Birmingham politician Salma Yaqoob yesterday branded Jack Straw "irresponsible and sinister" over his campaign to persuade Muslim women in this country to remove their face veils.

Coun Yaqoob accused Mr Straw of playing politics with the issue in an bid to raise his profile in advance of contesting the deputy leadership of the Labour Party.

He was trying to build up a climate of fear by raising something that was not a problem, she added.

Coun Yaqoob, a Muslim, who wears a head scarf rather then a face veil, said Mr Straw appeared to be ignoring the right of women to choose how to dress.

The remarks by Mr Straw, the Labour MP for Blackburn and Leader of the House of Commons, provoked a storm of protest among Islamic leaders.

He confessed to feeling uncomfortable at his constituency surgery talking to someone whose face he could not see and he made a point of asking women to remove their veil.

Mr Straw described the full veil as a "visible statement of separation and difference", which was bound to make better, positive relations between two communities more difficult.

He referred to an "increasing trend" of Muslim women wearing full face veils and he was worried about the impact on community relations.

However, Mr Straw also "defended absolutely" the right of women to wear veils if they wished to do so.

Coun Yaqoob (Respect Sparkbrook) said: "I do question the timing of his comments. I don't think it is unconnected with the fact that he is vying for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party and he wants to be seen as tough and making a stance.

"It is very worrying. There is a range of feelings about whether women should wear a face veil. Only a tiny majority of Muslim women do. A higher proportion wear a head scarf and some don't wear either. It is about a woman's right to choose."

Coun Yaqoob said she felt uncomfortable about Mr Straw's intervention. He had behaved in a "sinister" fashion by raising the issue publicly.

She added: "The veil is only a barrier in people's minds should they choose to make it a barrier. People just need to get on with their lives.

"A climate of fear is being built up by politicians. It is the politicians who are putting up barriers and making problems out of things that don't need to be problems."

Coun Yaqoob said she did not approve of strict regulations in some Islamic countries.

"In Saudi Arabia they force women to wear a veil, but that is wrong because it undermines a women's right not to wear a veil," she added.

She was concerned that Mr Straw's comments could fuel aggression, given the heightened tension toward Muslim communities in Britain at the moment.

"For a senior politician like Jack Straw to come out with this, I feel dismay rather than anger.

"There has to be a degree of responsibility in the current climate. I don't think this is about a genuine debate on community cohesion."