03/11/2013 09:21 GMT | Updated 03/11/2013 09:23 GMT

Ken Clarke Describes Muslim Women In Face Veil As Wearing 'A Kind Of Bag'

Britain's Minister of State for Justice Ken Clarke speaks to the media during a news conference at the Council of Europe Conference in Brighton, England, Thursday, April 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant, Pool)

Former justice secretary Ken Clarke has said Muslim women giving evidence in court should not be able to wear the face veil in court because it is almost impossible to have a proper trial when they are "in a kind of bag".

Clarke, now a minster without portfolio, said body language plays a vital part in allowing jurors to assess if a witness is telling the truth and insisted he could not see how that was possible "when they are facing somebody who is veiled".

"It's a most peculiar costume for people to adopt in the 21st century," he added.

It comes after a row about the use of face coverings in public institutions and a ruling in September that a Muslim woman will be allowed to stand trial while wearing a full-face veil but must remove it while giving evidence.

Mr Clarke, a barrister by profession, told Radio 4's World This Weekend: "I don't think a witness should be allowed to give evidence from behind a veil."

He added: "It's almost impossible to have a proper trial if one of the persons (is) in a kind of bag."

Mr Clarke, renowned for being one of the most liberal members of his party, said women should be able to wear "what the devil they like" but in a courtroom the judge and jury "have got to be able to see the face of the witness".

Mr Clarke called for a "clear rule" for courts but insisted his comments were "not based on any trace of Islamophobia".

Home Secretary Theresa May has previously said it is for women to ''make a choice'' about what clothes they wear, including veils, although there will be some circumstances when it will be necessary to ask for them to be removed.

Former home secretary Jack Straw, who sparked debate over the face veil in 2006, called in September for new laws to ban the covering in court.

Muslim women have encouraged debate on the issue, but insist they must be part of any discussion about new laws governing their right to wear Islamic dress.

The Blackburn MP said a female defendant's face should be visible throughout the whole trial.