded or pressed upon? They enabled me to become a Member of Parliament. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that Muslim women who cannot speak English should not have the right to have their children become Members of Parliament?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman’s parents would be extremely proud of their son being a distinguished parliamentarian, but I am pretty sure that his mother was not veiled. The purpose of my Bill is to talk about covering one’s face and not about restricting people because they do not speak English. My intentions in putting forward this Bill are 100% honourable, because
I am standing up and speaking out for the many hundreds of thousands of people in this country who are concerned about the increasing number of people covering their faces in public and who, frankly, feel that that is alien to the British way of life.
The hon. Gentleman talks about the British way. As someone of Muslim background, I believe passionately in the right of any minority group, including Muslim women, to choose how they dress, and the best of British is our diversity and our inclusiveness. His choice of this Bill and his comment about what the British way is does a great disservice to our country by representing it in such a narrow-minded and intolerant way.
The hon. Lady will not be surprised that I disagree with those remarks. She will know, because I informed her at the time, that a couple of years ago I visited her constituency as part of a TV programme. We did our best to speak with veiled women in her high street and I have to say that it was not an easy thing to do. It further drew my attention to the difficulties that veiled women have in undertaking normal everyday human interaction with people who are not veiled, because part of the traditional British way of life is that when somebody passes somebody else in the street whom they recognise, or half-recognise, they smile, perhaps wave and say hello; it is called neighbourliness. It is difficult for somebody to do that if their face is covered and it is also difficult for somebody else to do it to them, because there is no reaction.
Frankly, I do not want to live in a country where people—whether they are men or women—are increasingly going around with their faces covered, because it will lead to a deterioration in the quality of life. It also means that those ethnic minority women, largely from Muslim backgrounds, who do not speak English will find it much more difficult to learn to speak English, and they will remain at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing public services and interacting with the normal way of life if they cannot speak English properly.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on that point. Does he not think that the introduction of his Bill might lead to more women feeling that they are unable to leave their homes? If they are unable to leave their homes, they will be unable to attend English classes; if they are unable to attend English classes, they are less likely to integrate in the way he describes.
That is an interesting intervention and one that I am, of course, happy to take seriously, but it disturbs me greatly, because if we are talking about women from communities who, if they are not allowed to wear a veil are not allowed to go out, I have to question the ethics of the cultural background that would deny women the ability to go out into a normal
British high street without having their faces covered. Has it come to the point that we are saying to women, “You can’t go out of doors, because of your cultural background, unless your face is veiled”? That is abhorrent in 21st century Britain.
I want to press my hon. Friend on this point. I agree with him: I regret the fact that so many people, particularly in the Bradford district, wear full-face veils. So I do not disagree with the sentiment, but I did not come into Parliament to ban everybody else from doing all the things I do not happen to like. One thing I have been perturbed about since I got elected to Parliament is that many people, particularly Opposition Members, are for ever seeking to ban everybody from doing anything they do not like. Does he understand the reluctance to try to impose someone’s will on everybody just because it is what that person happens to think?
I do understand that reluctance and, in many ways, it pains me greatly to propose this Bill. For me, although perhaps not for my hon. Friend, a line is crossed when we are talking about covering one’s face. For me, this is not about telling people what to wear—it is not about clothing; it is about the concealing of someone’s identity. That is where the big difference lies.
Before we move on to the issue of identity, let us stick with the issue of communication. On a serious note, has my hon. Friend had any communication from the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, because deaf people rely on being able to see someone’s lips for the purposes of communication if they are a lip reader?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point, and I have had communications from deaf people who have raised it. They tell me how frustrated they feel whenever they are faced with a woman wearing a full-face veil, because they are simply unable to communicate, unless in a written form. That must be extremely difficult for deaf people and it is a real concern. It must be extremely difficult for veiled women who are deaf to engage with other veiled women in their communities. Some five interventions ago, the right hon. Member for Leicester East challenged me on the point about religious beliefs. I am not a Muslim; I am a member of the Church of England and I go to my local Salvation Army. I am very much from a Christian background, but I have huge respect for people of faith, whatever their faith might be, and that includes Islam. Of course, I am not an Islamic scholar, but I have researched the matter in some depth and nowhere at all, anywhere in the world, can I find any proscription that women are required by Islam to cover their face. As I understand it, the Koran, the holy book to Muslims, requires women to dress modestly, and the vast majority of Muslim women in this country adhere to that without covering their faces.
I am most grateful for that reference. My Bill has absolutely no impact on the hijab or on any kind of Islamic headdress that does not cover the face, but it would proscribe the niqab and the burqa. Some people have been jumping up and down saying, “Philip Hollobone’s Bill is going to ban Muslim head-dresses”, but that is absolutely not the case. In lots of Christian countries around the world, although not so much in this country nowadays, women have worn head-dresses as a sign of modest dress. Nuns wear head-dresses, and in this country in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, although perhaps not so much in the 1970s, people often wore head scarves when out and about. So the concept of a head-dress is not alien to the British way of life, but covering one’s face in public is absolutely alien to it. That is why it is more than just an issue of dress; it is about concealing one’s identity.
The Bill is quite carefully drafted. Clause 1(1) says that
“a person wearing a garment or other object intended by the wearer as its primary purpose to obscure the face in a public place shall be guilty of an offence.”
It does not mention Islamic veils or balaclavas. The proscription applies to somebody covering their face in a public place. Of course, it is part of the natural way of things that when we go about our daily lives, we interact with our fellow human beings because we can see their face. Imagine how difficult it would be in this Chamber were Members to be veiled. Madam Deputy Speaker calls us to our feet by identifying us and naming us. If all of us in this Chamber now were wearing full face veils, how would she do her job?
Members bow when they go through the Lobby, having cast their vote. In actual fact, they should raise their heads. Hundreds of years ago, Members used to send their man servants to vote on their behalf. In order to stop abuse, the Clerks insisted that everyone raise their heads to show their face once they had cast their vote so that their identity could be secured. It would be interesting to know what the House authorities would do were a Member of this place to wear a full face veil. How would they verify their vote in the Lobby? That is an issue of concern to those who are required to check people’s identities.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend, especially on clauses 2 and 3. People should be able to request the removal of face coverings. In situations in which everyone has to identify themselves, it should be compulsory for people to remove them. If his Bill was confined to ensuring that, where appropriate, people had to reveal their identities on, for example, a bus, at passport control or at a bank, I would be wholeheartedly in favour of it. Has he considered limiting the scope of his Bill to that, because he would find much more support than he would for a blanket ban?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention. We can pursue such things in more depth when the Bill goes into Committee. I can see that we would have very many animated sessions on just those sorts of points. If I were to restrict the scope of the Bill to those clauses, I might enjoy the additional support from my hon. Friend, but I very much doubt that I would get the additional support from Opposition Members. Those Members are so enthralled by the difficulties of political correctness and on challenging those difficult issues, that even this modest proposal from my hon. Friend would not meet with their approval. They would see it as going against the supposed religious requirements of Islamic women.
Where a person has to prove their identity, whether by the police, in a post office or at immigration control, it is perfectly reasonable that they be required, without any fuss or bother, to remove their face coverings. Of course there is a lot of difficulty with this issue. There is a worry that if we require a veiled woman to remove her face covering, we might be in breach of some race relations or equality law. One of the advantages of my Bill is that it would remove that ambiguity. Under clause 2, the Bill says:
“Where members of the public are licensed to access private premises for the purposes of the giving or receiving of goods or services, it shall not be an offence for the owner of such premises or his agents—
(a) to request that a person wearing a garment or other object intended to obscure the face remove such garment or object; or
(b) to require that a person refusing a request under subsection (a) leave the premises.”
At the moment, a motorcyclist, male or female, pulling up at a petrol station to fill up and then going to pay is required to remove their helmet for security reasons. The owner of the petrol station does not want someone coming into their premises whose identity they cannot check or record on CCTV. They might even recognise them, or they might be able to identify them to the police if a theft were to take place. But somebody going to buy petrol wearing a burqa causes problems, because the owner of the petrol station will be unsure whether they can require that person to remove their head-dress. The person wearing the full-face veil might have already filled up their car or motorbike, but what will happen if the owner of the petrol station is unhappy about whether they are legitimate and does not know whether they can require them to remove their veil? If the person wearing the veil refuses to remove it, what does the owner of the petrol station do? My Bill would remove that ambiguity. It would be an absolute requirement that if, say, someone in a petrol station, a shop, a post office or a bank, wanted someone to remove their full-face veil, balaclava or motorcycle helmet, they could do so without fear of breaking any race relations or equality law. In many respects, as my hon. Friend Philip Davies rightly identified, those are two of the strongest clauses in the Bill.
One mistake that we might be making—the right hon. Member for Leicester East touched on this—concerns whether this is a restriction on religious freedom. One of the cul-de-sacs that the debate can go into is in saying that this is a debate between the west and Islam. Of course it is nothing of the sort. The right hon. Gentleman will know probably better than I that there are restrictions in Islamic countries on wearing the veil. The veil is an issue not just in the west but in Muslim countries. In Turkey, Tunisia, Syria and quite a large number of other Muslim countries, there are restrictions on where one can and cannot wear the veil. The idea that this is Christianity versus Islam is simply not the case.
However, we have areas of particular concern in this country that need to be tackled, and which I am disappointed that the Government have been reluctant to move on. The first is the courts. Most of my constituents would say that justice has to be seen to be done. If a defendant in court has their face covered, the jury is at an immediate disadvantage, because so much of hearing evidence is about reading somebody’s face. If a witness is giving evidence behind a veil or a balaclava, it is difficult to tell whether they are telling the truth. In this Chamber, we look at each other’s faces all the time. The right hon. Gentleman is pulling a funny face at me at this moment.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman, making his case in the passionate way in which he does, suggests that I was pulling a funny face at him. May I assure him that that was my normal face?
It will come as no surprise to the House that those are not points of order to be dealt with from the Chair, to my great relief, but the House is much the better for the points of information that have come before it in that incorrect way, for which I thank the right hon. Gentlemen.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is being very generous and has given way to anyone who has asked him to. Can he give any example of a defendant being asked by a judge to remove their veil and refusing to do so? If he can, is he is aware that the Lord Chief Justice started a consultation process last November that will enable people to put forward their views on that before he gives guidance to judges? That is the right course of action and the court process needs to be respected.
I am not aware of a case in which a defendant has refused to remove a face covering when asked to, but I am pretty sure that there have been cases in which a judge has directed someone to remove a veil and there has then been an argument about it. I think there have been restrictions on which parts of court proceedings a person is allowed to wear a veil in.
I think that most of my constituents, and most people in the country, would say that in court someone’s face should be visible all the time. I know that there are circumstances, sometimes involving vulnerable witnesses, in which evidence is given from behind a screen or via a TV link, and I understand those issues. However, in cases that do not involve those special circumstances, I think that most people would think it entirely reasonable for everyone in the court to be able to see everyone else’s face at all times, because so much of the evidence and court proceedings is about reading somebody’s face, seeing their reaction to a point someone else makes and listening to their own evidence. I hope that whoever in legal circles is drawing up the guidance gets on with it, frankly. My submission is that in all circumstances, unless especially vulnerable witnesses or child witnesses need to give evidence by TV link or from behind a screen, everyone should be able to see everyone else’s face at all times. I think most people would agree with that.
The other case concerns schools. Again, I think that most people in this country would say it is entirely wrong for a teacher to be able to teach a class while wearing a full-face veil. The Government have been reluctant to spell that out in black and white, which I think they should do. Likewise, I think that it is abhorrent that in some schools, as I understand has happened in a number of cases, the uniform code requires really very young girls to wear full-face veils. I think that is entirely inappropriate. I would therefore welcome a clear direction from Her Majesty’s Government, perhaps to be given by the Minister on the Floor of the House today, that it is completely unacceptable for either teachers or pupils to wear full-face veils in an educational establishment. Madam Deputy Speaker, I see that you are itching to call me to order—
Order. For the information of the hon. Gentleman, he is perfectly in order. It is his Bill and he is elucidating his opinions on it very well and in a way that is perfectly in order.
I am very relaxed after that guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker, so thank you.
Another issue concerns police officers. Would it be acceptable for a police officer to wear a full-face veil? I do not think it would. I think it would alarm members of the public. When tackling these issues, I make up my mind by asking myself, “Is it okay for a woman to wear a full-face veil? Is it okay for a man to wear a full-face balaclava?”
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that when some police officers are involved in a terrorist situation and are armed, they will wear balaclavas, which cover their faces completely, just as the face is covered for a Muslim woman? That aspect is covered, just as my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz has pointed out that the issue in the law courts is covered by the judges. We do not need a law on it.
Yes, but in the cases where those specialist police officers are covering their faces, it is for health and safety reasons. Where they are dealing with a terrorist incident and there is a likelihood that weapons could be deployed or explosives could go off, often a balaclava is required as a protective device for the police officer’s face. Everybody understands that. What would be completely unacceptable would be for ordinary beat officers—ordinary police officers whom the right hon. Gentleman, I and other Members see every day of the week—to wear full-face balaclavas.
This parallel between balaclava-wearing and the wearing of full-face veils first struck me when I took my children to a local park. I was sitting in the children’s playground watching my children playing, and this Muslim woman wearing a full-face veil came across the playground with her children and her husband, I suppose, as well. I thought to myself, here I am, sitting in a children’s playground in the Kettering constituency in the middle of England, and here is a woman who does not want anyone else to look at her. I thought to myself that at a very basic level, this is discourtesy. Why would anyone want to hide their identity from everyone else?
I thought, “Well, maybe it is a religious requirement.” Then I found out that it is not a religious requirement for a woman to cover her face, and I wondered how I would feel if, instead of the woman covering her face, it was her husband next to her who was wearing a full-face balaclava? How would that make me feel? Of course it would make me feel very concerned indeed about why a man was walking across a children’s playground wearing a balaclava. I asked myself what I would do about it? I would tell somebody in the park security department that there was a man wandering about wearing a full-face balaclava in a children’s playground.
The right hon. Member for Leicester East is definitely pulling a quizzical face at me, and that is fine. He is entitled to do that, and I can see him doing it because he is not wearing a veil, but perhaps he does not understand that it raises real concerns that individuals can go around covering their faces.
The other Member for Leicester was also looking askance at the hon. Gentleman, and I am very surprised that he finds the wearing of the veil so discourteous. In the parks in Leicester or even the soft play area on Evington Valley road where I often take my children, we often see women wearing the niqab and it does not offend me in any way, but I were to see a gentleman wearing a balaclava, I would of course be concerned because a balaclava is not religious dress and it is out of the ordinary.
The hon. Gentleman is right. There are different interpretations of the Koran. None of us here are Islamic scholars so it is not for us to give our judgment on that, but if these women choose to interpret the Koran as asking them to wear the niqab and the veil, who are we to criticise them for it?
We are parliamentarians standing up for and speaking on behalf our constituents, who are concerned about these things. I do not think it helps the integration of communities in a multicultural British society when an increasingly large number of people, mainly women, go around covering their faces. That cannot promote community cohesion on any level. Do we really want to live in a Britain where a growing number of people are going around with their identities obscured? I do not, and I know that the majority of my constituents do not.
Has the hon. Gentleman considered how many people could become criminalised and end up in the criminal justice system if they choose to follow their belief—not to follow his interpretation of Islam but their own? There are many interpretations. Some choose the interpretation that they do not have to do this, and others choose to do it. Is it right, and is it good for cohesion, if women find themselves criminalised and in prison thanks to his Bill? Perhaps he should also consider the impact on the prison population.
One thing we can all agree on is that women who wear full-face veils are entirely lawful people who would want to stick to the law. I have no indication that were my Bill to become an Act those women would seek to break the law. I do not believe that they would be of criminal intent at all. In other countries where such legislation has been introduced, there have been only a very small number of infringements. In France, for example, Islamic clerics have urged Muslim women to comply with the law of the land, and there have been very few instances of women who have gone out of their way to break the law.
I am worried about the what the hon. Gentleman has just said. He has told the House that if his Bill becomes law he would expect a lot of women, or some women, to seek to break that law. I feel that this is, in his view, a way of encouraging law-breaking and encouraging a breakdown in the community cohesion that we have in this country. Does he expect people to want to break this law, and does he envisage that that will happen?
I think that the right hon. Gentleman may have misheard what I said. What I actually said was, I hope, completely the opposite of that. I think we established earlier in the debate that none of us is saying that veiled Muslim women are in any way unlawful. I am sure that they are highly respectful of the law. What I said was that if my Bill were to become an Act, I am sure we would all expect those Muslim women to want to comply with the law, as has been the case in countries like France, Belgium and elsewhere where such a law is in place.
May I return my hon. Friend to his excellent point about people wearing balaclavas and veils? I am rather pleased that the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee is in his place, because at Heathrow airport I recently saw a woman in a full-face veil come up to passport control and be waved through without having to remove her veil. I thought that that went against what the Government expect at immigration control. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we did not have this politically correct pussy-footing around such issues, and if the rules were applied more sensibly to make sure that people in a veil were treated in exactly the same way as people in a balaclava, perhaps the public support for something as draconian as hisBill—I accept that such support exists even though I do not fully go along with his Bill—would not exist in the first place?
That is an excellent intervention by my hon. Friend. I am not quite sure whether I accept the word “draconian”. I do not know what the definition of “draconian” is, but it certainly does not sound very good, and I am sure that it does not apply to my Bill. I share his outrage, as I am sure my constituents will, that anyone should be waved through passport control if their face is covered. That outrage would apply as much to someone wearing a full-face balaclava as it would to a woman—we must suppose it is a woman—wearing a burqa or a full-face veil.
There are an increasing number of instances—small, but increasing—where criminal acts are taking place with men dressed as Islamic women in full burqas. There is real concern that criminals are using the get-out of full Islamic dress to commit criminal acts, which of course brings Islam into disrepute.
This is a difficult issue, but one that should not be dodged. Such laws are working in other countries. I believe that in France, for example, community cohesion is better today as a result of the banning of the burqa than it was before such legislation was introduced.
On a very basic level, this comes down to how we have a conversation with someone. I would not want to have a conversation with someone whose face I could not see, nor would I expect them to have a conversation with me. If we all want to rub along together in our great British society, one of the great unspoken tenets of our way of life is the ability to see each other’s face. All my Bill will do is put that into law.
I am sorry that it has come to legislation and that people like me feel there is a need for such legislation, but unless we do something about this, an increasing number of people, mainly women and especially in our bigger cities, will be isolated from the British way of life—finding it difficult to speak English and engage with everyone else—because their culture and supposed religious beliefs are leading them to want to go out and about in public with their faces covered. I find that very disappointing. I am alarmed by that and by the growing number of people in our country who take part in demonstrations with their faces covered by full-face balaclavas, which makes it very difficult for the police to police those demonstrations.
This is a difficult issue and we should debate it. It is a real concern in our country. I welcome the tone of today’s debate and hope we can continue this constructive debate throughout the rest of this Session, because it is important that these controversial issues are aired on the Floor of the British House of Commons.
May I begin where Mr Hollobone ended and say that I hope we can have a constructive debate on this subject? I think he will find that all Opposition and, indeed, Government Members who have intervened on him—he was very generous in taking interventions—have been very constructive. That is the right way to approach the subject.
I should say from the outset that I oppose the Second Reading of this Bill and I am sure the hon. Gentleman is not surprised to hear that. I hope I will be able to demonstrate that he is wrong in his view that this Bill would help achieve better cohesion in our country.
I am very proud to be a Member of Parliament in the United Kingdom. I came here as a first-generation immigrant at the age of nine and I represent a city that is the most diverse in the country. I share the city with my hon. Friends the Members for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) and for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), who is not able to be here today. My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South and I have both been enticed to this debate, but my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester West is probably in Leicester, doing her job there.
I do not know whether the hon. Member for Kettering was in the Royal Gallery yesterday to hear Angela Merkel’s speech. I was there and I was struck by the German Chancellor’s mention of this country’s values and how important freedom of speech and action is to it. The Bill seems to undermine that basic freedom. I had always thought that the hon. Gentleman was on the side of freedom and that he was against Government imposing their views on the citizen, but I am not surprised at the tenor of the interventions made by two other freedom fighters, the hon. Members for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and for Shipley (Philip Davies). They believe, as I thought the hon. Member for Kettering did, that it is not for this place—let us call it the Westminster village; I do not know whether there is a better description—to impose on British citizens its views on how they should speak, dress and conduct themselves in a lawful manner.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I agree with him on that point. Does he agree that it is important that where other people are expected to remove their face covering—such as a balaclava at a petrol station, in a bank or at passport control—it is only right, proper and fair that people wearing a face veil are asked to remove their face covering, so that everyone is on a level playing field? That particular issue has caused the resentment that has led to a Bill such as this one.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman will join me in opposing the Bill. He does not seem to be a great fan of it, even though he likes some of the things that the hon. Member for Kettering said.
I know of no example of an individual refusing to do what the hon. Member for Shipley said when the issue of security was paramount. I know of one security breach involving the burqa—Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed put one on at the mosque in Ealing and escaped while he was on a terrorism prevention and investigation measure, although I know of another person on a TPIM who did not put on a burqa, but got into a taxi and escaped from the authorities. I know of only one case, but I do not think that Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, once he had put on a burqa and left the mosque in Ealing, was asked to remove it. I do not therefore know of an example, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman does. I know that he frequently appears in, and often reads, the tabloid press, so if he has an example of a security or legal issue where someone was required to act reasonably and did not do so, I am happy for him to intervene.
The right hon. Gentleman gave a very good answer, but unfortunately it did not relate to my question. I asked a much more specific question, and I got the impression that, uncharacteristically, he was trying to dodge it. My question was: where anybody else would be expected to remove their particular face covering—for example, a balaclava at a petrol station, in a bank or at passport control—does he expect people with an Islamic face covering to be subject to exactly the same requirement? It is not a question of whether they accept or refuse to do something, but whether they should be required to do the same thing as others. Some people pussyfoot around that issue for politically correct reasons. It would be very helpful if he made it clear that he expects the same from people with Islamic veil coverings as from those with balaclavas.
I hope that I am not pussyfooting around the issue. If there has been an example of a security breach and something needs to be fixed, we certainly need to consider that and to undertake proper consultation. I do not, however, know an example of that, apart from Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed wearing a burqa. I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman is not satisfied with that answer, but I do not believe that we should sit here passing laws just for the sheer hell of it, or because someone comes up to us in Kettering high street saying that they do not like a woman in a burqa whom they met in a playgroup and we therefore decide we must change the law of the land. Frankly, I think that we need to be very careful about these issues. If there are examples of something going wrong, of course we can change the law, but I have not seen that happening.
The right hon. Gentleman is a very distinguished chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. Does he share my concern about the case raised by my hon. Friend Philip Davies about a woman wearing a burqa going through passport control without being stopped? Does he share my concern that if we cannot see somebody’s face, they should not be allowed through passport control until their identity has been established?
If for a person coming into the country, the immigration officer takes the passport, puts it under the equipment provided and believes that it is right and proper for the person to enter the country, they should be able to do so. If the immigration officer said to the woman, “Well, I don’t think you are the person here”, that is a separate issue. I know of no example of somebody refusing to remove their veil when asked to do so to check their passport. The hon. Gentleman is not describing the actions of the woman in such an incident, but those of an immigration officer, which is a completely different issue.
The point remains that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering and I have a clear belief that everybody who comes into this country through passport control wearing a full Islamic veil should be required, compulsorily, to remove the veil to identify themselves. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree? I am disappointed, as he is the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, that he does not seem to agree.
It is the law of the land that the immigration officer has to be satisfied that the person who enters the country is the person who holds the passport. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman had had a long flight. Since he is a witness to history, I do not want to challenge his version of events, but I would rather accept what the immigration officer seems to have done in this case. He or she seems to have been satisfied. If he or she was not satisfied, they would most certainly have said to the person, “I don’t think this is you.”
I think that we need to leave it up to the immigration officer. The hon. Gentleman is many things, but he is not a trained immigration officer, unfortunately. Perhaps we should consider that for the training of future Members of Parliament.
The hon. Member for Kettering talked about the number of people in Kettering who had approached him and called for such legislation. It does not appear to be his idea, but an idea that has come from people in his constituency. We all react to our constituents. Let me tell him what my constituents think of his Bill. The 723 Muslims in Kettering, who represent 0.8% of its population, may have felt that they could not talk to him, but my constituents have had absolutely no problem in entering into a dialogue with me on the subject.
It is absolutely not the case that 723 of my constituents feel unable to approach me. The only difficulty has been that the Kettering Muslim Association has not allowed me to go to one of its meetings to take questions and to discuss and debate the Bill. My door is always open to each and every one of my constituents, whether they are Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian or anything else.
I am delighted to hear it. What I find most strange, from an assiduous constituency MP such as the hon. Member for Kettering, who has among the lowest expenses claims of any Member of this House—I think that he claims nothing, but his claims are certainly very low—is that he should not have used his shoe leather, knocked on the doors of those 723 people in his constituency and asked them about the Bill that he is promoting. When I support a Bill that affects a certain section of my constituents—as this Bill will affect the Muslim community in his area, my area, the area of my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman, the area of my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali and, indeed, in Bury North and Shipley—I go out of my way to ask those constituents for their views so that I have a balanced view before I come to the House.
This is my third intervention on the right hon. Gentleman and I think that he intervened on me four times, so I might have another one up my sleeve. There is absolutely no problem with my dialogue with Muslims in Kettering. I speak to all my constituents all the time and use a great deal of shoe leather. Indeed, shoes are made in Kettering in very large numbers. The only problem is that the Kettering Muslim Association will not allow me to address its members and take their concerns. It is not me who is blocking the dialogue.
Shoes are also made in Leicester, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We cannot afford the Church’s shoes that are made in Kettering, as he can.
The hon. Gentleman has not really answered my question. He is talking about the Kettering Muslim Association. My point is that such a hard-working constituency MP as the hon. Gentleman did not bother to knock on the door of a single one of his Muslim constituents and ask what they thought of the Bill.
What the right hon. Gentleman is saying is simply not true. I knock on the doors of my constituents each and every week, and my postbag on this issue, and my e-mail traffic and telephone calls, has beaten all records on any issue. The idea that I do not have a feel for how my constituents feel about the Bill is, I am afraid, simply misguided.
Order. We have had more than sufficient argument about the number of doors knocked on by Mr Hollobone. That is not the business in hand and we will now resume the debate on the Bill.
I felt I had to give the hon. Gentleman his fourth chance to intervene, but he has still not answered the question and told the House how many doors he has knocked on in respect of the Muslim community.
Let me speak about Leicester East, which has 21,705 Muslims—20% of my constituents. The constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South has even more than that. He is very proud of them, and we are both proud of the multicultural nature of the great city of Leicester. I have received two separate petitions from constituents, one with 700 plus signatures from mosques across Leicester, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Another with 300 signatures comes from Northfields Education Centre. One thousand people have signed petitions opposing what is proposed by the hon. Member for Kettering. That is the largest petition I have received since
I thank all those residents and mosques for their campaign: in particular, Imam Adam from the Jamia mosque in Asfordby street, Imam Khalil from the Al-Bukhari mosque on Loughborough road, Imam Imtiaz from the Masjid Ali on Smith Dorrien road, Imam Yasin from the Masjid Noor in Berner street, and Imam Mogra from the Masjid Umar in Evington road in my hon. Friend’s constituency—I am sure that after this debate he will be on his way to hold a surgery there. A further 50 constituents have e-mailed me, which is the largest number who have e-mailed on an issue so far this year. They may not have e-mailed in Kettering, but they are certainly e-mailing in Leicester.
I shall not list all the mosques and imams who have got in touch with me, but a great number of my constituents have done so and I have received a number of petitions. If the House divides on this Bill I, like my right hon. Friend, will vote against it. Is not the point that those women who have signed the petitions should have the choice of whether or not to wear the veil, in the same way that a Sikh man in Leicester has the choice of whether to wear a turban, and a Hindu woman the choice of whether to wear a bindi on her forehead? This is about the freedom of choice.
It is; that is absolutely right. That is why I am so astonished that the hon. Member for Kettering, that great freedom fighter who has made so many eloquent speeches in this House about the overweening power of the state and who has criticised successive Governments because they were introducing legislation to dictate to people what they should do, should be on the wrong side of this argument. I am surprised that he is not with his hon. Friends the Members for Bury North and for Shipley, in saying, “Let freedom reign.” What he is proposing would affect the freedom of the citizens of this country. I am talking about fully-fledged British citizens who may choose to wear a niqab or burqa and go about their daily business.
At my surgery in Leicester this evening, out of the 60 people I will see, at least one Muslim woman will come dressed in black in a burqa or hijab, and I will be able to see only her eyes. If I am satisfied on the basis of the issues that she puts before me that as a constituent she is entitled to my help, I will give her my help. I will not do what some have suggested Members of Parliament should do and ask her to remove her veil, because that is her choice.
I am not an Islamic scholar—as the hon. Gentleman is not—but I took the trouble of asking a couple of Islamic scholars this morning about the authority for Muslim women dressing in the way that they choose to dress. The Koran instructs both Muslim men and women to dress in a modest way. The clearest verse on the requirement for the hijab is in chapter 24, verses 30 to 31, which ask women to draw their khimar over their bosoms. Two other verses in the Koran concern women’s dress. Verse 31 of the Surah an-Nur contains two commands that particularly relate to women’s dress. The first is that women shall cover all of their beauty except
“what is apparent of it” around men who are not related to them. The second is that women should extend their head coverings to cover the rest of their body, should they choose to do so. Verse 59 of the Surah al-Ahzab commands that women shall wear long, loose outer garments when they go out from their houses. These two verses, taken together, set out three parts of the hijab or modest dress—the headscarf; modest clothes that together with the headscarf cover everything but what has been exempted; and, for outdoors, a modest outer garment to cover the clothes.
The hon. Gentleman is involved in so many important issues of state in this House; he is a great authority on the European Union; and he is here at 2.30 pm almost every day to speak about all these great issues. I often come to listen to him, and we are on the same side on the question of a European referendum—but I will not go into that as it is not mentioned in the Bill. I am therefore astonished that he should want to interfere in the issue of the clothing of Muslim women, and that he feels—somehow—that the fact that a woman chooses to wear a burqa undermines the multicultural nature of this country. What makes this country great is that we have people here from all over the world whose children were born here—like my children were—and who love this country and believe passionately in the values of multiculturalism.
The Minister spends every day of his working life talking about the cultural diversity of our country, which includes the work that is done by the Muslim community. He will be among the first to tell the House when he catches your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, that what won us the Olympics was being able to show London as a mirror to the world. So many different languages and religions all come together in London, and there will never be an Olympic games like ours anywhere on planet Earth. London is special, Leicester is special and Manchester is special, and that makes this country special—[Interruption.] Bradford is special, I should add, as the hon. Member for Shipley leaves the Chamber. It is important that we are careful with the precious gift of multiculturalism that we have been given.
The hon. Member for Kettering may think that this is a modest Bill, but it has provoked enormous controversy in my constituency and among the 2.7 million Muslims nationwide. As my hon. Friend Lyn Brown will know, because she has a large Muslim community in her very diverse constituency, our constituents are at Friday prayers as we speak, so it is unlikely that they are watching this debate, although we will of course send them copies of Hansard afterwards because we want them to see what we have said on their behalf. The fact is, however, that what makes this country special is diversity.
I know that the hon. Gentleman feels that he has done no wrong in introducing his Bill. He is of course an elected Member of Parliament, and he can talk about whatever he wants to talk about in the Chamber. That is another reason why this country is so special. But he has caused controversy, and I am worried about him, because he is normally a very fair and balanced person. I will not go down the route of how many doors that he has knocked on, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I do not want to upset you again, but I think we shall find that, very unusually, he has taken the views of only one section of his constituency. I doubt that he spoke to a single member of the Muslim community about the Bill before presenting it to the House, because if he had done so, he would have been aware of the concerns that would be raised in that community.
I think that I dealt with the issue of security in response to a number of points made by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Shipley. As for the position in the courts, when a judge has required a person to remove a veil that person has, so far, done so. As the hon. Gentleman said, the legal profession is concerned because some of the stuff that goes on in court is not just about voice, and may be about demeanour. I am not suggesting that it is somehow possible to look at someone’s face and know immediately whether that person is telling the truth. After all, the hon. Gentleman misjudged my face earlier: he thought that I was making a funny face, but it was actually my normal face.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but our current system already covers it. In November last year, the Lord Chief Justice initiated a consultation with the judiciary and the Bar to see what they thought about the issue. However, the hon. Gentleman has been unable to cite any case from the tabloids, or from the internet worldwide, in which someone has been asked to remove a face covering and has refused to do so. The only security-related case that can be cited is the one involving Mohammed Ahmed Mohamed, who put on a burqa and left a mosque in Ealing. Ibrahim Magag did not put on a burqa when he went out of his house and hailed a taxi in order to leave the country. It is not as if that is happening every day; it is very exceptional and very unusual. I therefore do not think that the security issue should concern us in the context of the Bill.
Let me make three more points. First, although this may not have been the hon. Gentleman’s intention—he may have presented his Bill because he wanted a wider debate on the issues, or because his constituents were concerned—the Muslim community feel very strongly that it discriminates against members of their faith. As I have said, 20% of my constituents are members of the Muslim faith. Although I am a Catholic, I represent people from different religions, and if someone comes to me and says “This discriminates against me as a Muslim”, I believe that person.
Secondly, there is the far more fundamental issue of the violation of a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear and where she wants to wear it. Thirdly, there is the general point that we should be extremely careful about intervening to tell our citizens what they should wear in this country. There can be no end to that: we shall be on the slippery slope. The hon. Gentleman does not like political correctness—his whole political life has been opposed to it—but he is paving the way for more legislation providing for it.
I think that if the hon. Gentleman reflects, he will realise that rather than putting his Bill to the vote, he should withdraw it and engage in the consultations in which he ought to be engaging in Kettering and throughout the country. If members of the Kettering Muslim Association will not talk to him, I shall invite him to come to Leicester and talk to members of the Federation of Muslim Organisations there. They will tell him exactly what they feel about the subject. I urge him—I beg him—not to force the Bill to a vote. Let us accept that it will not help us to retain the wonderful multicultural country in which we live.
It is a pleasure, as always, to follow Keith Vaz, Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. I agree with much of what he has just said, as I agree with him about the need for this country to have its say in a referendum on whether we remain members of the European Union. I suspect we are on different sides in that argument, however, although we are on the same side in this debate.
The Bill was very well introduced by my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone, with whom I almost always agree. He was supported in bringing the Bill to the House by my hon. Friends the Members for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and I am sorry that they are not able to be in the Chamber today so that we can hear and debate with them their views on this matter.
The Bill deals with a matter which, while we may not like to admit it, is a concern for many people, because it is unusual in this country. Traditionally, of course, it has not been usual for many believers in the Christian religion to cover the front of their face, although, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering said, it was traditional for Christians to cover their heads in going about their everyday business. In my early life I attended a Christian church at which many of the women would cover their heads; they made a special point of wearing a hat in church. Conversely, men were expected to take their hats off. I should declare an interest: I am a practising Christian and a church warden, and in that role still to this day I have sometimes very gently and discreetly had to ask gentlemen to remove their headgear when they enter church wearing a hat, just because of the sensitivities particularly of some of the older members of our congregation.
I am conscious of the fact that other Members have waited very patiently and want to speak on this matter, so I will not use up all the time and will instead try to allow sufficient time for others to speak, but I do want to make two brief points. First, the difficulty with this whole topic is that there are two groups that would be most affected by introducing a general ban on face coverings. In the first of those groups are those whose primary purpose, having committed or intending to commit a crime, is to escape detection by covering their face. I think we all agree that that is wrong, and it would be helpful if there were some way to separate that group from the rest, because we do not want to see that happening.
The second group comprises those who wish to cover their face for religious reasons. As we have heard, there is a debate about whether it is necessary for a female follower of the Islamic religion to wear a veil. I am not an Islamic scholar, and I do not know the rights and wrongs of this matter. There will be all sorts of views on whether that is right or wrong, but from my point of view, that does not really matter. My view is that if that is what they believe to be right, that should be the end of the matter.
Throughout his speech, Keith Vaz kept insinuating that I had not spoken to Muslim constituents about the Bill. On the contrary, I have had lots of conversations about it with Muslims in Kettering. Some of them have made the point that they are embarrassed, as Muslims, by Muslim women going around wearing full-face veils. Does my hon. Friend accept that there are Muslim women in Kettering who have a problem with face coverings?
My hon. Friend makes the good point that there are different views even among the Muslim community on the merits or otherwise of people choosing to cover their face.
I take the view that, regardless of one’s religious belief, we should not ban things just because some people disapprove of them. I will not go into the statistics from the opinion polls, but they suggest that a large majority of British adults agree with the sentiment of my hon. Friend’s Bill, with 61% agreeing with the statement that the burqa should be banned in Britain, and 32% disagreeing. Those figures were taken from a YouGov poll taken last September.
The hon. Gentleman sought to make a comparison with the Christian faith. The Christian faith is very diverse, and includes Greek and Russian Orthodox, Presbyterian, Free Presbyterian and Catholic followers. Similarly, Islam is a diverse faith, given the ways in which Muslims worship their God.
The hon. Gentleman is right. As with most religions, the extent to which someone observes the requirements of their religion can vary from Church to Church, from sect to sect and from individual to individual. Some people go to church every week, or as often as they can. Others who also regard themselves as religious go only once a month or once a year. All, in their own way, will regard themselves as religious people, but their observance might be quite different.
The Bill deals with what is undoubtedly seen as a problem in many sections of our community, but it would be wrong for us to introduce a general ban on face coverings. As my hon. Friend Philip Davies said, clauses 2 and 3 would merit further debate. When an individual is required to remove their face-covering for the purpose of establishing identity, they should have to do so. The same applies when they are on private premises. However, in general terms, I will oppose the Bill this afternoon.
I say gently to Mr Hollobone that he is well known for calling for the cutting of legislation and the peeling back of red tape that restricts the freedoms of the British public, so regardless of what we might think personally about the issue, I am rather surprised that he seeks to regulate in an area where regulation is unlikely to be enforceable.
If this highly illiberal Bill ever made it to the statute book, we would see an increase in the number of people with face coverings, not the decrease that the hon. Gentleman seeks. In a fundamentally British tradition, the introduction of such an illiberal law would encourage civil disobedience and an affinity with those who were seen to be targeted by the measure. In fact, I think that those completely unaffected by the legislation would deliberately don facial coverings in demonstration against this illiberal Act. I confess that when I was a student union president—only a few years ago, obviously—I would have led as many students as possible in demonstration against such an iniquitous law. We would have donned veils, marched, and taken the consequences.
Of course, in some professions and services—for those in hospitals and police forces, or for firefighters, for example—dress codes are prescribed, but that is a very different issue from restricting personal freedom in public places. It is right that the police and other law enforcement agencies have powers to ask individuals to remove face coverings—for example, to remove balaclavas during riots. As far as I am aware, however, this new law is not being called for by the police, and to give the hon. Gentleman his due, he did not suggest that.
The Bill is careful to exempt people obscuring their faces for any activity or reason other than reasons of personal choice or religious belief. The Bill is about singling out Muslim women, telling them how to dress, and threatening them with arrest if they do not comply. In spite of the general wording of this Bill, it is clear that it is designed to target Muslim women who wear the burqa or the niqab, both of which cover the face, as a means of religious or cultural expression. It is important, therefore, that we set this debate in context. According to the 2011 census, Muslims make up just 4.8% of the population of England and Wales, and only a very small number of women in that 4.8% wear the full face veil. In my constituency of West Ham—one of the most ethnically diverse areas of the country, and home to a large Muslim community from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Africa—there is not a significant number, and this is not a significant issue. Nationally, we are talking about a tiny minority of an already small community.
As for the issue of recognition on the streets, surely the hon. Gentleman cannot be demanding that each and every one of us should be instantly recognisable as we walk down the street. Surely he does not want us all to look up as we pass a closed circuit television camera and smile. There is a fine line between demanding facial recognition in all public places, and the realisation of a Big Brother state, and the Bill, I fear, is on the wrong side of it.
Nobody has written to me on this issue at all, as yet.
The worst thing about the Bill is that, even if unintentionally, it targets a minority community in this country and contravenes their freedom of expression, of religion and of free speech. It creates the very divisions it purports to be removing. The Bill will have the effect, whether or not this is recognised by the hon. Member for Kettering, of imprisoning in their own homes the very women he claims he will rescue from oppression. I fear that this Bill may have been motivated in part by a misconception that Muslim women are neither politicised nor capable of making their own choices about what they wear—the Muslim women I meet in West Ham are certainly both.
Let us look at the results of the ban in France, which was implemented in April 2011. There has been only one conviction since its introduction, and I admit that I have a very different view from the hon. Gentleman about what that teaches us. An Open Society Justice Initiative report on the results of the French ban reveals that the majority of Muslim women in France who wore the veil have not stopped wearing it. Those women believe the law to be an affront to their religious rights, and since the ban came in, some have, predictably, started to wear the niqab. Thus, an otherwise law-abiding group have potentially been criminalised and, indeed, barred from participation in public life.
The report also highlights the increased mental health issues that these women face, as well as their social anxiety, their fear and their overwhelming reliance on male relatives, which they did not have before. Their movement has been heavily restricted and they now feel unable to walk freely in public, fearing abuse or attack by members of the public—and possible arrest by a policeman. Far from this law creating social cohesion in
France, these women report “legitimised” Islamaphobic attacks and speak of how, in effect, in passing the law the state has sanctioned racist intolerance and abuse. That law not merely affirmed a wider prejudice against a section of the French community; it emboldened those who seek to divide society and prevent integration. Is that really the kind of society we wish to create in Britain today?
We want to build a society of tolerance, cohesion, understanding and pluralism. The state should not seek to discriminate against its own people on the basis of how they look or dress. In opposing the progress of this damaging Bill, we defend the right of women to make their own independent choices about how they dress. Although I am sure that some who wear the veil will do so in keeping with the values of their own families or relatives, it is equally true that many women wear the veil because of deeply held religious or personal convictions. I will not condone the wearing of anything under the duress of others, but we should recognise that for many Muslim women that is far from what is happening. It is a perfectly consistent position to condemn both those who force women to wear the veil and those who seek to prohibit the wearing of it.
So let us be clear: I do not believe it is for me, or indeed for this House, to decide what women should or should not wear. It is not for the state to be prescriptive on this and, least of all, to criminalise the individual choices of women. This issue is about taking away the freedom of choice from a very small portion of our community. That offends the British values that I hold dear: freedom of speech, fairness and choice.
Some recent high-profile cases have indicated the need, however, for exceptions, whereby the veil should be lifted. I am talking, for example, of the case last year at Blackfriars Crown Court. I welcome the consultation on the issue of wearing the veil in some legal settings, but it is emphatically the responsibility of judges to provide this guidance, and not for this House to intervene. Of course there is a need for identification at the UK border, or in other circumstances for security reasons. That is already provided for in legislation; we do not need to add to it. The vast majority of Muslim women recognise that the needs of security are paramount in certain circumstances and are happy to remove their veil for identification. I welcome the provision of female officers in such cases so that women can comfortably remove the veil to prove their identity. All of those cases are specific, and none provides any excuse for the Government to criminalise wearing the veil in all public places and at all times.
The hon. Gentleman has suggested that he finds the veil offensive to him and to his sense of Britishness, but I do not believe it is reasonable for us to live our lives in the expectation of not being offended. I get offended by some comments from Government Members, by some humour and by all-male game show panels on TV. I get offended on an almost daily basis by something I read in the press, but I do not think I have the right not to be offended. What could be more offensive to a sense of British social cohesion than an arbitrary ban on what some choose to wear?
I remind the House of the irony that this debate takes place a scant week away from international women's day—a day that celebrates the choices and freedoms that this Bill seeks to restrict. We must understand that this is an issue not for the state but of personal identity and of the individual choices of women. We must also understand the damage that such legislation would bring.
This House has a responsibility to lead the work towards strengthening the bonds that tie communities together. It should not stoke the flames of suspicion and fear and the illogical hatred of difference that rip those communities apart.
I will be brief, because my right hon. Friend Sir Gerald Kaufman is keen to say a few words. My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz spoke eloquently on behalf of Leicester, so I do not need to repeat the points he made. I entirely agree with everything he said.
If this House divides on the Bill, I will vote against it, because it has caused considerable distress to many of my constituents. I have had petitions from various mosques and e-mails from many constituents expressing upset and outrage. They fear that the United Kingdom will follow in the footsteps of France and Belgium and ban the niqab. They do not understand how private Members’ Bills work. There is something rather ironic about the hon. Gentleman wanting to follow Europe in this matter.
Quite simply, this is about freedom of choice. It is about the right of women in my constituency to choose whether to wear the niqab. Plenty of them make the choice to wear it, but I suspect that the majority of them probably do not. For those who do, it is right that they should have the choice.
Like my right hon. Friend, I meet such women regularly at my surgeries and at events, and I have no problem communicating with them. They talk to me passionately about the state of the local health service, local schools and local police—the sorts of issues that all MPs get to deal with. I engage with them and talk to them directly. It does not cause me any problems whatever. This is about their freedom of choice. It is the same as a Sikh gentleman having the freedom to wear a turban and a Hindu woman a bindi. People of other faiths have the right to celebrate their religion in my constituency.
I am conscious of time, so I will finish now with a quote from one of my constituents. She speaks and writes eloquently—much better than I ever could. She wrote to me this morning, saying, “As a British Asian girl who was born and brought up in the United Kingdom, I have always been led to believe that England is a free country, making us swell with pride and gratitude that, unlike many other countries, I am able to practise my religion without enduring any difficulty.” I could not have put it better myself. I oppose the Bill.
Mr Hollobone, with whom I worked closely in the all-party parliamentary group on Palestine, talked about the traditional British way of life. I do not know what the traditional British way of life is. This country has been conquered and inhabited by waves of immigrants ever since the Romans came here. Manchester is called Manchester because the Romans went there and they had a camp, which was castra, which became the suffix chester. We have had the Danes and the Norwegians. Of my constituents, 40% originate from Ireland. They are as loyal and as British as anybody else. They worship in a Catholic church. I have a large number of Muslims in my constituency. I do not have so many Jews, but I am a Jew myself. I was brought up in Jewish surroundings with kosher food, going to Hebrew school and the synagogue on Friday evening and Saturday morning. Is that the traditional British way of life? It is part of the way of life. The way in which Muslims live in this country is another part of the British way of life. It is not for us to tell them how they should live.
I was mugged here in London by two muggers with balaclavas over their faces. There was no breach of the law in their wearing the balaclavas as distinct from the fact that they stole a great many things from me. The hon. Gentleman talks about identification when one is voting, but people are not identified when they go to the polling station on the basis of their faces. We do not have photo ID in this country. They are identified by their names and addresses. Muslim women wearing the veil vote in exactly the same way as everybody else.
The hon. Gentleman is an honourable gentleman, and while he says that he is doing this without pressure from constituents, there is a possibility that if he had 7,000 Muslim constituents he might have thought up another subject for his private Member’s Bill. It is not a question of us being here to obey our constituents whatever they say, and to reflect their views whatever their views may be. If constituents tell me that they are in favour of capital punishment, as no doubt a number are, I will not vote for capital punishment because some constituents want it. If constituents of mine are in favour of fox hunting and hunting with dogs, I will not listen to them just because they are constituents who may or may not vote for me.
This is a variegated country with variegated religions. When the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill went through the House, we had a deliberate provision with regard to stop and search that Sikh men should not be required to remove their turbans by the police. If one is going to say that people change or conceal their appearance, ultra-Orthodox Jewish women are required to wear wigs. They are not allowed to show their own hair. People live in different ways because this is a marvellous democracy with freedom of choice. Not many of the Muslim women in my constituency wear the veil, but I will stand up for their right to do so, because that is their choice. We do not live in a country in which the law tells people how to dress.
I have not received any representations whatsoever in favour of the Bill, but I have received many that oppose it. However, even if I had not received a single such representation, I would still oppose it, out of principle. I would oppose it because we do not live in a democracy in which people can be restricted in the way they conduct their lives.
A little while ago Philip Davies introduced a ten-minute rule Bill that would have required the labelling of halal and kosher food. I opposed it and had it chucked out, and I did so because small minorities have a particular right to be recognised and regarded. In this country we are ruled by majorities, which is absolutely right, but that does not mean that the minority must be overruled by the majority. I have received no indication whatsoever that people will be lining the streets to cheer the hon. Member for Kettering.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way when he is so short of time. I recently asked a woman who was wearing a veil why she felt the need to cover her face, and she replied that it made her feel closer to God. Is that not her choice?
Every one of us, from our constituencies and from our daily lives, has the ability to contribute validly and constructively to the debate, as my hon. Friend has just done.
I applaud what my right hon. Friend has said. Does he not think that the Bill, were it to become law, would be the start of a very slippery slope and that we would be insisting on a kind of secularist conformity that would be damaging to the diversity of our communities, particularly constituencies of the sort that he and I have the honour to represent?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend.
Over the years we have had too many restrictions on our civil liberties for all kinds of reasons. I might as well tell the House that when I was a junior Minister in the Labour Government I nearly resigned when, after the Birmingham bombings, Roy Jenkins introduced what I regarded to be oppressive legislation relating to the containment of terrorism. He did that for constituency reasons—he was a Birmingham MP. We are all subject to pressures, but the main reason I am proud to be British is that this is a country of tolerance. Indeed, tolerance is the wrong word. I do not believe that we have the right to “tolerate” women who wear the veil or to make a judgment on them, because it is their choice. I have all kinds of choices about the way I live my life, and people have the right to have opinions about them.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about the dangers of such legislation leading to more Islamophobic and racist attacks against women, which have been growing for a long time against the British Muslim community? Does he agree that if the Bill is supported, although I completely oppose it—
The debate stood adjourned (
Ordered, That the debate be resumed on