An MP was investigated by police after he called for a ban on Islamic veils during a debate in Parliament.
Philip Hollobone had described the face coverings worn by some devout Muslim women as the “religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head with two holes for the eyes”.
He defended his comments in a local newspaper and then found that he had been reported to the police for inciting racial hatred, by the head of a taxpayer-funded equality group.
Mr Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering in Northamptonshire, was questioned over the telephone by officers and a file was sent to the Crown Prosecution Service, but he was later told that no action would be taken.
However he said it was outrageous that a complaint had been made about what he said in Westminster Hall, which is covered by Parliamentary privilege to protect MPs from prosecution for libel.
Mr Hollobone, who is best-known for being Britain’s cheapest MP as he employs no staff and has minimal office costs, said: “I refused to be silenced by threats of prosecution and I am going to speak out on what is a perfectly legitimate topic for debate.
“There will be those who agree and those who disagree and that is fine. What we cannot have in this country are MPs being threatened when they speak out on contentious issues.”
He said he had no criticism of Northamptonshire Police, who were duty bound to investigate any allegations they received.
But he described the behaviour of Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council, which was behind the complaint, as “outrageous”. In 2007-08 it received £47,000 from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and £98,581 from five local councils.
“I do have huge criticisms of the Northamptonshire Rights & Equality Council, which is a taxpayer-funded organisation and should not be spending time trying to prosecute Members of Parliament,” he said.
Anjona Roy, the REC’s chief executive, said she contacted police by email after her organisation received complaints about the MP’s comments.
She also said that the incident had been raised at a meeting of the County Hate Incident Forum, whose members include local authority and police representatives, and it had been agreed that a complaint was appropriate.
Ms Roy said she took offence at Mr Hollobone’s likening of the head-to-toe Muslim covering known as a burka to a paper bag.
“I think the majority of people would find that quite offensive. If you disagree with people wearing burkas, there are other ways of putting it.”
But she said she also complained about his account in a local newspaper article of how he saw a Muslim woman whose face was covered and decided that she must reject British society. Ms Roy said it was the “essence of prejudice” to assume he knew what she was thinking just by looking at her clothes.
During a Westminster Hall debate about immigration on February 2nd, Mr Hollobone had called for a ban on the burka, which leaves only a mesh screen for the wearer to see through, and the niqab, another type of Islamic face covering the face but leaving the eyes visible.
“It is the religious equivalent of going around with a paper bag over your head with two holes for the eyes. In my view, it is offensive to want to cut yourself off from face-to-face contact with, or recognition by, other members of the human race. We should certainly look at ways to tackle that issue.”
Jack Straw, now the Justice Secretary, caused controversy in 2006 when he called for Muslim women to stop covering their faces in his constituency surgeries, although this was partly down to the fact that he is hard of hearing.
The French government is trying to ban the burka on the grounds that it goes against the secular state’s values.