Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott yesterday warned that the debate over the wearing of the veil by Muslim women could damage community relations.
Mr Prescott said that Jack Straw, the Leader of the Commons, had been right to raise the issue, insisting it should not be a "no go area for debate".
But he voiced concern that it could also lead to "considerable difficulties" in terms of community relations.
"I think this debate does open it up - thank goodness Jack has done that," he said.
"But I fear people might use it in a more prejudiced way and I am concerned it may damage relations rather than improve them. Let's have the debate but the argument can go either way."
Mr Straw sparked outrage in wide sections of the Muslim community last week when he described the veil as a "visible statement of separation".
He also disclosed that he asked women wearing a veil to remove it when they visited his constituency surgery in Blackburn as he found it was a barrier to communication.
Mr Prescott revealed that he discussed the issue with Mr Straw earlier this year.
"To be fair to Jack, I talked to him three months ago about this and he expressed that view and I expressed my concern," he said.
He acknowledged that Mr Straw, whose constituency has a large Muslim population was very knowledgeable about the issues.
"He probably knows more about that relationship than any other member of the Cabinet but, basically, I do fear when you emphasise separation there is a fear that, in the general public, somehow that shouldn't happen," he said.
And Mr Prescott said that he would not follow Mr Straw's example and ask women visiting him to remove her veil.
"I think a woman who wants to wear a veil - why shouldn't she. It is her choice. It is a cultural difference but it is her choice," he said. "If somebody comes into my constituency, whether they are wearing a skull cap or wearing a turban or very dark glasses, I'm not going to ask them to remove it. I think you can communicate with them."
However Mr Straw received backing for his intervention from the minister responsible for community cohesion, race and faith.
Communities and Local Government Minister Phil Woolas said that Muslim women who veil their faces risked provoking a climate of "fear and resentment" which played into the hands of the far right.
In an article for the Sunday Mirror, he urged Muslims to show understanding for the views of non-Muslims who found the veil "frightening and intimidating".
"It can be hard to tell whether women wear the veil as an expression of their faith or because they are compelled to do so," he said. "Most British-born Muslims who wear it, do so as an assertion of their identity and religion. This can create fear and r esentment among non-Muslims and lead to discrimination.
"Muslims then become even more determined to assert their identity, and so it becomes a vicious circle where the only beneficiaries are racists like the BNP."
Former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major said he would not have asked constituents to remove their veil and would have left the issue "well alone".
He said: "I understand why Jack Straw said what he did and there's nothing anti-Muslim about Jack Straw and I think people who allege that are just plainly wrong. It's a matter of personal faith for them and I think I would have left that well alone."
Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said she would not askwomen to remove their veils but admitted that she had regarded the veil as a symbol of women's oppression, but changed her mind after meeting a Muslim woman in her Leicester West constituency. ..SUPL: