The Daily Telegraph reports that Home Office minister Jeremy Browne, a Liberal Democrat, has called for a “national debate” about whether the secular law should prevent young women from having the veil “imposed” on them. Mr Browne said that he was “instinctively uneasy” about banning behaviour but suggested that such a measure might still be necessary to ensure freedom of choice for girls in Muslim communities. The Telegraph quotes him as saying, “I think this is a good topic for national debate. People of liberal instincts will have competing notions of how to protect and promote freedom of choice”. This comes hard on the heels of last week’s row about Birmingham Metropolitan College’s ban on students, staff and visitors wearing veils, which we reported here (see the second item). It was seen simply as discrimination against Muslims – and it was subsequently rescinded.
Given that Browne’s comments are about as non-committal as one could get, they may possibly have been sparked off by the failure to make any progress with the Face Coverings (Prohibition) Bill, a private Member’s bill introduced by Philip Hollobone (Kettering, Cons). It was third on the Commons Order Paper on Friday 6 September, it was not debated at all and it was objected to when it was called over at the moment of interruption at 2.30 pm.
It is highly unlikely that the Hollobone bill will get any further but, evidently, there are elements within the Coalition Government that feel that the matter should be ventilated by some means or other. Whether a “national debate” – which usually brings out the swivel-eyed loons on both sides of any argument – is a helpful way to proceed is another matter entirely.