Cameron warning over veil debate

Conservative leader David Cameron has warned of the danger of politicians “piling in” to the debate about the Muslim veil.

He was speaking after Aishah Azmi, a Muslim primary school teacher suspended for refusing to take off the full veil in front of male teachers, lost her case arguing that the move amounted to discrimination.

An employment tribunal backed the decision by Headfield Church of England junior school in Dewsbury to suspend Ms Azmi after concerns were raised that children had difficulty understanding her because they could not see her face.

But the tribunal awarded her £1,100 compensation for the way the case was handled by Kirklees education authority, for “injury to her feelings”, and the judgment also rebuked politicians for commenting on the case while it was still proceeding.

In a press conference afterwards, Ms Azmi warned ministers’ intervention “makes me fearful of the consequences for Muslim women in this country who want to work”.

She said: “Muslim women who wear the veil are not aliens. Politicians need to recognise that what they say can have a very dangerous impact on the lives of the minorities they treat as outcasts.”

In an interview on ITV’s Frost Tonight Mr Cameron noted: “I think there is a danger of politicians piling in to have their ten pence-worth and really they have to ask themselves whether this is having an overall good effect or not.”

Since Jack Straw said he asked Muslim constituents to remove their veil when they came to see him in his Blackburn surgery, a series of ministers have weighed into the row, and Tony Blair this week said the veil was a “mark of separation”.

Last night social exclusion minister Hilary Armstrong told BBC One’s Question Time that it was “very difficult to actually wear a veil and participate in everything in our society”.

The former Labour chief whip said: “Those who decide to wear the veil just make it that much more difficult for their neighbours, anybody that they’re talking to, to really feel that they are sharing values and so on with them.”

Mr Cameron said Mr Straw had raised the issue in a “calm, reasonable, moderate way”, but stressed: “I am not sure we can have some national veils policy.”

He said he had “great sympathy” for the Dewsbury school, saying: “It seems to me there isn’t a teaching in Islam which says you have to wear the veil in front of children and, in terms of teaching, communication is vitally important.”

Jim Dodds, Kirklees council’s cabinet minister for education, said last night: “The school and the local authority had to balance the rights of the children to receive the best quality education possible and Mrs Azmi’s desire to express her cultural beliefs.

“The decision that Mrs Azmi should not wear a veil while communicating with children in class was taken after a monitoring period where the effect of wearing the veil on teaching and learning was studied.”

Labour MP Shahid Malik said the ruling was a victory for “common sense”.