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Kettering MP faces legal action for discrimination

Philip Hollobone MP

Leading human rights organisation, Liberty, has threatened a Conservative MP with legal action for unlawful discrimination after he issued a refusal to meet any constituents attending his surgeries wearing a niqab.

Kettering MP said if women didn’t want to remove their veil, he would ask them to write to him instead of a face-to-face meeting.

In an interview with OBV, Mr Hollobone confirmed that he would not be issuing a response to Liberty’s advice and will continue to advocate ‘other means’ of communication for women who attended his surgeries and refused to remove their niqab.

He said:

“I would not turn them away; I would arrange other means of communicating with them.”

Liberty director, Shami Chakrabarti asserted that the organisation’s lawyers would be happy to represent any of Mr Hollobone constituents that he refuses to meet because they are veiled. She said:

“I think that Britain is a country where religion is a legitimate subject for debate but not a lawful basis for discrimination. I’m really horrified at the suggestion that perhaps quite vulnerable women including some for whom English might not be a first language might be turned away from an MP’s surgery when they need help.”

“My legal colleagues at Liberty have written to the honourable member concerned and reminded him of his legal obligations under the Equalities Act 2006 which makes clear that when you are offering services to the public, you cannot discriminate on the grounds on religious observance. So I hope that he may listen to the law – if not just to a bit of common sense.”

Mr Hollobone is also attempting to bring in a private members bill to ban women from wearing the burkha or niqab in public. The MP was reported to the police in March 2010 after he said wearing the burkha was;

“the religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head with two holes for the eyes.”

In an interview with the Independent newspaper, earlier this month, Mr Hollobone said:

“I just take what I regard as a common-sense view. If you want to engage in normal, daily, interactive dialogue with your fellow human beings, you can only really do this properly by seeing each other’s face.”

Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects a fundamental freedom to manifest religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance.

The Equality Act 2006 prohibits both direct and indirect discrimination on the grounds of a person’s religion or belief; a prohibition that applies to, amongst others, those providing a service or who have functions of a public nature.

In the letter to Mr Hollobone, Liberty lawyers also highlighted that because his ban would only affect Muslim women, it would also amount to indirect sex discrimination. James Welch, Legal Director for Liberty said:

“Here [in the UK], the struggle for religious freedom was vital to the struggle for democracy itself. Common sense and decency suggest that neither freedom nor integration is achieved by cutting people off from their elected representatives or arresting them for walking down the street.”

“We have written to Mr Hollobone to advise him of the law as enacted by Parliament and feel confident that no well-advised Honourable Member would seek to breach it by meeting with Constituents on a discriminatory basis.” He concluded.

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