I beg to move,
That this House has considered the e-petition relating to stopping female genital mutilation in the UK.
I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship today, Mr Robertson. Shortly, I think we shall be joined by the Minister for Crime Prevention, the Minister responsible for this area—[Interruption.] Indeed, he is rushing into Westminster Hall as I speak. Well done to the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) for sitting in for him; I think he was trying out the chair. I am also pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones).
This is a critical debate. It takes place on the eve of the start of the first parliamentary inquiry into female genital mutilation—an inquiry that begins tomorrow, with the hearings initiated by the Home Affairs Committee. This is the right time for Parliament to discuss this issue.
I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, for granting this debate and I also thank the other members of her Committee. I appeared before it for the first time to ask for the debate and I was delighted that its members were able to say yes. I particularly thank the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), who I think is planning to attend this debate. She certainly supports it; she supported the application for it and we would not have secured it without her, so I am extremely grateful to her.
I also thank the members of the Home Affairs Committee, who all co-signed the application for the debate: my hon. Friends the Members for Dudley North (Ian Austin), for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for South Ribble (Lorraine Fullbrook), for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) and for Walsall North (Mr Winnick), and the hon. Members for Oxford West and Abingdon (Nicola Blackwood), for Hertsmere (Mr Clappison), for Northampton North (Michael Ellis), for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) and for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless).
This is the first debate in this House on this subject since the relevant legislation was updated in 2003. I cannot think of a crime as horrible as FGM that has not been the subject of a prosecution since it became illegal. On numerous occasions, Members take part in debates on Home Office and other Bills, passing legislation and bringing in new offences, but this is the only crime that has not been prosecuted.
We need to look carefully at the reasons for the lack of prosecutions; we need to hear, as we will during the Select Committee hearings, the testimony of individual survivors and others. We also need to hear from Members who have raised the issue on so many occasions during questions—including today’s questions to the Home Secretary, when it was raised four times. Although some people may feel that the crime is hidden, it is very much on Parliament’s agenda.
The World Health Organisation estimates that 140 million girls and women alive today have been forced to undergo FGM. It further estimates that 66,000 women resident in England and Wales in 2001 had undergone FGM. There is another estimate that more than 24,000 girls in the United Kingdom are at risk from FGM.
I do not know whether my right hon. Friend is aware that some time ago I tabled a number of parliamentary questions to try to find out whether the lack of prosecutions was because the Crown Prosecution Service was not willing to prosecute or because the police were not passing such offences to it; it looked as if very few cases were being referred to the CPS for consideration.
What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the action plan from the Director of Public Prosecutions? When it was launched—quite a while ago now—I thought it was a really positive step forward in encouraging the police to report more cases of FGM to the CPS, but nothing seems to have happened as a result of it.
My hon. Friend is right. We are concerned that despite the action plan—welcome though it was; it provided a framework for prosecutions—there have still been no prosecutions. One of the witnesses for our inquiry will be the new DPP, Alison Saunders. Unless we find out the reasons why there have not been prosecutions for FGM here when there have been prosecutions for it in other countries, we will not be able to find those who are responsible for it here and bring them to justice.
The three figures that I gave the House—140 million girls worldwide now, 66,000 women resident in England and Wales in 2001 and 24,000 girls at risk in the UK today—are only estimates, and we must show caution when we cite them. Indeed, high-profile figures from the communities affected by FGM have cast doubt on some of them. Today in The Guardian, Nadifa Mohamed, the famous Somali novelist, suggested that the estimates are “crude” and
“based on unreliable data…several years out of date”.
We rely on the estimates because they are the only ones we have, but we need to ensure that we are cautious about how we use them. What we are trying to do in Westminster Hall today, and what I hope the Select Committee will attempt to do in its hearings, is to get to the facts, so that we have some accurate way of knowing who and how many people are at risk. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, every Member in Westminster Hall today knows that there have been no prosecutions for FGM, and I am sure that they will repeat that fact in their contributions. We need to find out why.
I also commend the work of Leyla Hussein. Her documentary “The Cruel Cut” went a long way towards raising awareness of this issue. The Home Affairs Committee is due to view it shortly as part of its inquiry and Leyla Hussein will be giving evidence to us tomorrow. The issue of awareness, exemplified by the number of people who signed the petition, is extremely important. If people are not aware, they cannot be concerned; if they are not concerned, we cannot catch those responsible.
I am pleased that the Minister for Crime Prevention is in Westminster Hall today, because he has been very clear about this issue. He is a special Minister because he says what he thinks, does not read from a script and is not one of those robotic Ministers who will accept everything that the civil servants say. He makes up his own mind—he is going red, but I think that is true—and is pretty blunt. He was very blunt when he said that he is not prepared to worry about cultural sensitivities and that if a crime is being committed, it needs to be investigated.
This will be one of those rare debates in which every single speaker agrees that something needs to be done, although, of course, we need to await the outcome of the Home Affairs Committee inquiry and the other reviews before we find out precisely what needs to be done.
My right hon. Friend’s Select Committee is to be congratulated on its important inquiry. However, is not one of the challenges in securing prosecutions the natural unwillingness of young girls to inform on their families?
Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She is a distinguished Member—a former shadow Public Health Minister and a campaigner. She is viewed with huge respect in the community, and she is right to raise this issue. It is not just about one community; it is generally about families, and there is the reluctance that she mentioned. Somehow we need to approach the families, and I think we will develop that idea further in our contributions today.
Children should not need to give evidence against their parents. That is the sensitivity; it is not a cultural sensitivity. The issue is to do with how the prosecuting authorities need to approach the subject, but that should not be used as an excuse—I am sure my hon. Friend would not want it to be—for why there have been no prosecutions.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this vital debate.
I started practising as a prosecution barrister in 1990. Prosecuting FGM cases involves the great difficulty of obtaining the evidence and securing convictions, and at that time there was the same difficulty with sexual abuse and child abuse cases. People were only beginning to come forward then, but the situation has changed during the past 20 years. When the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee consider this matter, they should learn the lessons of the ’80s and ’90s about how evidence can be given, including the use of televisual transmission, so that victims are able to give evidence about events that in many cases took place many years before.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. He is not just a distinguished former barrister, but a distinguished author. He is right—things have changed. We should not stand by and allow crimes to be committed, especially given that how evidence can be given has been transformed since he started as a lowly paid legal aid barrister in the north of England. Things have changed, and the hon. Gentleman is right. New technology provides us with the ability to look carefully at these offences.
So far, the Select Committee’s inquiry has received 53 pieces of written evidence. That is higher than average— by the time we complete our hearings, I expect we will have even more. We are to report in July. We want to give the Government plenty of time to consider our conclusions, so that we can see whether they are serious about adopting the recommendations that we have made.
Of course, we will want to look at the legislation. Does the current legislation need to be toughened up? There are two relevant Acts: the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 and the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. We need to look at them together and see what further changes we need to make. I do not believe that there is a reason to toughen up the legislation; the issue is not about changing the law, but about how we implement the law. If I am wrong, I am sure that witnesses will tell us so as the inquiry progresses.
Hundreds of prosecutions have been successfully secured in France. Protection Maternelle et Infantile, a state-funded medical body, conducts check-ups on pregnant women and on children in the first six years of their lives. I am not sure that any equivalent body is doing that in our country. The process results in the highest rates of FGM detection and it is one of the most significant factors behind the high number of successful prosecutions.
However, we need to be clear that what is being done in France is controversial; it has not been met with universal support from individuals and community groups. We need to look at and build on the success of what has happened in countries such as France. I do not know whether the Minister has gone to France to meet his opposite number, but the Committee will want to do that as part of its inquiry.
I have just returned from Nairobi, where we have been looking at counter-terrorism as part of the Committee’s brief. We met a number of Kenyan officials who were pleased at the change in law in Kenya and other countries and wanted to share their experience with us. I was told on my way to this Chamber, by a number of people coming to watch these deliberations, that we should also concentrate on countries such as Sierra Leone, because there is a real problem there. As well as looking at our own country, we need to look abroad to see what is happening—in Africa and other parts of the world and in those European countries where there have been prosecutions.
I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. It seems to me that evidence could come from doctors and hospitals; such medical evidence should be sufficient to start a serious investigation to deal with the problem. That could happen now, although I am not sure whether it does. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will enlighten me.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. He is right. Common sense dictates that the first thing one would do is go to the doctors, because they would know better than anyone else. We can make suppositions, but at the end of the day, when people are being treated in hospital or undergoing other forms of assessment, the doctors are in the relevant position.
I would not want to say that the hon. Gentleman has identified one of the Committee’s recommendations, bearing in mind that we are only starting the inquiry tomorrow, but common sense dictates that the medical profession has a huge role to play in trying to help us solve the problem. However, we will not know how until we have the chance to hear from them.
I met a group of women health workers in Bristol on Friday. My right hon. Friend knows that Bristol has been at the forefront of the campaign against FGM. Some brilliant work has been done by the young women there. The health workers obviously come into contact a lot with women who have undergone FGM, but usually at the stage when they are giving birth and going through maternity services. That is far too late to identify who carried out the operation on them, given that that usually happens before the age of nine.
The health workers were convinced that the best solution would be to have examinations of girls in schools. I agree with my right hon. Friend that this is an incredibly sensitive matter, but I just wanted to place on the record that the health workers I spoke to thought that the solution would be for us to have some system of inspecting girls at risk.
That is extremely helpful. If my hon. Friend would like to put the group that she contacted in her constituency in touch with the Select Committee, we would very much like to hear from them. One feature of this inquiry is not just to hear from the men in suits, who always want to give evidence to Select Committee inquiries—although I hope that the Minister will come suitably suited and booted when he appears. We also want to hear from others, including all the stakeholders. Local groups know more about this subject than those of us who sit in Westminster. Please put us in touch with the groups, so that we can hear from a wide range of individuals and organisations about this subject.
I apologise for intervening again, but I recall, colleagues, that when primary schools take children in, there is a medical for boys and girls. If that was to be somehow tightened up, we might get better evidence about what is happening. Again, I may be wrong, but that is what I think. Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman, who is a friend, will enlighten us again.
I was going to say that the hon. Gentleman looks younger than me. I cannot remember what happened at primary school, even though I am sure some newspaper will find out what I did there 52 years ago.
We will find out; this is precisely why we are having this debate. We will study every contribution from every Member, because these are the kinds of things that we need to find out.
I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman is looking to take evidence from the French example, because surely that is the country we can best learn from; it has dealt best with this problem. Does he agree that we will need to be robust with the communities where the problem is taking place? As the French former Justice Minister, Rachida Darti, said,
“This mutilation has no foundation in any religion, philosophy, culture or sociology…It cannot be justified in any way”,
because, quite simply, it is a crime.
That is helpful. I am glad the hon. Gentleman quoted Ms Darti. I do not need to use that quote since he has cited it so eloquently.
Yes, we need to find out what is happening and we need to be robust, but we should also understand that this is an area of the criminal justice system; the hon. Gentleman described how it has improved. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) warned us about getting children to give evidence against their parents. These are important issues. They are not cultural issues, but about how we approach our system of justice.
As well as hearing from the Minister and others, we hope to hear from health care professionals, the police—we need an explanation about why there have been so many years without a prosecution—and the CPS, because these matters go to the CPS. We have had an enlightened DPP in the past few years in Keir Starmer, who made some useful statements about the issue, but unfortunately no one was prosecuted while he was DPP. The inquiry will hear from Alison Saunders, the new DPP.
The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which gave written evidence to the Committee, set up a helpline last year to see how many calls were received and from whom.
To date there have been 152 calls, e-mails and other communications to the helpline: 31 were from professionals seeking general advice on female genital mutilation; 56 were inquiries about more detailed information or training, and 65 were referrals by professionals concerned about specific young people. That gives us a good breakdown of the number of people involved in the study. I thank the NSPCC not only for submitting written evidence but for sharing that important information with us. The statistics prove that we need not only prosecutions, but education and awareness, without which we will not be able to get to the bottom of this terrible crime, and we will miss opportunities to prevent such crimes and to take appropriate action.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) has joined us. In the House this afternoon he probed the Home Secretary on female genital mutilation and rightly praised the Government for their work so far, but he also urged more action. He has been one of the great campaigners on this issue, and I pay tribute to him.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way one last time. Does he accept that, although prevention is obviously the most important part of any campaign, the Crown Prosecution Service and the police must have a strong emphasis on prosecuting events that may have taken place 10, 20 or 30 years previously where there is evidence that allows such cases to be brought, provided that the victim is willing to come forward?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I caution against taking a historical approach too far. I understand what he says. If someone has committed a crime, no matter how long ago, we have to follow the evidence and search for the truth, but the evidence is in front of us now. Female genital mutilation is happening now, so we have to prevent it from happening at this very moment. He is right that we need to go back to find those responsible. Debates, inquiries and discussions such as this, and the consequent media attention, will mean that many people come forward to talk about things that happened many years ago, and perhaps they will now feel stronger about giving evidence than they would have done when it happened to them.
The urgency is that, as we speak in Westminster Hall today, the statistics show that in some part of the country a young girl or woman is being subjected to FGM. It is happening as we speak. I do not want to say to how many people it will happen during this three-hour debate because I have already cautioned against being over-reliant on estimates, but it is happening. We need to act now.
I conclude by congratulating those who initiated the e-petition, without which we would simply not be holding this debate. It is true that we could have taken our place in line to apply to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate, but the e-petition has enabled us to come to Parliament with a body of opinion behind us in the country so that we could put that information before the Backbench Business Committee. I thank those who led and signed the petition to the Government, which amassed 106,281 signatures: Leyla Hussein, whom I have mentioned; the Daughters of Eve; and Efua Dorkenoo OBE from Equality Now. I also thank those who signed and organised the Change.org petition, particularly Fahma Mohamed—that petition obtained 229,925 signatures. Taken together, a third of a million people have signed petitions to ensure that female genital mutilation was brought before the House today.
Some things happened almost immediately, before this debate and before the Select Committee’s hearings, which begin tomorrow. I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State for Education, after meeting Fahma Mohamed and others, has agreed to write to all primary and secondary head teachers to remind them of their responsibilities. That is very important, but when the Select Committee produced a report on forced marriages because we were concerned about the number of young girls who were disappearing in the summer term to be married abroad and we asked the Secretary of State to write to remind head teachers to look out for sudden falls in the attendance rolls, he and his Ministers decided not to do so. The FGM reminder is an excellent opportunity to address that responsibility in relation to forced marriages.
I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I apologise for arriving late, and I congratulate those who secured the debate. The Secretary of State for Education is writing to schools, but should we not now seriously consider a mandatory obligation to report any suspicion, whether it is in schools, hospitals or any other field? People should be forced by law to report such suspicions because FGM is a serious criminal offence.
My hon. Friend speaks with great passion on this subject, and he is right that that is something we need to consider. I will not pre-empt the Committee’s conclusions—the inquiry has not even started—but that is something we will need to consider. If people are required to report their suspicions, we are more likely to discover crimes that have been committed.
I am nearing the end of my contribution, so I just say to hon. Members that I will not give way again because I know that others want to participate, but I thank everyone for what they have said.
I finish by acknowledging what the newspapers have done. Alexandra Topping of The Guardian has written many impressive pieces on what has been happening, and Martin Bentham and Anna Davis of the London Standard won Women on the Move awards for raising awareness. I am pleased that the Government have pledged £35 million of dedicated foreign aid to address FGM abroad, and I welcome the work of the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire as chair of the United Nations women all-party group and the work of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd). I also welcome the extremely helpful work of the Select Committee on International Development and the right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce).
There is still a huge amount to be done and a long way for us to go to stop this brutal crime. Although the wheels have started to turn in recent months, the best way to ensure that the Government act is for Parliament and the people to come together to ensure that the Government do not lose the momentum that has begun over the past few weeks and months. It is deeply worrying that when, for example, Leyla Hussein stopped shoppers in Northampton to ask them to sign a petition helping her to protect her culture, tradition and rights, many people did not sign. She asked people to sign the petition in good faith, but 19 people declined in a 30-minute period. It is important that we acknowledge that, although we know about the problem, there are many more who do not know about it. We must continue to raise awareness.
Since the debate began, two members of the Home Affairs Committee have joined us: my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North and the hon. Member for Cambridge. They have both been at the forefront of securing the Committee’s inquiry. I know that they will want to ensure that the Committee looks for all the reasons why there have been no prosecutions, so that we can get those prosecutions and so that women and young girls in our country and abroad can at last feel that justice is being done.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), the organisers of the petition and the many thousands of people who were good enough to sign it. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the lady who had some difficulties when going up to people and asking for signatures in the street, but I do that regularly, so I know that people often do not sign if they do not immediately realise what is being called for. It is not lack of understanding or of compassion; it is just because someone is approaching them on the street. I am sure that those 19 people, as well as the many others who did not respond, would have done so had they begun to appreciate the enormity of the problem.
I will concentrate my contribution on the honour culture, which is from where these practices emanate. I commend to colleagues in the House and anyone listening to the debate the film, “Honor Diaries”, which was premiered in this House last Wednesday. Paula Kweskin, the writer and producer, addressed hon. Members and community and business leaders and spoke about the making of the film. The whole point of the film is that while we respect culture in this country—of course we do—it is no excuse for abuse. I have sent a link to the film to every Member of Parliament and every Member in the other place.
Having watched the film, which is harrowing in places, the basic premise is that in some cultures, a woman is not a person in her own regard. She is part of her family, led by its male members—her husband or her father—and male honour depends on the behaviour of the woman. That is why, in some cultures and some areas, she is so very constrained. In the film, we hear harrowing stories about a girl who dared to look at some boys as she walked past. Any young girl would glance at a boy, but that poor girl had acid thrown over her, just because she did that. The film spoke to a number of men, who were completely open about the fact that their honour is the most important thing; more important than the life and happiness of their child. The film goes through issues including arranged marriage and honour killings, mutilations and whipping as punishments for any perceived infringement of the family honour.
One would think so, but that is often not the case. Indeed, I was going to explain that FGM in particular is usually perpetrated by the female extended family. Shocking though that is, the film shows a woman who, because it is part of the culture, does these barbaric acts on children. She says, “The children will not grow up strong. No one will want to marry this girl if she does not have this done.” It is doubly shocking that the mother could be the willing participant in something as awful as that.
This issue is about very basic rights. We have done work in Afghanistan, and we can see the number of girls there who can now go to school. Malala Yousafzai has so strongly raised the right of young girls to go to school, and that has gone all over the world.
It is absolutely correct to say that more often than not it is mothers and grandmothers who insist on FGM, but let us not forget that these women think they are doing their best for their children. We are talking about cultures that are very invested in FGM, and we need to be careful that we do not sound too judgmental about those women, who are often not very well educated. They genuinely think that FGM is best for their daughters.
I am grateful for that intervention, but the right hon. Lady gets to the crux of the matter. She says that we should not be too judgmental, but in this country that is exactly what we must be. We must be judgmental about the families who perpetrate the practice. Culture is no excuse for that kind of abuse.
I am the last person in the world to use culture as an excuse. The fact that we have had no prosecutions is a disgrace, and if I catch the Chair’s eye, I will speak on that issue. None the less, we have to remember that these women think they are genuinely doing the best for their children.
I take the hon. Lady’s point. Another issue is simply the autonomy of women. The film features an Egyptian lady who is not permitted to drive or to go out unless she is accompanied by a male guardian. Although I catch the hon. Lady’s drift, there should be no room for tolerance of FGM in this country. Even if it is a cultural thing, it cannot be acceptable.
I will briefly address the erudite comments of the right hon. Member for Leicester East on what we need to do in this country. The Government have already done some encouraging things, such as the day of zero tolerance that we had in February and the fact that it is now compulsory in hospitals to report FGM if its perpetration on a patient is detected.
What worries me a lot—it has been discussed a lot—is the spiriting away of children to other countries to have FGM perpetrated on them or to have arranged marriages, with children as young as 10 being married off. The Home Office has managed to obtain £100,000 from the European Commission for community engagement work on FGM, and British charities can bid for up to £10,000 to carry out that work. The Government have appointed a consortium of leading anti-FGM campaigners to deliver a global campaign to end the practice.
We must take affirmative action, and I look forward to the outcome of the inquiry that the Home Affairs Committee is about to undertake. There is so much more that we must do. We in this country are taking the lead, which is entirely appropriate not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because a third of a million people took the trouble to sign the petition for today’s debate. Imagine what else we can do with that kind of groundswell of support behind us.
I want first to congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing the debate and to welcome the comments made by the Secretary of State for International Development over the weekend. Both sides of the House will unite on female genital mutilation to ensure that we prosecute those responsible for inflicting such a brutal practice on girls and women, and that we eliminate it once and for all.
Shockingly, an NSPCC survey of teachers reported that one in six are unaware that female genital mutilation is a crime, and that 68% of teachers are unaware of any Government guidance on what to do if they believe that a girl whom they teach is at risk. It is clear from what we have heard over the past weeks and months that we need to increase awareness of the practice among all professionals, such as GPs, midwives, teachers and health care and social workers. To do so, however, we must be more open as a society about discussing women’s bodies and be more comfortable with the language. Open and honest dialogue with boys, girls, men and women about women’s bodies will help to raise awareness and to break down the barriers that cause ignorance and embarrassment. We need to use words such as vagina and clitoris, because the more that we say them, the more comfortable we will become with initiating and engaging in such discussions.
Some hon. Members present will recall that I spoke in the Chamber during the Adjournment debate before Christmas about a procedure called a hysteroscopy, which looks inside a woman’s uterus and is often used to investigate symptoms such as pelvic pain, abnormal bleeding and infertility. I must admit that I found it difficult to use words such vagina, uterus and cervix in the Chamber.
If I find it hard to use such language, goodness knows how difficult it must be for a young girl or woman if she needs to talk to someone.
According to my local borough of Newham’s children safeguarding data, there were six recorded cases of female genital mutilation in 2013, and only five cases were reported to the police. In 2007, however, the Foundation for Women’s Health and Development, in collaboration with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, estimated that the number of maternities to women who had been genitally mutilated in Newham from 2001 to 2004 was between 6.7% and 7.2% a year. Using that as a calculation—rough and open to criticism though it might be—we can estimate that there were between 436 and 467 births in Newham to women who have been mutilated. Evidence shows that the children of women who have been mutilated are at greater risk of mutilation. It is therefore clear that there could be a large disparity between what is reported and what is actually happening in the community. The probable discrepancy in data highlights the need to work with at-risk communities—I hate to use that phrase—to ensure a greater understanding among the professionals charged with supporting victims of genital mutilation.
In response, Newham council has commissioned a female genital mutilation prevention service, which, to my knowledge, is the first of its kind in the country. The service is one of many that sit within the one-stop shop that supports victims of violence against women and girls and was commissioned to intervene when health professionals first become aware that an expectant mother has been genitally mutilated, which normally occurs during routine pregnancy examinations.
I thank the hon. Lady for her speech. I was there when she spoke in the Chamber and thought that she did tremendously well. Is the unit to which the hon. Lady refers able to visit schools in her constituency to educate both teachers and children to try to stop this abhorrent crime?
The unit is in its infancy and is currently developing how it will work within the community. I will go on to discuss what the unit expects to do in the next bit of my speech.
When a maternity professional becomes aware of a mother who has been the victim of genital mutilation, they are required to make a referral to safeguarding officials for child protection reasons and to invite the woman to access the genital mutilation prevention service. The service is geared up to support the victims of female genital mutilation to empower them to understand the negative consequences of mutilation and to enable them to become an advocate against the female genital mutilation of their own daughters. The service will provide advocacy for victims, involving extended family and spouses where appropriate, and thereby support women in their own environment to take a stand against the practice.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, Newham council is training community-based female genital mutilation champions and is supporting victims to report domestic sexual violence to the police. So it is working with women in the community to work with women in the community in order to raise awareness of the act’s illegality.
I thank my hon. Friend for her eloquent speech. I am pleased to hear about what Newham council is doing, which is no doubt a result of her prompting and campaigning. Will the people involved in the unit also be members of the community? Units that are set up sometimes do not reflect the clients and diasporas involved. Is she confident that the unit will reach the roots of the community?
I am supportive of the action that Newham is taking to try to address the issues that may exist in the community, but I will not take the credit. Councillor Robinson and Councillor Paul have been active in action tackling violence against women and girls in our community, and it is their work that effectively led to the unit’s creation.
I am told that the unit will be highly sensitive. It is being commissioned in the grass roots of the communities themselves and will not be a council office. The service will seek to educate local health visitors, GPs, educational professionals, children’s services and police professionals and to support them in making relevant referrals. The council is also intent on gathering evidence on trends and issues concerning female genital mutilation in the borough, and I hope that that will help to inform the work not only of Newham council but other councils and communities that are affected. I am encouraged that the CPS thinks a prosecution for female genital mutilation is closer, because that would raise the issue higher in the mind of the community. Unless we start to prosecute those responsible, to raise awareness and reduce stigma, I am not sure we will ever begin to eliminate the awful practice in question. That is why the debate is so important, and why I am delighted to speak in it.
I urge all Members of the House, and indeed communities across the country, to continue to highlight the issue and campaign for appropriate resources to tackle a brutal practice.
I shall speak briefly, because others should have the opportunity to speak. I confess I did not intend to speak until I saw the debate listed, but I felt impelled to come to support the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), who introduced the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham), who chairs the all-party United Nations women group. I congratulate the various newspapers who highlighted and publicised the issue. The point of a free press is to give exposure to such things and articulate the case. I pay tribute to The Guardian, the Evening Standard and various local papers, such as those in Bristol that gave particular support to the campaign, and to the individuals who signed the petition and brought the issue to wider recognition in the House and generally.
Normally I sit in awe of the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee, so it is interesting that I should make any recommendations to the Committee, but I suggest that it might give attention to six matters. The first three are international prevention, local prevention and cultural change. The fourth is the identification and support of flag-bearers for potential prosecutions. The fifth is examining and making conclusions on the extent to which the two Acts that currently apply to the crime in question should be changed; and the sixth is addressing and identifying the legal processes by which the offence would be brought forward.
Perhaps I should not add to the hon. Gentleman’s list of recommendations for the Select Committee, since I am on it, but there is one that might unfortunately be beyond our scope, and that is sex education in schools. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is a fundamental problem when sex and relationships education in schools is not compulsory? Parents can withdraw their children from it, so many children may not get information that would help them to understand the issues and what they should do—and, indeed, to use the type of language whose importance has been discussed in the debate.
Far be it from me to disagree with a member of the Committee, particularly before it has begun to sit, but my answer is yes and no. Yes, there is a need for greater awareness of sex education as part of the educational programme that is under way, but I do not think that that of itself will provide a panacea or solution. It is one aspect of the problem.
Perhaps I may elaborate on what my hon. Friend said. It is not just sex education but sex and relationships education that should be compulsory in every school in the country. Young people do not know how to behave, and that is a great sadness. Things are difficult enough for them when they get to puberty and hormones start rushing. You can give them sex education until you are blue in the face, but without guidance or explanation about how relationships work, that will not help those young people to become responsible, happy adults.
I endorse the broad thrust of what the hon. Lady says, but that is part of a package of measures. Let us not be blind to what we all acknowledge: there is no one single thing that will change the existing climate, the cultural approach, or the likelihood of a criminal prosecution. There are several different matters, and that is why I welcome the fact that the Home Affairs Committee will consider the matter and make recommendations, just as I welcome today’s debate.
The first issue I wanted to talk about is international prevention. I welcome the fact that the Government, following on the good work of previous Governments, are making international aid money available; the Secretary of State for International Development is committing several million pounds to education around the world, continuing processes established by her predecessors. Surely that must be the start, and there are lessons to learn from countries such as France, which has grasped the issue of the horrendous crime in question. Its approach is robust and no-nonsense, and all credit is due to it.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point and I can only quote the words of Isabelle Gillette-Faye about Great Britain:
“You have a tradition of multiculturalism, but you cannot accept everything in the name of tolerance, and certainly not the abuse of girls through mutilation and forced marriage…You have to tell parents cutting is not acceptable and if they don’t listen you threaten them with prosecution and jail.”
She finishes with two simple words:
We must be blunt. There is no point beating about the bush. The problem comes from certain countries, and it will be necessary to engage with those communities. There is no question that in such countries as Burkina Faso and Mali the cultural tradition in question goes on—and, as the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said, in some respects it is a normal cultural tradition in those places. That needs to be addressed, and the focus of the international aid money should be on the countries where it is prevalent.
We all welcome and support the campaigner Fahma Mohamed. We also welcome and support what The Guardian has done, and the changes brought about through the decision of the Secretary of State for Education to write to all the schools in the country, because of the campaign. It can only be a good thing for local prevention that several different Departments are engaged in the issue, as evidenced by the recent announcement from the Department for Education, the money allocated by the Home Office, and the actions of the Department of Health. It is right and proper to record the campaigning work done by the Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison). She was raising the issue for some time before her promotion, and making it a priority was part of her brief at the Department of Health.
Clearly there is a need for extreme sensitivity about the religion and culture of the communities affected. However, there is also a need for a robust approach. It is unacceptable that after successive Governments have abhorred the practice, it is almost impossible to get a witness to give evidence against their parents or relatives. That is the harsh reality. My first question to the right hon. Member for Leicester East was about the comparison with the situation in the late 1980s and the 1990s, when there were child abuse and sex abuse allegations, and prosecutors encouraged children to give evidence against their relatives of that abhorrent crime. The issue we are debating is child abuse and sexual abuse just as much as that was. There is no difference.
I can assist my hon. Friend. Procedures are in place for prosecutions and, within the confines of the criminal justice and social services systems, whether the child is taken into care or fostered or supported, there are definitely support mechanisms in place. It is not easy. No one should pretend that someone giving evidence against their family members is easy in any way whatsoever. I will come to the degree of support that I want to see, but the individual campaigners must also look hard at their individual communities and ask themselves: where is the flag-bearer? Where is the woman who is prepared to stand up and say, “This has happened to me,” and to suffer what is—let us be blunt—a very embarrassing process? I have prosecuted well over 100 trials and giving evidence of sexual allegations against a lady or a man is exceptionally embarrassing at all times.
I accept that at present the prevailing cultural interpretation is such a dishonouring. But when one compares the situation here with that in France, one sees that, slowly but surely, it has become the case that failing to come forward to make such a case is dishonouring the culture and community of which they are so proud to be a part. In the 21st century, it cannot be an appropriate part of that culture and community to condone, allow and positively encourage the continuation of this abhorrent act. In the French communities, we see a change in perception, with support for those individuals who give evidence from the very same people who perhaps five or 10 or 15 or 20 years ago would have named and shamed and made life very difficult for those individuals. That is an example of a country that has moved further forward and the impact of that change.
I come back to the point that this is an offence. Of course, we want to stop any such offending taking place now. Huge efforts will be made by successive Governments and various aspects of Government to stop this happening now, but the best possible preventive measure would be a successful prosecution for something that has taken place in the past. Again, I make the very strong point to the individual communities—they all know who they are—where such offending is taking place. They all have to consider this: given that well over 100,000 people in this country have suffered this fate, if the evidence is there and they have not come forward thus far, they are letting their community down if they do not come forward.
I want to discuss law change. I know and worked with the previous Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, who was an outstanding DPP. I do not know the present DPP—partly because I am so old and I was not practising when she was—[Interruption.] I am ageing fast. In her submissions earlier this year, she makes the fair point that it is possible that the law may need to be changed. As I understand the legal framework, if I were a prosecutor and the individual who had committed the offence was not a UK resident, it would be exceptionally difficult to pursue that prosecution. The Select Committee needs to look at that and it would be well advised to address that. However, while many are being taken away in order for cutting to take place, there are those who are definitely performing that act in this country, and they will have records and payment systems, so there is plentiful evidence that these things took place. Examinations should be done. Where a victim has suffered that crime in this country, where a prosecution is so much easier to pursue, and continues to live in this country, that is the best potential avenue for successful prosecutions, and that should be the direction of travel for the Crown Prosecution Service.
I finish on the issue of legal processes. When I started prosecuting in 1990, there was no such thing as a victim’s statement. The victim gave their witness statement and then, even in sexual cases, they gave evidence live. There were no screens and no TV monitors, and judges and counsel were not trained. We have advanced light years in the past 20 or so years: successive Governments have introduced everything from police officers who are trained to take statements, to processes that make it much easier for children to give evidence, and training for individual judges. I could go on. My point is this: just as we had to train judges, counsel and court staff in how to handle sexual offences cases—particularly child-based sexual offences, such as the abuse of five to eight-year-olds, who then have to give evidence in some shape or form—as the Home Affairs Committee reviews this matter and as the processes are gone through, we must make very sure that the appropriate mechanisms are in place, and that the appropriate judges and counsel are in place, to address this type of prosecution and take that forward.
Such a prosecution will not be easy to bring. It needs to be done with great sensitivity and profound awareness of all the cultural problems. I had not intended to speak, Mr Robertson, but I thank you for your indulgence.
I congratulate the organisers of the petition. I will deal with the allegation that, in some sense, I was preaching tolerance of FGM. I had a different point. In some ways, perhaps we have been too tolerant in the past. We need prosecutions, partly because of the exemplary nature of the process, and we need the duty to report.
I believe that—this is quite controversial—we need routine medical examinations and we certainly need to raise consciousness among health and education professionals. We also need to support the victims of FGM with more units such as those in Newham. I repeat, however, that unless we understand why people who consider themselves conscientious family members would collude with this process, we cannot eradicate it. I would like this country to be an FGM-free zone: a place of safety for young children. However, along with all that I have set out, we also need to have some understanding of how embedded it is in culture.
People are talking about FGM as if it is a brand-new issue. It is not; it has been spoken about since the ’60s. Those of us of a literary turn of mind will remember the American novelist Alice Walker’s 1992 novel, “Possessing the Secret of Joy”, which is about FGM. We also remember that whenever FGM has been raised, whether by women on the continent, writers overseas or health professionals, it has been met with a ferocious defence from those countries and communities. Jomo Kenyatta, who was otherwise a much respected liberator and leader in Kenya—he was the first Prime Minister—was a great defender of FGM.
Let me remind the House about the incidence of FGM in particular countries. The countries with the highest level of FGM according to UNICEF are as follows. In Somalia, 98% of women are affected; in Guinea, it is 96% of women; in Djibouti, it is 93%; in Egypt, it is 91%; in Eritrea, it is 89%; in Mali, it is 89%; in Sierra Leone, it is 88%; and in Sudan, it is 88%.
I put it to the House that, despite the fact that we have known for perhaps 50 years of the medical harms and the problems associated with FGM, incidence of FGM in those countries remains very high. That is a clue that, on their own, knowledge, education and consciousness raising will not bear down on the practice. As I have said, communities are invested in the process. Very often mothers and grandmothers collude to have the FGM done. In some societies, such as Sierra Leone, the people who do the cutting are women. They belong to some secret cult, and despite the fact that, I believe, FGM is illegal in Sierra Leone, those women will march to defend their right to cut children. Unless we understand that kind of thing, we will just be talking. It is a difficult and complex subject, which is not new. People have been fighting against it for half a century. It is not simply a function of ignorance, as I say. In those countries, it is against the law, and there are education programmes, yet still relatively sophisticated people have FGM performed on their female children.
For 29 years, Britain has specifically banned the practice of FGM. At this point, it might be helpful to put on the record what FGM is. FGM can range from the removal of the clitoris to the sewing up of the vagina, leaving only a small aperture for urination. It is not necessary to be a doctor or medical expert to understand the medical problems that can arise for someone who has had their vagina sewn up—perhaps in adolescence—opened up again so their husband can consummate the marriage, sewn back up and then opened up again to have a baby. It is the most extraordinarily cruel procedure. The medical problems are obvious, and have been so for decades.
I was reading about the subject at the weekend in preparation for this debate. Quite often, FGM is done with a knife or razor blade. I have read narratives from young women who have been held down by family members, and their blood has spurted from between their legs on to the face of the cutter. Those women bear those memories for a lifetime. I hope no one is accusing me of preaching tolerance of a brutal and ultimately profoundly sexist practice. What is FGM about? It is partly about controlling women—controlling their sexuality and controlling them in their society.
Even though a new law was passed in 2003 that made it illegal for British-based parents to send girls abroad to be cut, no prosecutions have resulted. That is shameful. I would not necessarily use France as an example of best community relations, but on this question the French have performed rather better than we have in the UK. In the past 34 years there have been 29 trials, in which 100 people—both parents and cutters—have been convicted. The most recent was in Nevers in central France 18 months ago, in which a father and mother of a small girl were jailed for two years and 18 months respectively. Now, one would not want to put children’s mothers and fathers in prison, but that can happen in the context of other dreadful crimes. I believe that unless people know that there is some possibility of prosecution, efforts to bear down on FGM will just be talk. People have to know that when it comes to it, either the cutter or the family members will bear the full sanction of the law.
Some people have said to me, “If you simply prosecute people, that on its own is not going to do it.” Of course it will not do it on its own, but in this society we use the law to signal our abhorrence of certain practices. The law should be used at the very least to signal our abhorrence of FGM and to protect not hundreds but thousands of young girls in this city who might be in danger of FGM even as we speak.
Another thing that happens in France is systematic examination of girls for signs of FGM during health checks. We have to look at that. If the possibility for prosecution rests on asking young girls who are already in a patriarchal family structure to inform on their parents, it seems to me that our levels of prosecution are going to remain low to zero.
Of course it is important to change attitudes—that is what the campaign in The Guardian and some of the local campaigns are doing—and to support victims and to try to get the information out there. But as I have said, if we look at the countries where FGM is an issue, they have had that information. They have made it illegal and they have raised consciousness and had poster campaigns, yet levels of FGM remain very high.
In my short-lived career as a public health spokesperson, one of the things I learned was that in public health matters, although we of course want to change people’s personal understanding and practices, the most effective measures are those taken upstream. Nothing has done more to bring down levels of smoking in this country than banning smoking in pubs and clubs. That brought down levels not only of smoking but of adult and childhood asthma. I believe that if we deem FGM to be a public health issue, we need upstream measures on it, such as prosecutions and looking at the question of medical examinations. Of course we want to change hearts and minds but if people are contemplating having FGM done to their daughter or are thinking that they can send their daughter home in the school holidays to have it done, they need to know that they are courting prosecution.
We need always to be careful about how we talk about communities and cultures. It does no good to try to imply that the mothers of the young girls affected are in some sense monsters. It is important to understand the cultural context, and to understand that it is because of that cultural context that mere exhortation of people to stop doing FGM to their female children has failed in country after country. I am clear: it is a disgrace and a shame that in 2014 we cannot protect those young girls in London and other big cities. We do not need simply consciousness raising and educational information. It is not even a question of the units that we are now getting, thankfully, in places such as Newham. We have to face up to the need for prosecution and for routine medical examination.
FGM is a practice to which some of the British authorities have turned a blind eye for too long. It is long overdue that we, as a political class, take serious action on FGM. I am therefore grateful to the people who organised the petition and made the debate possible.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) and the hon. Member for Mid Derbyshire (Pauline Latham) on securing the debate. As my right hon. Friend reminded us, it has been a long time since we debated FGM in this House—far too long. The debate today has shown both the strength of feeling among Members of all parties and the vast reserves of knowledge among those who have spoken.
I also want to congratulate the campaigners who have done so much to raise the profile of this issue, including Daughters of Eve and Equality Now, but particularly Leyla Hussein and Fahma Mohamed, who represent the best of our young women. They have dared to confront and to speak out on an issue that many of us find it difficult to grapple with and would often prefer to ignore, and their courage ought to be commended. They are right to remind us of the terrible failure for which Governments of all colours have been responsible for 28 years. We must face up to that and accept the responsibility. We have failed British girls who are subject to this horrific abuse, and because of that failure, a child somewhere will be crying as they are cut, and a woman somewhere will be forced to endure almost unbearable pain in childbirth or sexual intercourse, or will suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress because of what has been done to her.
The report from the royal colleges, “Tackling FGM in the UK”, estimates—it is an estimate, as every hon. Member who has spoken today has said—that about 66,000 women in England and Wales have undergone this mutilation and are now living with the resulting pain and complications, and that about 24,000 girls under 15 are at risk. Yet no one has been brought to justice for what is an appalling crime. Despite the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 and its successor, the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, no one has faced a court. If people were being mutilated by someone wielding a knife in the street, there would be an outcry demanding justice for the victim. Yet the victims of FGM are mutilated in private. They are subjected to the most horrific form of child abuse and violence against women, which is so bad that it is classified by the UN as torture. Yet their perpetrators are not brought to justice.
Does my hon. Friend agree that a difficulty with these sorts of statutory sexual crimes is that they sometimes involve one person’s word against another’s, or that they happened a long time ago? With FGM, the physical consequences are very clear and last a lifetime, which makes the failure to prosecute even worse.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and I will come to how we might gather evidence. She is right. It is simply incredible that no one has yet been prosecuted. The law is fairly clear, although it is worth considering proposals from various places to look at offences preparatory to the offence of FGM and at how the law could apply when the cutter is a foreign national who then leaves the country. I hope the Minister will say whether the Government are prepared to consider that. If they are prepared to introduce proposals, we will facilitate putting them on to the statute book.
For all sorts of reasons, the existing law is not being implemented and Parliament must make it clear that it must be implemented and the necessary steps must be taken to do so. As several hon. Members have acknowledged, including my hon. Friends the Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), this is an extraordinarily difficult area. Many girls are too young when they are cut to be able to speak about what has happened to them. When they are older, many do not wish to bring shame or trouble on their families. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington is right to say that families may believe that if they do not carry out this mutilation, they could be excluded by their community, or their daughters may find it difficult to make a decent marriage and so on.
The Government must work with those communities to improve understanding, to change people’s minds and to encourage them to come together to eradicate FGM. One family alone cannot stand against it, but a community with the right leadership can act. I recognise that, but saying that something is thought to be right or a cultural norm does not make it right. Alongside the effort to try to change attitudes, there must be an effort to enforce the law. That effort must begin by training professionals to recognise girls at risk of FGM to ensure that they are protected, and to report it when they encounter it.
I hope the Government will accept unreservedly the recommendations of the report by the royal colleges. FGM must be treated as child abuse with no ifs, no buts and no maybes, and front-line professionals, whether in health, teaching or social work, must be empowered to protect girls at risk and be assessed on the outcomes. That requires early identification of those who may be subject to FGM, even from babyhood, and especially those who are born to mothers who have themselves undergone FGM. Their children are at high risk, and should be referred for a proper safeguarding plan to be put in place for them.
Teachers are also in the front line and are often the first people a child looks to for protection. Yet a YouGov poll for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham mentioned, showed that 83% of the teachers surveyed said they had not been given any training about FGM. I know that the Secretary of State for Education has finally written to schools drawing attention to the practice following the inspiring campaign led by Fahma Mohamed and other young women in Bristol, but it is not enough by itself simply to write to schools. One in six teachers said in that poll that they did not know that FGM was even illegal in this country, so there is clearly much more to do in training.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, sadly, teachers may have dozens of letters on their desks every week? Instead of just writing a letter, the Secretary of State should look at the whole issue of mandatory sex and relationship education in schools and, as my hon. Friend said, training. Just sending a letter to join the pile of other papers on a teacher’s desk is not enough.
[Mr Dai Havard in the Chair]
My hon. Friend is right. I have long been an advocate of compulsory sex and relationship education in schools. It is essential for our children to grow up confident in themselves and able to form healthy relationships. She is also right about training. As the documentary programme, “The Cruel Cut”, showed, if a young child turns to a teacher for help and does not get that help, it is clear that much more must be done.
Teachers have many demands on their time, but all schools need to have safeguarding plans in place and those safeguarding plans must include dealing with female genital mutilation. Teachers must be able to recognise the signs that a child is at risk or that they have already been cut, and know what to do when that happens.
I was at St Brendan’s sixth form college in my constituency on Friday and I met a group of young women to talk about a range of issues. They were very strong in their support for the need for compulsory sex and relationship education. I had the opportunity to sit in at the beginning of a class where four young women from Integrate Bristol, which is at the forefront of campaigning against FGM, were explaining to a roomful of students what FGM was all about by showing them a film and encouraging them to discuss the issue in workshops. Those students were 17 and 18-year-olds, and I thought that was a valuable initiative. I was impressed by how serious they were. Hon. Members can imagine that, particularly if there are young lads in a class, they might not take that sort of thing seriously, but they all seemed to take on board the serious message that was being conveyed.
I agree with everything my hon. Friend has said so far. She has heard about the initiative by the London borough of Newham, which my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) explained. If it is successful, and obviously we will wait to the see the outcome of the project, does my hon. Friend think that it perhaps should be rolled out in other parts of the country where FGM is a real problem?
I am very grateful, Mr Havard. What my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East said about the project in Newham was very interesting and, if my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham permits me, I hope to be able to visit it at some point. We need to learn from such initiatives about what works and what can be done on the ground.
As well as identifying young people through the education system, such as those whose mother or elder sister has undergone FGM, and making sure that robust safeguarding plans are in place, in my view, any girl or woman who presents to the health service having undergone female genital mutilation should be treated as the victim of a crime, because that is what they are. Appropriate safeguarding measures should be put in place. They should be referred to the police and to the support services, so that a proper plan of care and support can be implemented and medical evidence can be collected. We are currently not getting that approach, despite the efforts that have been made recently, because of a lack of training for front-line professionals, a lack of a joined-up approach and what I can best describe as a peculiarly British fear of offending people’s cultural sensibilities. In my view, that is the wrong mindset. Although we need to work with communities to change attitudes, our first duty—we should be clear about this—is to protect the child. That is absolutely our first duty and there should be no wavering from that.
That may well be true and I shall come on to how we deal with that in a moment. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell me in his reply what the Home Office, which has lead responsibility for the issue, will do to ensure that other Departments play their part and that we have a proper system in place. In a parliamentary answer to me on 24 February, the Minister said that he had written to the Secretary of State for Education on the issue. Perhaps he can tell us what the response to that was and what is happening in schools to ensure that proper training and proper safeguarding measures are in place.
As has been said in the debate, in some countries—France is an example—there is systematic screening for female genital mutilation as part of normal health checks. In this country, that is often regarded as intrusive. It would, of course, involve screening a large amount of people who are not at risk as well. However, I suggest to the Minister that it might be worth establishing a task group, including people from the royal colleges, the NSPCC and other experts in the field, to look at how medical evidence can be sought and how the problems in this area can be dealt with sensitively and appropriately, so that we can avoid, if necessary, mass screenings of people who do not need to be screened, but also find medical evidence.
The report from the royal colleges stated that where there is a suspicion that a girl has undergone female genital mutilation, assessments and medicals are helpful and examinations need not be intrusive, but they are vital in providing evidence that leads to prosecution. That is very important, because we have heard several times in the debate about the difficulty of getting someone to give evidence against their own family. I absolutely understand that, particularly in certain cultures. It would be hard for me to give evidence against someone in my family, but when there is a system that links the family’s honour to the behaviour of others, it is extraordinarily difficult. However, there are ways through that if we accumulate medical evidence as well, which is what we should be doing.
To enforce the law requires two things. Yes, it requires education and publicity, so that people are clear about what constitutes an offence, but it also requires the deterrent effect of prosecutions, of people knowing clearly that if they flout the law, they will be brought before a court, and that if they are found guilty, they will pay the price. That is what we have failed to do. We must accept that we have got that wrong and look at ways to move forward.
In 2012, the then Director of Public Prosecutions chaired a round table to discuss why so few cases were being referred to the Crown Prosecution Service for charge and prosecution, and in September last year, the then DPP chaired a second round table to discuss progress on the FGM action plan. Following that meeting, he said that he believed that a prosecution under the 2003 Act was close. We were told that the CPS was reviewing decisions on prosecutions in four cases and considering whether to prosecute a more recent case, yet we still have not got anyone to court.
I hope that the Minister will tell us whether progress has been made on bringing charges in any case, and if not, what the evidential problems are. If the problem is, as I said, the unwillingness of victims or other members of the family to testify, we need to look at what use can be made of medical evidence and of statements from medical professionals, teachers and so on, who have all been in contact with the person who has been cut. If that by itself does not demonstrate the need for a much more joined-up, robust system of child protection, referral and recording of evidence right from the start, I do not know what does.
We simply cannot go on failing British girls like this—for these are British girls, who deserve exactly the same care and protection as any other British girl. We know this is happening. Newspapers report frequently that there is widespread knowledge of where it is happening, of where this torture is being carried out—and it is torture. I put it to hon. Members that, in all honesty, we have to ask ourselves, “If this was happening to white British girls, would we allow it to go on?” I think we know the answer to that. There would be a public outcry, and our black or brown British girls deserve no less protection and no less care. They are our responsibility. They are all our children.
We have to stop pretending that this is not happening. We have to stop turning our faces away from this appalling practice. We do not want to see it because it is so awful, but we have to see it in order to stop it. It is torture. It is child abuse. It has been illegal for over 25 years and it is still carried out with impunity. Let us call a halt now. Let us put in place the protection our girls deserve and ensure that in future, they can live their lives without undergoing this torture, and without putting up with the continuing pain that results. I say to the House: surely we owe them no less than that.
I begin by welcoming the fact that this debate is taking place. As the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), pointed out, it is the first such debate since 2003, which is not a very good record for the House; it is a long, long time since the last debate.
There has been interest in the issue of FGM for almost 30 years, since the first law was passed in 1985, if not before that. I agree that we need to make more progress as a nation than we have to date, and I welcome the fact that there is renewed interest. We are making progress now as a nation in a way that we were not even a year or two ago, but there is much more to do. This debate is part of that.
I pay particular tribute to Leyla Hussein, who started the petition that has been the stimulus for tonight’s debate. It is as a result of her campaign and petition that we are here discussing in depth how we can tackle what we all agree, across all three parties, is an horrific procedure. I agree that it is child abuse. The Government has been very plain that that is the case and has regularly made that point very clear. Leyla is an extraordinary woman, whom I have met on a couple of occasions. She has been very brave in speaking out in the way she has, and we all owe her a debt for doing so.
I also welcome the fact that the Home Affairs Committee is conducting an inquiry into this matter. That is wholly welcome. I, for one, will be very pleased to give evidence to it. I look forward to the conclusions of its work and undertake to give proper and thorough consideration to any recommendations that come forward. It is wholly welcome that that debate and inquiry are taking place.
To answer one other point that the Committee Chairman made, I should say that I do sometimes read from a script, but one that I have altered after being given it by my officials. I just want to make that plain.
I am not quite sure what the protocol is for Ministers from other Departments giving evidence to a particular Select Committee. I know that the Home Affairs Committee was set up to scrutinise the work of this Minister’s Department, but does he agree with me that, given that this is such a cross-cutting issue—cutting across public health, the Attorney-General’s Department and, particularly, the Department for Education—it would be good if all that could be brought together in the scope of one inquiry?
I will touch on what other Departments are doing as part of my response to the debate today. In answer to the hon. Lady’s question, I am not sure what the protocol is either. However, if the Chairman and members of the Select Committee wanted to invite other Ministers, I would have no problem with that; if those Ministers wished to give evidence, they would. I am, for example, giving evidence to a Select Committee about crime figures, which is largely a Ministry of Justice issue.
To answer my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) through the Minister, yes, we will call Ministers from other Departments: Health, Education and the Attorney-General’s Department. We try to share Ministers around as much as we can, as that is best for our recommendations.
There we are; there is an answer to that question. Although the Home Office is the lead Department on this issue—I am very pleased to be leading on it—because of its importance, other Departments have an input into it. The reality is that if Departments do not work more closely together, across departmental boundaries, we will not get the full result that we want. It is also the case, of course, that if the Government does not work properly with councils, the voluntary sector and communities in our own country and abroad, we will not get the result that we want. An important aspect is the need for a joined-up approach, both in Government and outside.
Of course, it is also important to work with the campaigners, who have done so much. I have mentioned Leyla Hussein. It is also thanks to Nimko Ali, Lisa Zimmermann, Efua Dorkenoo, Janet Fyle, Naana Otoo-Oyortey and others that FGM now has the prominence that it does.
I join colleagues in thanking the media, because they have been responsible and helpful on this issue. I am thinking particularly of the Evening Standard, which has been very resolute in how it has approached this matter; and latterly there has been The Guardian as well. They are running excellent campaigns and show the value of the free press in this country. It is partly as a consequence of that and, I hope, what the Government has been doing, that data released last week revealed that the number of tip-offs to the Metropolitan police about FGM has more than doubled in the past year. That is partly down to increased publicity, but is also due to the greater understanding that there now is of what this barbaric practice involves.
I do not have a figure in my notes, but if officials have got it, I will give it to the hon. Lady before the end of the debate. Actually, I do have the figure: 69 reports involving either direct allegations about FGM or other information on this practice have been received by the Met since the start of April last year, so it is still a relatively small number, although it is moving in the right direction.
Since I have joined the Home Office, my concerns about FGM have intensified. Although I have always been aware of and opposed FGM, the more I have learned about the practice, the more concerned I have become and the more determined to do something about it. It is one of my top priorities as a Minister in the Department. I agree with the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), whose speech I very much welcomed. I think that the root of this is about male control of women—as a man, I find that rather shameful—so there are reasons for men, as well as women, to be involved in addressing this matter.
What has struck me about the practice is that it is one of the most horrible and unnecessary forms of violence against women in the world. It is an extreme manifestation of patriarchal control. As everyone knows, there are severe and long-term consequences for any girls or women who undergo it. There are not simply physical consequences, although there are plenty of those; there are also psychological consequences. That needs to be dealt with.
I also agree with the hon. Lady when she says that some parents—some mothers—will believe that they are doing the right thing. I accept that. It is a tragedy, of course, because it is totally wrong; it is totally the wrong thing to do for their children. Without getting too personal, I could not bear to think of my daughter undergoing this practice. It is an abhorrent act, and we all need to ensure that we are challenging it.
A culture change is necessary, as hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber have accepted this afternoon. That needs to be taken forward. As the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington said, that is not simple, but it is necessary and we have to work out how best to do so. Some of the campaigners are in a better position to convince public opinion than perhaps Ministers, shadow Ministers or anyone else is, although we have our role to play, I hope, not least when it comes to the law. I will come to the issue of prosecutions and so on later.
We have to challenge the assumptions—the lazy assumptions, perhaps—that do exist in some areas, in some communities. FGM does not make women pure or clean. It does not increase fertility. It does not assure faithfulness. It is child abuse and needs to be tackled head on. I am clear that Government action to stop FGM is vital, not just to comply with our international human rights obligations—although it does do that—but, more importantly, to protect and safeguard girls and women from this hopelessly outdated and archaic practice. It has no place in the 21st century or, indeed, in any century.
I have mentioned that the Home Office has the lead responsibility on this issue, but we are working with other Departments. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), asked what was happening in that regard. I am happy to tell her. I think she may know, but just for the record I point out that on 6 February I brought Ministers from other Departments, from across Government, together for the international day of zero tolerance to female genital mutilation, and the Ministers from all the Departments who were there signed—this is probably unique or certainly very rare in Government—a document that made this statement:
“There is no justification for FGM—it is child abuse and it is illegal.
This government is absolutely committed to preventing and ending this extremely harmful form of violence.
The government is clear that political or cultural sensitivities must not get in the way of uncovering and stopping this terrible form of abuse. The law in this country applies to absolutely everyone.”
In the document, we go on to make a number of statements that I am sure hon. Members would agree with. Let me say for the record that it was not signed simply by me on behalf of the Home Office—it was also signed by the Under-Secretary of State for Health; the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who is responsible for public health; the Solicitor-General; my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for International Development; the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mr Timpson), who is responsible for children and families; and the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims.
Subsequently, the document was signed by a senior Minister at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and by a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government. It was also signed by the DPP. We are determined to work cross-departmentally on this matter and we take it very seriously.
No one would disagree with what is enshrined in that agreement, but how will it operate on the ground? Will we now see a requirement on teachers to identify those who are at risk of FGM or have undergone it and to put in place a safeguarding plan? Will we see a requirement on health workers to treat anyone who has undergone FGM as a victim of a crime and report it accordingly?
I will give, I hope, reasonably full answers to all those questions as I work through my response. We have plenty of time. This is a serious issue, and I will address those points as I come to them, including how we will deal with the matter within Government, which is also important. I am delighted that the Minister responsible for public health has joined us for this debate.
On Saturday, we published the updated “Violence against Women and Girls Action Plan”, which contains more than 100 actions that different Departments have agreed to carry out to tackle violence against women and girls. Every three months, the Home Secretary chairs an inter-ministerial group on violence against women and girls, which I attend as a relevant Minister, to monitor progress on the action plan. This year’s action plan has a strong focus on FGM and will be the vehicle for the Home Office to drive the work forward. I also chair separate, specific cross-Government meetings on FGM, in recognition of the need to work together.
Declarations and cross-departmental working can take us only so far, however. My colleague the Minister with responsibility for public health, who did so much to raise the profile of FGM in her role as chair of the all-party group on female genital mutilation, announced that all acute hospitals would report information about the prevalence of FGM among their patient population each month. The full report from that data return will be available from the autumn. That is an enormous step forward in understanding the extent of FGM in this country.
Linked to that, the Home Office is part-funding a prevalence study on FGM, which is designed to update the figures from the 2007 study. Even the new study based on 2011 census data will provide only an estimate of prevalence, but the data from the NHS will give us a real insight into the incidence and distribution of FGM. Those data will provide local areas with the information that they need to prioritise tackling FGM, and in time they will give us a benchmark against which to monitor the effectiveness of our actions and interventions.
Does the Minister accept that the prevalence data based on census data are particularly unreliable for establishing the prevalence of something among ethnic minority communities? Apart from the problem of getting people to respond to the census, there is the issue of people who are British, and who correctly describe themselves as such, but who come from the countries that I listed earlier as having a high prevalence of FGM.
That is a fair point, which I am sure the NHS and my colleague the Minister with responsibility for public health will take on board. That is only one element of the work being done by the Department of Health to improve how the NHS responds to, follows up and supports the prevention of FGM.
The Department also liaises closely with other Departments and agencies, such as the royal colleges, voluntary organisations, arm’s-length bodies and others, to make sure that they get a comprehensive take on the matter across the NHS. NHS bodies have a duty to assist and provide information in support of child protection inquiries under section 47 of the Children Act 1989. The Government recognises that for the existing legislative framework to succeed, health professionals must report both actual and suspected cases of FGM.
A lot of the debate has focused on prosecution. We all feel deep frustration that 28 years on there has not been a successful prosecution. Nobody welcomes that fact, and we must try to understand why it is and what we can do to change it. There are many barriers to prosecution if we rely solely on a victim’s testimony for evidence, as hon. Members have said. At the time of mutilation, victims may be too young and vulnerable or too afraid to report offences, or they may be reluctant to implicate family members who might be prosecuted as a consequence. Those barriers to prosecution cannot easily be overcome, so it is important to find ways of building a case that do not necessarily rely on the testimony of child victims, and that focus particularly on those who facilitate and perform FGM.
The Government strongly supports the action plan that the Director of Public Prosecutions has published with a view to bringing successful prosecutions for FGM. I am heartened and encouraged by statements from the former DPP, Keir Starmer, and his excellent successor, Alison Saunders, to the effect that it is only a matter of time before we see a prosecution. Having met the DPP on more than one occasion, I think that she is an extremely good appointment and that she is utterly committed to taking the matter forward.
The Crown Prosecution Service is currently considering, or advising the police on, 11 cases of alleged FGM. Four cases that have previously been considered, in which the police or prosecutors decided to take no further action, are being re-reviewed. The CPS is also looking at three new cases, and it has had preliminary discussions with police in relation to their investigations into four further cases that are at an early stage.
A joint CPS and police training event was held at CPS headquarters on 10 February this year, which was attended by prosecutors and police officers from across England and Wales. That was the first time such an event had been held, and it was used to raise awareness of relevant investigation and prosecution strategies by working on hypothetical case studies. It is being seen as a model for further CPS and police training events on FGM.
I thank the Minister for the detail that he has given us. As has already been mentioned, we are talking about a crime of which there is obvious evidence; that is not the same as an allegation of child sex abuse, where the case often relies on a child’s word that something has happened to them. I fail to understand, when such cases have been referred to the system, where they are falling down. Is it because it is not possible to identify exactly who the perpetrator is? It is obviously possible to identify that a crime has been committed. Can the Minister give us more of an explanation?
That leads me to the next section of my response, which concerns the law. It may help to answer that question if I spend one or two minutes talking about that. The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee might also want to consider that question in his investigations and see whether there are better answers than I will give this afternoon. The hon. Lady has asked a perfectly valid, rational, sensible and appropriate question.
The CPS action plan commits to raising any issues about the current law with the Ministry of Justice. The DPP wrote to Ministers on 3 February with a paper identifying possible ways in which the criminal law could be strengthened to make prosecutions for FGM not only more likely, but more likely to succeed. Those include clarifying the law in relation to re-infibulation and relaxing the definition of “permanent UK resident”—that is part of the problem—in the context of extra-territorial offences. Ministerial colleagues and I are giving careful consideration to the areas identified.
Has the Minister considered whether, as I suggested earlier, there ought to be a law that prohibits offences preparatory to FGM or that criminalises a failure to prevent FGM? Under such a law, the presumption —to be rebutted in law, if necessary—would be that those with care of a child were the people who ought to prevent the practice from happening.
There are other offences under domestic violence legislation that may be appropriate in this case, and we must not fall into the trap—an attractive one for parliamentarians—of thinking we need only to change the law to improve matters. The hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington made the point that the law has been there for 28 years. Ensuring that prosecutions are successful is about not only the law but the cultural situations that we are dealing with.
It is a question not only of the law but of implementing the law. I do not see why we cannot prosecute someone who is an accomplice or an accessory, or who has conspired in the practice. If someone has care of a child and has knowingly sent them overseas to be cut, it is not at all clear to me why that person cannot be prosecuted.
The DPP is looking at those sorts of issues as part of her work on the matter. That is why a training event was held to look at cases and work through scenarios to see what the problems were. In answer to the shadow Minister’s suggestion that there should be legislation on offences preparatory to FGM, we are open-minded about the matter and we will look at sensible suggestions that may help the situation. I simply made the point that we should not fall into the trap of assuming that a law will do our work for us when it has not done so in 28 years.
That is exactly the point that I wanted to make: the law has not worked so far, because nobody has been prosecuted. Perhaps the House needs to make a different law or amend the existing law to enable prosecution. It is not good enough to say that Members have a knee-jerk reaction of thinking that a law will make a difference. The existing law has made no difference, so let us amend it.
We have to be clear about whether the law is faulty, whether there is a reluctance to use it or whether other obstacles are preventing it from being used successfully. I am not ruling out looking at the law; I am merely saying that we have to look at all possible avenues to find out exactly what the problem is. The DPP is doing that through her work with the police, and I am sure that the Home Affairs Committee will do the same in its investigations.
The points raised by Members are important in answering the question why; however, we must look forensically at why there has not been a prosecution. A change to the law, or how we implement it, might be required, but we must not rush to judgment. Although we need to act quickly, we must get it right for the future.
The Home Office is looking at what has happened to date. We are looking at whether there are sufficient referrals, or whether there is a hold-up elsewhere, and we welcome comments from anywhere in the House about how matters might be improved. We are open-minded.
The Ministry of Justice is considering whether a civil law remedy might provide an additional tool with which to tackle FGM. The idea is that those afraid of being subjected to FGM, or friends or family of those at risk, could apply for an order so as to put the potential victim under the protection of the courts. That would be a proactive rather than reactive step. The MOJ is also seeking views from key stakeholders about the merits of a civil law measure and how that might work alongside criminal legislation. That aspect is already being considered in Government.
The Minister will be aware that the Queen’s Speech is coming up. If the Select Committee is able to offer suggestions on how the law should be strengthened, will there be opportunities to make legislative changes before the next general election?
As I say, we will be looking very carefully and seriously at any suggestions that the Select Committee makes on the issue. As for whether there is legislative time, that is not a matter for me; it is for the Leader of the House of Commons, the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley), to allocate time. All I would say is that we are now approaching the last Session of this Parliament, which is already pretty crowded—
Members who are making comments from sedentary positions have not yet seen what will be in the next Session. It also ends before the general election in May 2015, so there is limited time for legislation, but we will look at suggestions. Given the fact that there is unanimity across all three parties on trying to deal with FGM, if legislative change is necessary, whatever the result of the general election, I am confident that whatever Government we have will try to move the issue forward.
The Minister is being very generous in giving way. From what he said earlier—perhaps I misheard, or missed it—I am not clear whether the Government accept the recommendations in the joint royal colleges’ report on tackling FGM. If they do not accept any, what are they?
They are linked in terms of our overall response to dealing with FGM.
I welcome the step taken by the Secretary of State for Education—to whom I wrote—who, after meeting Fahma Mohamed, the young woman whose campaign has featured in The Guardian, committed to send to all schools guidance on keeping children safe. His Department expects to publish revised safeguarding in education guidance shortly. The statutory guidance, which replaces the 2007 guidance, will be clearer and simpler, and will direct schools to the latest expert advice on subjects such as FGM.
Over two years, the DFE is also providing more than £700,000, split between the Victoria Climbié Foundation and the Africans Unite Against Child Abuse NGO, for safeguarding work with black and minority ethnic communities. Such work of course includes FGM. Also, DFE funding for the charity Children and Families Across Borders has enabled it to produce a training app on FGM.
Along with my colleagues, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Lynne Featherstone), and the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr Laws), I met head teacher and teaching unions in mid-January to discuss how to raise awareness in schools of FGM and gender-based violence. After a constructive meeting, we will be working further with the unions on the issue.
As has been mentioned, following a successful bid to the European Union progress funding stream, the Home Office was awarded approximately €300,000 in November 2013 for work to raise awareness of FGM in the UK. As part of that work, we are launching a communications campaign aimed at parents and carers of young girls at risk of FGM. The campaign will include online advertising and posters in changing rooms and shopping centres. Materials will also be produced and provided to communities to run their own educational events and workshops in order to open up the debate on FGM. Research is currently being undertaken to test messages and campaign materials with parents, professionals and partners.
The Government has committed to developing an e-learning tool so that all practitioners—social workers, teachers, health care professionals, police and the like—will be able to undertake an introduction to FGM. We will raise awareness of the new e-learning tool by carrying out a national outreach programme with local safeguarding children boards.
We recognise that the long-term and systematic eradication of FGM in the UK will of course require practising communities to abandon the practice themselves. We have launched a £100,000 FGM community engagement initiative. Charities have been invited to bid for up to £10,000 to carry out community work to raise awareness of FGM, and we are now assessing the bids.
The Government also recognises that religious leaders can also play a role in dispelling myths about FGM. It is important to make the point that no major religion condones or requires FGM. In January, the Under-Secretary of State for International Development and I met faith groups to look for opportunities to work together to raise awareness of FGM. I was heartened by the strength of the groups’ condemnation of FGM, across all religions. I am committed to pursuing that dialogue with them and seeking their advice on how they can help us to take the campaign forward.
Despite one or two comments to the contrary by elements of our so-called popular press, it is of course vital that we spend money overseas to tackle FGM, and that we persuade those communities that adhere to the practice to stop. In my view, that is the most effective way to influence the diaspora from such countries here in the UK. The practice is not going to end in the UK before it ends in Africa.
No. We are going to do our very best to protect British girls. I share the hon. Lady’s objective of an FGM-free zone—she used that phrase and I absolutely agree with her. Nevertheless, it is not realistic to assume that we can reach zero while diaspora communities here are linked with communities elsewhere in the world where FGM continues. We must approach the issue from both ends—both here in the UK, as I have indicated by what we are currently doing, and through the money we spend abroad in other communities, on which DFID is leading.
Last March, DFID announced a new £35 million flagship programme to support the Africa-led movement to end FGM—such a movement is important. That is the largest donor investment in ending FGM ever, and the programme is under way. It includes support to the UN—through UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund—for targeted work with communities and leaders and for work at a national level on policies and legislation in 17 countries.
The programme will also include a global social change campaign, which has just been contracted to a consortium that includes leading anti-FGM campaigners. The campaign will work with communities to support them to abandon FGM, support national and Africa-regional initiatives, and galvanise a global movement to raise political and financial commitment. It will also include up to £1 million to support UK-based diaspora organisations for efforts to end the practice in their countries of origin.
This year, DFID will be launching the research component of the overall programme, in order to improve understanding of what works to end FGM. In addition, DFID has committed a separate £12 million for a programme to support efforts to end FGM in Sudan, working with the UN. At the weekend, the Prime Minister announced that he will be hosting a major event on 22 July to tackle forced marriage and FGM both internationally and here in the UK. He has set out his personal commitment to demand better rights for women and girls worldwide and to tackle these terrible practices.
Three or four Members referred to what happens in France. I am advised that FGM is not a specific criminal offence in France; instead, the French choose to prosecute under a range of general criminal offences, such as exercising violence against or seriously assaulting a child under the age of 15. It is true that, as Members mentioned, all girls in France undergo an annual health check that includes genital examination by a medical professional. The Minister responsible for public health is present and will have heard that Members have expressed interest in that approach.
It is also important to put it on the record that there are significant differences between the criminal justice systems in France and England and Wales. There is a lower standard of proof and less corroboration is required to support prosecutions in France than in England and Wales. In practice, an incriminating statement by the accused or a third person suffices for a conviction. That would not be sufficient to bring a criminal prosecution in England and Wales. The two legal systems are not comparable in that sense, which may explain some of the differences.
I was taken by the suggestion from the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee that I might speak to my opposite number in France. That is a good idea and I will ask my officials to take that forward.
But if a child’s vagina is sewn up, the responsibility of who actually did the cutting is subsidiary to the fact that her parents allowed it to happen—the parents who have care of the child—so there is de facto an offence that has occurred that can be prosecuted.
If it were as simple as that, we would have seen prosecutions over the past 28 years. It is not a case of whether it is the mother, the father or the grandparents. It is not as simple as that. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady is rightly frustrated by the fact that there have been no prosecutions. So am I. I do not want to stand here today defending the fact that for 28 years there have been no prosecutions. It is not defensible. However, I can assure the hon. Lady, as I have assured others, that the Home Office takes the matter seriously. The CPS and the police are taking it seriously. At the moment, 11 cases are being considered. I agree that if we can get a successful prosecution, that would be helpful as part of the strategy to try to minimise and hopefully end FGM in this country.
In conclusion, the Government takes FGM very seriously and it is high on our list of priorities, particularly mine. The Home Office co-ordinates and leads the work on FGM, but we recognise that tackling FGM and all forms of violence against women and girls needs a robust, sustained and dynamic cross-Government approach in which every Government Department—criminal justice, education, health and international development—works with the others to identify, protect and support victims and bring those responsible to justice. We believe that by implementing this approach and working together, we can end FGM and all forms of violence against women and girls. That is our aim.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate today for the cross-party commitment. I look forward to working with others in other parties to drive the matter forward.
Thank you, Mr Baker. Before I conclude, I shall offer Mr Vaz the opportunity to say a few words. I will also offer an imaginative opportunity to the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), if she wishes to intervene on Mr Vaz, to put something formal on the record. However, there is no obligation to accept it.
It is a pleasure to serve under you for the first time, Mr Havard. Thank you for coming to chair this debate. I will put the fact that the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), is here on the record. I want to pay tribute to her as a Back-Bench MP. No other Member in the House has been as assiduous as she has been. I know that a lot of Members, some of whom are here today, have worked very hard with her. I am pleased that she is now in the Department of Health, because she will be one of the Ministers who will be called before the Select Committee to explain what she is doing in Government, having done such excellent work already.
I thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in this debate. The hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) rightly told us that in order to deal with the issue effectively, there had to be clear leadership, education and awareness. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) said that we need to be open and honest about names and exactly what the processes were. I have never known her to be someone, especially having served in the Whips Office, not prepared to put even controversial words on the record, and she did so today. I was pleased to hear about what is happening in Newham, which the Committee will visit. I also commend the work of Councillors Robinson and Terry Paul for what they have done on this issue.
The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has put out a six-point plan with benchmarks and recommendations to the Select Committee. We will follow what he has to say, not only because he is my next-door neighbour in Norman Shaw North, but because I know that he, as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Home Office, will want to make sure that that plan is adhered to. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was, as usual, passionate and eloquent, and rightly raised issues concerned with the community. She also specifically reminded us of the international dimension. FGM happens not only to British girls; it also happens abroad.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) also intervened on a number of occasions, and it was good to hear from her. I was heartened by what both the shadow Minister and the Minister said. They both seemed committed to making the changes that are necessary. Tomorrow we begin the first set of evidence in the Select Committee. I can promise the House that we will be thorough and we will hold people to account for the lack of prosecutions. We will ask the Government what they are proposing to do, and will put forward a series of recommendations that I hope the Prime Minister can take forward when he hosts the conference in July.
Sometimes at prime ministerial conferences, Parliament is left out of the discussion. I hope that the Prime Minister will invite Members of this House to take part. I have today heard some of the most eloquent speeches in my 27 years in this House. There is a lot of expertise in Westminster and we should work together. We all want the same thing. There is a unity in Westminster Hall today that I see too rarely, unfortunately. I know I may sound like a Liberal Democrat, but I want everyone to get on together and work together on the same agenda, because the real suffering of our children and the women in this country is there for everyone to see. FGM is a cruel, horrific crime and we will bring the people responsible to justice.
Question put and agreed to.