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Offence Of Advocating Female Genital Mutilation

Volume 408: debated on Friday 11 July 2003

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

  • A person is guilty of an offence if he advocates the practice of female genital mutilation for any reason other than those specified in subsection (2) of section 1.
  • For the purposes of determining whether an offence has been committed under this section, it is immaterial whether the advocacy took the form of spoken or written words.
  • For the purposes of determining whether an offence has been committed under this section it is immaterial whether there are any religious, cultural or ritual reasons.'.—[Mr. Wilshire.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    1.14 pm

    I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

    The events that take place on a Friday morning are many and various, and sometimes debates are held for reasons other than the real purpose of the Bill under discussion. On this occasion, I start by making it clear that the amendments in my name are in no way intended to delay or water down the Bill. I tabled them because I believe that some issues need exploring.

    Before I speak to the new clause, I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on choosing a very worthy cause that has the support of the overwhelming majority of people not only in this House, but in the country at large. I have no hesitation whatever in supporting everything in the Bill. These are very serious matters. The Bill deals with what is, sadly, a growing problem in the United Kingdom and a huge problem elsewhere in the world. It is absolutely right that an individual Member should take it up in a private Member's Bill as a cause that needs our urgent attention.

    The various amendments, of which the new clause is the first, are attempts to explore whether even at this stage or in another place, there may be some scope for strengthening the Bill. I can always understand why private Members' Bills generally stop short of going as far as the promoter and probably a lot of other hon. Members would like. If that is so in respect of the amendments, it would be helpful if the hon. Member for Cynon Valley or the Minister could explain the difficulties associated with the various changes that I have proposed. I did so in order that we may discuss them rather than because I desperately want them to be accepted. I think that the underlying principle might be helpful, but if not, I shall seek to withdraw my proposals without hesitation.

    New clause 1 is about advocating the practice of female genital mutilation—or promoting it, if that word is preferred. I tend to be associated with promoting, as I was the hon. Member who introduced what is now known as section 28, which deals with the promotion of homosexuality. Any debate about advocating or promoting is therefore one with which I am horribly familiar, and I know that the matter raises some issues that have to be thought about.

    The Bill's starting point is to make it an offence to carry out any act of female genital mutilation. That is quite right: the act itself is the primary target. Clauses 2 and 3 address the issue of assisting, procuring, helping and so on. That is absolutely right. It is a separate issue to discuss helping and assisting in this country or abroad, so I shall come to that later. However, I wonder why the Bill is silent on advocating the practice with which it deals. One of my amendments focuses on mental health. If mental health is a justification for the practice of female genital mutilation, surely the Bill should take into account somebody who advocates the practice as relating not only to the cultural and ritual reasons to which the hon. Lady already refers, but to religious reasons as well.

    I wonder why the Bill as it stands shies away from any reference to religious justification. I know the sensitivities that are involved, but I have a sense that, if it is not made an offence to advocate, particularly for religious reasons, that this practice enables somebody to be more respectful to their god or guru, it might be possible that, at some stage, somebody will be so mentally traumatised by that advocacy and so committed to the beliefs that are being advocated that the result of it not being possible to go through the procedure will mean that she becomes mentally ill. If that is so, the person who has done the advocating should be caught by the Bill.

    That is the issue that I am raising. I am very conscious of the fact that, if we are to get involved in a debate about advocating or promoting—we can use whichever word is preferred—we will enter into a debate about the freedom of speech. I accept that we could also enter into a debate about the freedom of religion. However, in this country, we have no hesitation in saying that incitement to racial hatred is an offence. In a growing number of situations, freedom of speech is not absolute. There are certain practices that people should not be allowed to advocate; given the seriousness of the problem, this is one such practice.

    New clause 1 tries to strengthen the Bill by bringing another activity into the group of activities that it seeks to stop. It does not in any way affect the others: it has nothing to say about doing or assisting in the act. The Bill could contain a loophole; I am merely trying to close it. I shall be interested to hear the thoughts of the hon. Member for Cynon Valley.

    I am grateful for the spirit in which the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is approaching the Bill. I hope that I can assure him that the concern that prompted his new clause is unnecessary, because the criminal law on incitement is sufficient to meet it. To incite any of the prohibited acts in clause 1 would be an offence in common law, even if that incitement had no effect. For the purpose of determining whether a person is guilty of inciting a criminal offence, it does not matter what form the incitement takes, so subsection (2) of the new clause is superfluous. It is not necessary to go beyond what the law of incitement already provides, nor, given the need to protect the fundamental right to freedom of expression guaranteed by article 10 of the European convention on human rights, would it be appropriate to do so. I hope that in view of that, the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his new clause.

    It is not my intention to detain the House, but I wish to confirm what my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) says about the sufficiency of the criminal law in this area. It does not matter what form the incitement takes, nor even matter whether it has an effect. Inciting any of the prohibited acts in clause 1 would be an offence in common law, as she suggests. Although I appreciate that the motivation of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is to try to improve the Bill, new clause 1 is unnecessary.

    I, too, appreciate the spirit in which the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) is approaching the Bill. Perhaps I can put his mind at rest even further by saying that my experience in reproductive health and in international development—I share the latter with the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)—tells me that the practice is not advocated by religious groups, nor even by particular ethnic groups: that is what makes it so difficult to deal with. It is a practice that has grown up within family groups and village groups; nobody quite knows its origin. If we were to prosecute everyone who encouraged it, we would probably end up with prisons full of grandmothers. That is how the practice is perpetuated. It is important to say at an early stage of our deliberations that it is not a religious or a cultural practice in the sense of being confined to a particular group, but a tradition that has grown up in various parts of the world. It must be regarded as such and dealt with very sensitively; it is certainly not a practice that is publicly advocated.

    I am grateful for the contributions that have been made. If I had suggested that a specific religion advocated the practice, I would be wrong. I hasten to tell the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) that I did not intend to give that impression. I have been involved in such issues generally, although not in the specific matter that we are discussing. When considering matters of tradition, where does tradition end and ritual begin? Where does tradition end and cultural activity start? Where do tradition and religion merge? I would not care to reach a conclusion on those questions. I simply say that, in new clause 1, I would be willing to bracket religion with culture, tradition or whatever word the hon. Lady would like to use. As sure as day follows night, somebody will advance a religious argument one day. However, I do not suggest that any religion in the world is currently involved in the practice. I put the record straight on that.

    The experts tell me that the common law of incitement is adequate. Who am I to dispute that? I am not lawyer and if lawyers say that it is adequate, it is all right by me. However, I believe that it was also said that it would be better to use common law than to get involved in article 10 of the European convention on human rights. Perhaps Hansard will bear me out on that. That prompts the question of whether article 10 is justifiable if it allows someone to advocate female genital mutilation. I am not comfortable with that. If it was claimed that it would be better not to pursue the debate on freedom of speech, perhaps we should consider discussing article 10. However, that matter is not before us.

    I am glad that I raised the matter and that I was reassured that it can be tackled in a different way. If that is so, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

    Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.