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Female Genital Mutilation

Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013

It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone, which I have done on many occasions.

I am delighted to have secured this important debate on what I believe to be a national scandal, with thousands of victims violated and failed every year. Although the scandalous practice of female genital mutilation is shrouded in secrecy, the Government estimate that 20,000 girls under 15 in England and Wales could be at high risk of FGM. That is more than 50 young victims every day. It is happening now, as we speak in the debate. The issue is not party political, and has been raised by Government and Opposition Members. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who is recognised in this place and outside the House for her tremendous work in raising the matter.

Eradicating the practice will take not only cross-party support but cross-departmental work involving the Home Office, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and the Foreign Office. The subject is complex, but I want to use today’s debate to understand the Ministry of Justice’s role in dealing with FGM and to press the Minister responsible for victims of crime on what the Government are doing to ensure that those voiceless victims are protected. I want to know what her Department is doing to champion that cause and what she is doing not only to prevent people from becoming victims in future, but to seek justice for existing victims. I understand that several failings fall under the remit of the Home Office, but my concern is that no Minister is specifically responsible for FGM. Given that there are 20,000 victims every year, the victims Minister should perhaps shoulder a fair proportion of that responsibility.

Female genital mutilation has been a criminal offence in this country since 1985, but some may argue that it has been a criminal offence for much longer, under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. In my respectful submission, FGM is without a shadow of a doubt grievous bodily harm. It is an appalling practice. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 made it illegal to take children abroad for the purposes of FGM. Despite that, however, it is astonishing that there has not been a single prosecution. I welcome the recent efforts of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the publication of the Crown Prosecution Service action plan. Keir Starmer QC stated:

“It is critical that everything possible is done to ensure we bring the people who commit these offences against young girls and women to justice”.

Right hon. and hon. Members will welcome that commitment, but those words need to translate into justice for thousands of victims.

Despite those recent developments, I am confused as to why it has taken such a long time for basic questions to be asked about why there has been a failure to prosecute this most despicable child abuse. It is a criminal offence, and it is not good enough for the prosecuting authorities to try to mitigate inaction by suggesting that prosecutions are made difficult, or even impossible, merely because young girls do not present themselves at a police station to report their parents for this vile abuse. It is a criminal offence and it needs to be tackled.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has secured today’s debate. When I raised the issue of female genital mutilation and questioned the lack of prosecutions, the problem did not seem to be at the Crown Prosecution Service end; the police were simply not referring cases to it. I think that there were three cases in which the CPS had to make a decision on whether to prosecute, but it felt that there was not enough evidence. Does he agree that the police also need to make female genital mutilation a much greater priority?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, who has raised the issue on several occasions in the House. She is absolutely right that the police need to do much more, and they need to work with other authorities.

I am pleased and grateful to the hon. Gentleman for securing today’s debate. To pick up on that last point, there is one thing that the police need to think about. There was a recent and well-known exposé in a major national paper. Some hon. Members were present at the annual general meeting of the all-party group on female genital mutilation when the Director of Public Prosecutions explained that prosecutions were not possible on the back of that exposé. However, the idea of going after the aiders and abettors, for which the 2003 Act more than makes provision, is one thing that we need more heft behind, because it is obviously a more promising route than trying to get children to report their parents.

The hon. Lady makes a good point. I had the opportunity through Hilary Burrage, who has campaigned tirelessly on female genital mutilation, to meet the leading French prosecutor. What the hon. Lady suggests is exactly the action being taken in France. Working in that way clearly helps to prevent perpetrators from committing the offence.

I am pleased that we now have a victims commissioner. It is not a party-political point, but it has taken at least 12 months for that to happen. I am sure that Baroness Newlove will do an excellent job and continue the good work of Louise Casey. I want to know the Minister’s thoughts on how much the victims commissioner should prioritise female genital mutilation.

Over recent months, we have heard many positive words, but I am concerned that positive words are not reducing the shocking number of victims on the ground or delivering the justice that victims deserve. The NSPCC rightly states that preventing future victims should remain a priority, but we need to see justice for the 50 victims who will suffer the abuse this very day.

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that other measures ought to be brought into play? In other countries, nurses in schools automatically have to ensure that the authorities are informed about such matters. That does not seem to happen in this country.

I agree with the hon. Lady that the authorities need to work more closely together, and to share information with teachers, nurses and GPs. I have spoken to many professionals who avoid the issue either because of the sensitivities or, as was suggested to me recently, because they are struggling with their departmental budgets. They avoid dealing with the matter. The hon. Lady does not seem terribly impressed at that comment, but that point was put to me very recently. The reduction in social services budgets is definitely an issue, because female genital mutilation is not the priority that it should be.

The lack of evidence and witnesses is also an issue. The lack of prosecutions is compounded by many factors. The police are not investigating FGM with enough vigour, as was suggested earlier. It is estimated that of the 20,000 suspected cases some 6,000 will be based in London. The Metropolitan police’s Project Azure was set up to tackle the problem, but a freedom of information request showed that the team consisted of only two police officers—one full-time and one part-time. It is ridiculous to suggest that such policing is sufficient to tackle this shocking issue.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Has he considered whether the authorities can work with individuals in the communities involved who are concerned about what is happening? Does he have any views on that?

I do have views, and my hon. Friend makes an excellent point. She has raised the matter in the House on numerous occasions. An issue that follows from that is the obvious lack of data collection. It is accepted that robust data collection and assessment of the problem are urgently needed. A Government equality impact assessment was published last year and stated:

“Lack of data is an ongoing issue in the government’s work to prevent and tackle FGM.”

It will be impossible to tackle the problem without robust systems in place to identify its true level and at-risk children. I am pleased that this is now a priority in the Crown Prosecution Service’s action plan, but the Home Office assessment said that a large-scale community-based study would have a very high cost, and that the Department will continue to examine alternative options and to consider how existing data may capture information about FGM.

I apologise for intervening again. On that specific point, the House may like to know that nearly a year ago Quality Now! led a Home Office-funded two-day expert methodological workshop. It made specific recommendations on how robust data could be gathered in ways that would be less expensive than those that the hon. Gentleman described. That report and the recommendations have been sitting in the Home Office for almost a year. It is good that it funded the original workshop, but a plan exists and could be funded cross-departmentally to get us away from relying on data that are extrapolated from the 2001 census. Hon. Members will be aware of how much Britain’s demography has changed since the 2001 census.

I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. She is more expert in the matter than I am, and has raised the issue consistently since being elected to the House. I welcome her thoughts on the issue.

I have said previously that the Crown Prosecution Service action plan is a step in the right direction, and I welcome it, but I would be interested to know whether the Director of Public Prosecutions believes that current legislation should be reviewed, and whether evidence to prosecute under other legislation is easier to support. The CPS action plan is not the silver bullet. We need a national action plan—an integrated cross-departmental plan—that is adequately funded to stop this despicable crime.

I am concerned that for many years there has been interdepartmental buck passing. When I say that the issue is not party political, I mean that sincerely. The reality is that the previous Government failed dreadfully in tackling the issue. They had 13 years in which to take the matter on, and since then the current Government have not done a lot. We must have a national action plan because the issue needs strong political will, not just warm words.

Given that this crime produces 20,000 victims every year, I suggest that the Minister’s Department has a single Minister with specific responsibility for providing justice to victims. As the NSPCC rightly states, female genital mutilation is a form of physical child abuse that should be dealt with through the child protection system. Reticence or failure to intervene effectively is not acceptable in other instances of child abuse, nor should it be in the case of FGM. We need a standardised FGM data collection policy. I wholeheartedly welcome last month’s landmark passing of the UN resolution calling for a global ban on FGM, and I hope that the UK will now act on the issue with focused priority.

Finally, I suggest that statutory teaching of sex education in primary school may assist in helping to eradicate this vile practice.

It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to serve under your chairmanship. I earnestly congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on securing this debate on victims of the abhorrent crime of female genital mutilation. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Heather Wheeler), the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) on their important interventions. I congratulate particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea on her tireless work over many years, and as chair of the all-party group on female genital mutilation.

Female genital mutilation is an extremely painful and harmful practice that blights the lives of many young girls and women. The Government roundly condemn the practice and are determined to see it eradicated in this country and elsewhere. In my joint role as Minister with responsibility for victims and the courts and Minister for Women and Equalities, I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity of responding to this debate.

The practice of female genital mutilation is an age-old one that is deeply steeped in the culture and tradition of practising communities. Those who practise it no doubt genuinely believe that it is in their children’s best interests to conform to the prevailing custom of their community, but that does not excuse the gross violation of human rights. It is wholly unacceptable to allow a practice that can have such devastating consequences for the health of a young girl. The physical and psychological effects can last throughout her life. The mutilation and impairment of young girls and women have no place in a modern society where equality is prized.

My Department is responsible for the criminal law in this area. The Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 extended significantly the protection that the law affords these vulnerable young victims. It created extraterritorial offences to deter people from taking girls abroad for mutilation. To reflect the serious harm caused, it increased the maximum penalty for female genital mutilation from five to 14 years. Sadly, like the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 that it replaced, the 2003 Act has yet to result in a successful prosecution, which is a source of considerable frustration. That is not, as some have suggested, a reflection of the effectiveness of the law itself. The law is perfectly capable of dealing with perpetrators if offences are reported to the police, and evidential and public interest tests for prosecution are met. At the time of mutilation, however, victims may be too young, too vulnerable, or too afraid to report offences, and they may be reluctant to implicate family members. The simple fact is that no law can be effective in this area unless the barriers to prosecution are overcome.

Before being elected to this place, I practised as a criminal lawyer, and I worked on behalf of defendants who were charged with serious sexual abuse of children. It is not often suggested that it is difficult to bring such cases to prosecution, and the same issues are involved. Will the Minister explain her point?

I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s criminal law experience. The law is robust, extensive and adequate but, unfortunately, dealing with the issue often involves very young children who are frightened and reluctant to take action against family members. There is often pressure within their community not to give evidence and not to say anything.

I would disagree, but obviously, the adequacy of the law is something that we will always keep under review. I know that the Director of Public Prosecutions has had conversations with the Home Office and Ministry of Justice officials—I think the hon. Gentleman is aware of those—on the effectiveness of the law, and whether new laws or other legislation, such as the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims (Amendment) Act 2012, might help in those areas. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the matter will be kept under review, but I will discuss a number of other things in my speech that can be done in the interim.

The Minister may well be moving on to this point, but I just want to agree with what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) said. If the police wanted to go after the people who were organising this, they could. I hope that the Minister will address in her remaining comments the fact that, ultimately, there is a lack of will. We all know that children are not going to report it. They are too young. They are not going to report their parents, but people are setting up the travel and the medical care when the children get back, and they are meeting them at the other end. Where there is a will, there is a way. This has been held back by some misguided notion that it would be racist to pursue the issue. It is racist not to. If these girls were white middle-class children, we would be protecting them a lot better than we are now.

I hear everything that my hon. Friend has to say, and I am aware that she knows a considerable amount about the matter. I do not accept that there is a lack of will, but I hear what she has to say, and I will make sure that as much action as possible is taken to deal with the issues that she highlighted.

I very much welcome the action plan that the Director of Public Prosecutions published recently, with a view to bringing a successful prosecution for female genital mutilation. The willingness of victims and others to come forward and give evidence in court is crucial. We need to create a climate in which victims, and those close to them, feel able to report offences to the police and to receive the help and support that they need to give evidence, so that perpetrators of this unacceptable, dreadful practice can be brought to justice.

Of course, the law is only one part of tackling the problem of female genital mutilation in this country, and prosecution after the fact does not relieve the victim from a lifetime of pain and discomfort. Ideally, we want to prevent the mutilation from happening in the first place. We need to educate people and change their attitudes— sometimes long-established attitudes. A holistic approach and a multi-agency response are vital.

The Minister talks about a multi-disciplinary approach. I wonder whether she could open up discussions with the health authorities, because I understand that, under the NHS, restorative medical treatment is not granted automatically.

I note what my hon. Friend says. I shall come on to health and cross-Government, inter-agency multi-practice in a moment, but if I do not cover her specific point, I will be happy to write to her.

A joined-up approach within Government is also important. The Government’s approach to tackling female genital mutilation is set out in our “Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls” action plan. Our key focus is prevention, and cross-Government work, co-ordinated by the Home Office, has seen significant progress in raising awareness of female genital mutilation and supporting professionals to intervene. Central to that work are the multi-agency practice guidelines on female genital mutilation, which were published in February 2011. They highlight the risk factors that teachers, nurses, GPs, police officers and social workers should be looking out for in their work, and they set out what action they should take. Above all, they stress the need for a collaborative effort to protect girls at risk. A review of the use and effectiveness of the guidelines was launched by the Home Office in August 2012, and a report on the findings of that review will be published later this year. Additionally, over 40,000 information leaflets and posters about female genital mutilation have been distributed to schools, health services, charities and community groups around the country.

We also continue to support front-line organisations that work with communities to challenge their long-held beliefs about the practice. The Home Office launched a £50,000 fund in November 2012, from which organisations may bid for grants of £2,000 to £5,000. That follows from the success of the 2011 fund, which supported 10 organisations working to tackle FGM across England and Wales. Another recent initiative is the declaration against FGM launched by the Home Office in November. Based on the Dutch document known as the “health passport”, it sets out the law and penalties for female genital mutilation. It is supported by and carries the signatures of relevant Ministers, including my own and those of the Minister of State, Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Mr Browne) and the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), as well as that of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Department of Health continues to ensure that health professionals are able to respond appropriately to girls and women who may be at risk of genital mutilation and to those who have already been subjected to it. In May 2012, the then Health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), wrote to the royal colleges and NHS agencies encouraging them to raise awareness of the problem among professionals, and the Department’s chief medical officer and the director of nursing, with the support of the royal colleges, wrote to health professionals drawing their attention to the multi-agency practice guidelines. It is clear from the responses received that all are committed to playing their part in eradicating this dreadful practice.

Work is continuing across Government to look at all possible ways of tackling this complex issue. To that end, in two days’ time, the Minister with responsibility for crime prevention, my honourable Friend the Member for Taunton Deane, will be co-hosting, with the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, a round-table meeting with key professionals. The meeting’s purpose is to explore how those working with children can work together to detect potential victims of FGM and deter those from considering carrying out the act. The public health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe, and the Minister with responsibility for children, my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), will also be attending.

Ultimately, the eradication of female genital mutilation in this country will require the practising communities themselves to abandon this awful practice. It is a sad fact that older women, who are themselves victims of genital mutilation, are often the strongest advocates for the continuance of the practice. Such attitudes are deeply ingrained.

The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East asked what the victims commissioner’s role might be in relation to the issue. The victims commissioner has a statutory duty to promote the interests of victims of crime, including victims of female genital mutilation. I hope that she will be taking up her position later this month, and I look forward to working closely with her on those matters. He also asked about my role as victims Minister, with particular reference to female genital mutilation, and I can tell him that I will be working closely with the Home Office in a cross-Government capacity on an issue that, as I think he knows, is also very close to my heart.

In a wider context, I am responsible for looking after victims and doing everything that I can to care for, support and help them, including, of course, victims of female genital mutilation. I will be working with the police and crime commissioners to make sure that they do everything that they possibly can to eradicate the practice, and working with the police in their new capacities. We will be reforming the victims code, which will hopefully make it easier for victims—including victims of female genital mutilation—to navigate their way through the criminal justice system, which can often be very confusing and intimidating, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, having worked in it for many years.

In conclusion, the Government remain committed to protecting young girls and women from the abuse, and to ensuring that those living with its consequences get the care and support that they need and deserve. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate, and I hope that it will serve to keep this important issue firmly on the agenda.

Sitting suspended.