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Short Title, Commencement, Extent And General Saving

Volume 408: debated on Friday 11 July 2003

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I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 3, line 13, leave out from 'on' to end of line 14 and insert

'the day after this Act receives Royal Assent.'.
The House will be relieved to know that this is the last of my amendments. Probably, it is the one that either the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), the promoter of the Bill or the Minister could accept because to me, the layman in all this, it is the obvious thing to do. Clause 8(2) says:
"This Act comes into force on such day as the Secretary of State may by order made by statutory instrument appoint."
It would be out of the spirit of the debate if I were to seek to repeat some of the things that I said earlier on the Ragwort Control Bill. Suffice it to say that I have throughout my 16 years here been deeply suspicious of Governments—all persuasions, I hasten to add for the Minister, if he did not hear me say it before—introducing such provisions. This is not an attack on his Government; it is probably an attack on all Governments. I am deeply suspicious of provisions that say a Government may do something, because experience teaches us that they usually do not. I would prefer "must" or "shall".

We accept that the Bill is important and addresses a nasty problem that needs urgent action. I do not like the idea that we pass the Bill, it becomes an Act, we all say that it is wonderful, but there is a provision that says that it will take effect only as and when a Secretary of State gets around to saying that it will. I cannot for the life of me think of any good reason why the Bill does not say that it shall come into effect the day after, the day or even the moment that it receives Royal Assent. If it needs doing urgently and addresses a real problem, why not get on with it? Having passed the measure and applauded the hon. Lady, why have a provision saying that we must wait for a Minister, of whatever political persuasion, to do something about it? I should be grateful if the Minister justified why the amendment was not acceptable. If it is acceptable, I hope that he will say that he is happy to accept it.

I understand the desire of the hon. Gentleman to make sure that the Act comes into force as soon as possible, but I hope that I can reassure him. We all want the increased protection that the Bill will bring to be put into place as soon as possible. The disadvantage of the commencement date proposed by the amendment is that it would allow too little time for law enforcement agencies, health professionals, social services and others involved with child protection—and, crucially, the practising communities themselves—to become fully informed about how the new law will operate.

We take this issue seriously and we know from discussions with those who work with the practising communities that proper time for preparation and raising awareness is crucial. Bringing the Act into force by order means that the implementation period can be used for those agencies to promote the new law and its effects before it comes into force. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will bring the Act into force as soon as is practical. Our aim would be to do so within three months of Royal Assent. It is important that there is flexibility and I hope that, with that reassurance, the hon. Gentleman will agree to withdraw the amendment.

I am grateful to the Minister, who has probably persuaded me of the exact opposite of what he hoped. Only his mention of three months might save us from catastrophe. I am conscious that dividing the House would have the unintended consequence of bringing things crashing to a halt. That is not what I want to do, and that is the real reason why I shall not press the amendment to the bitter end.

There is an alternative comment to, "We need time to consult." I see a danger of the following happening. Following Royal Assent, people will go out and say, "In three months' time, these activities will be illegal." We will have given people three months' notice to get on with it, and we could have a great campaign and an outbreak of the activities that we are trying to stop. I know why the Minister said that we need time to spread the word, and I know that that is sensible, but there is another way around it.

It would be more realistic to bring the law into effect and say that we will phase in enforcement over the period of consultation, preparation and explanation, but if anyone were to decide that that was a justification for organising these activities in the period, we would have the means to prosecute them. Doing it the Minister's way has a serious danger. However, three months is three months, and we have that on the record, which is hugely helpful. I shall not press this matter, because it is important. Destroying the Bill is the last thing I want to do, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

1.53 pm

I beg to move that the Bill be read the Third time.

I shall be brief, as I have been at the bottom of a pile in this House, waiting to propose a Bill. I thank everybody who has taken part in enabling the Bill to reach this stage. The Bill cannot solve the problem of FGM overnight; legislation on the issue has to go hand in hand with educating the practising communities to abandon FGM and to raise awareness of the law.

Neither will it necessarily remove some of the barriers to prosecution. Many of the victims are too young and vulnerable, or too afraid, to report offences because they are under pressure from their families or their communities to remain silent. We must create a climate in which victims will be able to come forward and receive the help and support that they need to give evidence. Increasing the maximum penalty reflects the seriousness with which this appalling practice is viewed and I hope that it will have a greater deterrent effect than the present maximum of five years.

As the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) said in Committee, if the Bill succeeds in sparing even one child or young woman the appalling suffering that FGM causes, it will have been worth while. I therefore commend it to the House.

1.54 pm

I certainly want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)—as, I am sure, do Members on both sides of the House—on the way in which she has steered this Bill through the House of Commons. It is very important legislation and a further example of her efforts to uphold human rights in this country and throughout the world.

Female genital mutilation is a barbaric practice that is already illegal in this country thanks, I might say, to the pioneering work of the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), who introduced the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. This practice cannot be justified on cultural, medical or any other grounds. It causes extreme pain and suffering and often leads to permanent health problems. For all of those reasons, the Government have supported the Bill very strongly.

The extent of the extra-territorial jurisdiction provided for in the Bill is unusual. However, unlike some offences that are illegal in this country but legal abroad, the offence of FGM is of international concern, and the UK has a proper interest in suppressing it. The practice is rightly and widely regarded as a form of child abuse, although those who belong to the communities that practise it may not see it as such. It is right for us to strengthen our law in this way—we simply cannot allow people with a close connection to the United Kingdom to evade the law by temporarily leaving the country.

Of course, as others have said today and in Committee, legislation alone will not eradicate FGM, which is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of the communities that practise it. Educating them about the dangers and unacceptability of such a brutal practice is the best way to break the cycle of mutilation. That is why the Government support, and help to fund, organisations such as Forward and the Agency for Culture and Change Management, which do such valuable work at grass-roots level. And as I have already said, the Department for International Development also funds and supports work to eradicate FGM in other countries.

Alongside education, we need to promote greater awareness of the law. Between Royal Assent and the legislation's being brought into force, health professionals and others will work with those communities that practise FGM in order that they become aware of its provisions.

I conclude by renewing my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley on bringing the Bill this far. I commend it to the House and I hope that its passage through another place will be equally successful.

1.57 pm

I, too, take this opportunity, on the Opposition's behalf, to congratulate the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). She has had a pretty memorable 12 months in this place—indeed, I saw her on television the other day, being awarded the prize for Back Bencher of the year. That was for other things, but I hope that she will also remember the past 12 months for this Bill and what she is seeking to achieve through it.

I want briefly to acknowledge the work members of the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health—which includes people from both sides of the House—under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty). That group has been particularly active in lobbying on this issue. And I join the Minister in once again congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), who first brought this issue to the House's attention in 1985.

Before I finish I want briefly to discuss one point. Of course, there have been no prosecutions under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985—although two doctors have been struck off the register—so we must ask whether the Bill will lead to an increased likelihood of successful prosecutions in this country. There are already great difficulties in communicating the law to immigrant communities and in taking action to protect girls from this practice. An increase in the maximum penalty or the creation of new offences will be academic if knowledge is poor and prosecution remains almost impossible to obtain.

In general, however, we very much welcome the Bill, which provides a valuable opportunity to improve the protection of girls and women in the UK. The House's handling of it is a welcome reflection of this issue's importance and the seriousness with which it deserves to be treated. I commend the Bill to the House.

1.59 pm

The Liberal Democrats also welcome the Bill. On behalf of all health and social services professionals in this country, I would like to thank the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) for choosing this issue when she won the ballot for a private Member's Bill. The subject has exercised many people for the last 20 years and the problem has escalated during that time. As the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) said, I hope that the Bill will lead to prosecutions. Only by that means will we manage to highlight the problem. I thank the hon. Lady—and everyone else who has helped to pilot the Bill through the House—from the bottom of my heart.

2 pm

I, too, will be brief, because we have other business to consider. Having perhaps worried the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) by my amendments, I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate her on performing a huge service to all political parties and the whole House. She has helped this country to give a lead to other countries to take firm action against what the Minister described as a "barbaric practice"—I could not think of a better phrase myself. It is indeed extremely barbaric.

On the number of prosecutions to which the Bill will lead, I would like to think that just one prosecution will get the message out pretty firmly and pretty smartish. If this practice continues, I certainly hope that there will be one prosecution and, if it continues after the first, I hope that there will be lots more prosecutions. We must take action; we must prosecute; we must send out the message. On the issue of the appropriate penalty, I was relieved that my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) did not press his amendment to reduce it, because I would have been forced to debate whether 14 years was adequate. I accept the hon. Lady's wisdom on that.

The Bill is, sadly, necessary, and it is timely. I commend the hon. Lady and I commend the Bill to the other place. The quicker it gets on the statute book, the better.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.