[Relevant documents: Second Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Session 2014-15, “Female genital mutilation: the case for a national action plan”, HC 201, and the Government response, Cm 8979.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mel Stride.)
It is an enormous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir.
It is important to note that female genital mutilation has been on the agenda for many years. Only this week, however, our Select Committee held our first evidence session on the matter since the publication of our report last July. One can never predict when one will get a debate in Westminster Hall, but it is extremely timely that we are able to have this debate so soon after our follow-up evidence session.
I am delighted that the Minister for Crime Prevention will respond to the debate. She is well known for her involvement in efforts to combat FGM over many years. Now that she has returned to the Home Office, after a period as an International Development Minister, she can once again focus on the important issue of FGM.
I am also pleased to see in the Chamber my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who is another great campaigner on FGM. She has tabled parliamentary questions and motions on the matter because so many people in her constituency are affected by that terrible activity.
The whole Select Committee does not normally turn up for debates on our reports, but I am pleased to see the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) in the Chamber to support us. However, he has other important duties in the House to attend to, so I understand why he will not be staying for the whole debate.
The Home Affairs Committee was united and unanimous in presenting our conclusions to Parliament and the Government last year when we published our report on FGM. At the outset of the debate, it is worth reminding ourselves of the numbers involved. By their very nature, they are estimates, but it is important to read them into the record so that people are aware of them. An estimated 125 million women and girls worldwide have undergone FGM, and an estimated 3 million girls are subjected to FGM each year. It is estimated that 170,000 women and girls in the United Kingdom are living with FGM and that 65,000 girls aged 13 and under are at risk of FGM.
More than 200 FGM-related cases were investigated by the police nationally in the past five years but, unfortunately, it has taken 29 years since the criminalisation of FGM for the first prosecutions to be brought. As we debate the issue today, a prosecution is ongoing in another part of London. We cannot talk about the circumstances of that case, and nor would it be right for us to do so, so I refer to it only in terms of it being the first such prosecution. Interestingly, it was initiated only two days before the Director of Public Prosecutions came to give evidence to the Select Committee. Having waited 29 years, it was something of a surprise suddenly to get the first prosecutions only days before we looked at the subject, but we welcome them. There have been no prosecutions since, which is an issue for us and for the Government.
I described the figures I cited as “estimated” because the prevalence of FGM in the United Kingdom has been difficult to determine due to the hidden nature of the crime. In two London boroughs, for example, almost one in 10 girls is born to a woman who has undergone FGM, meaning that they are also at risk of being cut themselves. We have little information about the children who are most at risk, or even about the extent to which the cutting is occurring in this country or when the girls are taken abroad.
This crime—the mutilation of women and girls—is taking place in the shadows, so it is important that we shine a light on what is happening. As we speak, somewhere in London a young girl is being cut, and we in Parliament are unable to do anything to stop that happening. That was why the Committee’s recommendations were so forceful about the need for substantial changes to how things are done.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment as shadow Solicitor-General. If the British people vote in a Labour Government and he is fortunate enough to become Solicitor-General, his Department—the Attorney-General’s Office—will have responsibility for that, so it will be for him and the new Government to say, “We will change the law.”
The Committee made specific recommendations on mandatory reporting and the criminalisation of failing to do so. The professions, however, are not so keen on that and would prefer to deal with this on a professional basis. We need to keep the law under constant review, but there is already legislation in place that has not been used. If my hon. Friend becomes Solicitor-General, we will expect whoever is his DPP to be a little more active than their predecessors of the past 29 years in ensuring that things happen.
The World Health Organisation defines FGM as
“all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.”
That will include, in our view, designer work on genitals that is done with the woman’s consent.
FGM is usually carried out on girls between infancy and the age of 15, with the majority of cases occurring between the ages of five and eight. It is commonly performed by a traditional practitioner who has no formal medical training, without any kind of drugs to assist with the pain that the young girls are suffering, and using knives, scissors, scalpels, pieces of glass or even razor blades. We heard harrowing testimony during our inquiry of how girls are often forcibly restrained, in some cases by close members of their families, including their mother and aunts. While the performance of FGM might be done by a stranger with the instruments that I described, the act usually involves the connivance and support of members of the family including, in some cases, mothers.
During our inquiry, we heard some excellent evidence from those involved in dealing with FGM and campaigning on the issue. On Tuesday, we took evidence from two campaigners called Leyla Hussein and Alimatu Dimonekene. We also took evidence from Keith Niven, who is head of the rape and child abuse command in the Metropolitan police, Professor Nigel Mathers from the Royal College of General Practitioners and Janet Fyle from the Royal College of Midwives, all three of whom also gave evidence during the original inquiry. In addition, during the original inquiry, Leyla Hussein appeared before us, and we also took evidence from Professor Janice Rymer, Obi Amadi, a community practitioner, Dr Kerry Robinson, Dr Comfort Momoh, Linda Weil-Curiel, a lawyer from Paris, and Dr Emmanuelle Piet, a female gynaecologist who is county medical officer in a district in France.
The Committee’s conclusions were quite clear. We lamented the lack of prosecutions, so we were glad when Alison Saunders came before us to announce that prosecutions were taking place. Rather bizarrely, I found out about the first prosecutions on the Friday before that evidence session in a supermarket in Battersea, along with the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), who is another great campaigner on FGM. We were there to talk about diabetes when the call came through to her that the first individuals had been arrested and would be charged. I pay tribute to all her work in the House on the issue both before and after she became a Minister, and she still has an interest as a Health Minister.
There is no doubt that prosecutions can send out the powerful message that the Government are serious about an issue, so the lack of prosecutions relating to FGM—only two in 29 years—is lamentable. The Committee said that we need many more prosecutions. It is not possible to match up the hundreds of thousands of girls affected worldwide, and the thousands affected or at risk in our country, with the fact that there have been only two prosecutions. We are not saying that we should prosecute for the sake of it; we are asking why there have not been sufficient prosecutions, and that is when we must look to the various agencies and their reactions.
Hon. Members will know that whenever the Select Committee conducts an inquiry, we come away with one standard recommendation: agencies concerned with a policy area have to work together. That is absolutely clear as far as FGM is concerned. There are some individual practitioners—Dr Comfort Momoh, for example, whom we visited at St Thomas’s hospital to look at her clinic and to talk to some of the women who were waiting to see her—who have tried to bring agencies together, but the process has taken far too long, and the agencies involved have become institutionalised.
We were especially critical about the lack of action by the police. We were not very impressed with the evidence given by the Association of Chief Police Officers lead. We did not feel that the answer to FGM was more seminars, discussions and conferences. We believe that the action required as a result of our report should be on the front line, engaging with community organisations to ensure that action is taken. We were not pleased with what the police had done.
On Tuesday, Detective Chief Superintendent Niven reminded us of evidence that had been given to us previously: the police cannot take any action if there are not sufficient referrals. At that time, the police were saying that it was not their responsibility, as they would act and investigate as soon as somebody came to them, and bemoaned the fact that not enough people were reporting the issue. We therefore must go to the next stage in the chain: social workers and doctors. The Committee believes that when doctors examine a young girl and find that FGM has been committed against her, they are under a duty to report it. We were of a view that there should be mandatory reporting, with a sanction for those who fail to report. Colleagues from the Committee—I am delighted to see my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) here, as he took part in the inquiry sessions—put this question to all our witnesses: what should the sanction be? A number of them talked about the need for criminal sanctions, depending on the seriousness of the failure to report, which suggested that some individuals deliberately wished not to report, while others did not know what they were looking at.
Frankly, I was surprised to hear from some of our witnesses that doctors might not know what FGM is. Given that it takes seven years to train a doctor and medicine is one of the most difficult subjects to get into at university, I would have thought that most people who came out of that training would know whether FGM has been committed against a patient, rather than requiring further training. Of course we need particular FGM training, but doctors ought to know when something is wrong. I was really surprised that people, including social workers, were saying, “Well, the doctors might not know.” When we asked why, they said, “They may not be trained about it.” That is a big area that we need to look at, and the Committee believes it is important that we do so.
The information given to us by a number of witnesses was that although prosecutions in Britain have been very few—there have been hardly any, although the first are now taking place—in France there have been 40, and sentences have been imposed. Why should there be that difference, bearing in mind that this barbaric custom must be eliminated as far as we are able to do so?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The French need to be congratulated on the way they have dealt with the issue. He will recall the evidence given to the Committee by the witnesses from France whom I have already mentioned. I went over to Paris to meet doctors and prosecutors, and I was extremely impressed by not just the passion of those on the front line but the willingness of the authorities themselves to get things done. We went to meet the officials of the relevant Minister. They were determined to ensure that that willingness continued. We could not understand why there was a difference between what the French were doing and what we were doing, with so many prosecutions in France and only two in our country.
We asked every one of our witnesses from Britain whether they had gone over to France to look at good practice. Frankly, none had done so, from the ACPO lead to those who run our royal colleges. It is really important that we compare what is being done abroad to ensure that we are doing the right thing.
We also believe it is important that all schools provide training for teachers on the issue on in-service training days. Although we did not take direct evidence from schools to the extent that we would have wished, simply because we did not have time to see everyone, we felt that that training was important. Teachers and those in the education profession should be aware of and able to deal with the issue. If we look at a place such as London, there is no reason why every teacher in every school ought not to be made aware of the problem. They should be told about it and told exactly what to do about it, so that we can get to the truth of what is happening.
I apologise because, alas, I am unable to stay to the end of the debate. I joined the Committee after the original report was published, but have been at the subsequent sittings. The Chair rightly talks about the need for prosecutions, and we have better examples to follow in France. He also rightly talks about the need for better training and awareness, although, frankly, ignorance is no defence in this case. However, surely the heart of what we need to do is to challenge the culture and mentality of communities and families who allow FGM to go on, whether we do so through schools educating girls that they have a right to say no, or through working with the communities to say that it is an act of barbarism and a terrible form of child abuse. That is where the root of the problem lies, and it is what has to be rooted out.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I will come on to the role of the community and family members, but he is right to raise the matter at this time. I agree with everything he said; this is a matter for communities and families.
We have dealt with the police and the lack of action by the police. The report has dealt with the comparisons with France. The report deals with the prosecutors. We have dealt with the medical profession, but before I finish with the medical profession, I have to say—this is my personal view—that of all the witnesses who came before us, the royal colleges seemed to lack understanding of the seriousness of the subject. They kept talking about the need for guidance and guidelines and for it to be dealt with on a disciplinary basis within their professions. We were talking about criminal sanctions for doctors who failed to report. They were relying on patient confidentiality to ensure that, whoever came before them, the information was kept within the parent-doctor or client-doctor relationship. We did not agree with that. We feel that the medical profession and the royal colleges have not acted swiftly enough to deal with the issue, because they are not sensitised to it; they do not have enough expertise in dealing with it.
There are individual doctors in different parts of the country who do have expertise. I remember doing a radio interview on this. There is a doctor in Reading who has made it her life’s work to deal with FGM, so many women go to Reading to see her, but that kind of expertise needs to be taken all over the country. St Thomas’s hospital is a classic example. Comfort Momoh is doing wonderful work there, but she has built things up herself; no one asked her. She has developed that work and ensured it will help women and children.
In order that there is no misunderstanding by those who may be sensitive, in the medical profession or elsewhere, that this could be a form of racism, should we not make it absolutely clear that what we are discussing has absolutely nothing to do with the Islam religion as such and that the leading campaigners—very courageous people whom we should praise, as I am sure my right hon. Friend has done—are themselves Muslims?
Yes. I support that absolutely. I am sure that my hon. Friend was moved, as I was, by the fact that Leyla Hussein broke down in tears before the Select Committee on Tuesday when she was asked whether she had been subjected to death threats and other threats to her and her family. The courage of people such as Leyla Hussein goes against those who believe that some kind of political correctness means that people cannot talk about these subjects—that the community is somehow on its own and no one can comment. As my hon. Friend said, this is barbarism—brutality—and it needs to be dealt with. There is no community, religious or political justification for what is going on, which is why it needs to be stopped.
To finish my point on the medical profession, it needs to do much more. This country does not do mandatory examinations of young children as France does. That is not what we do here, but we believe that if a doctor comes across this, there should be a mandatory duty to report.
Let me deal finally with where we go from here and what the Select Committee hopes will happen to its report. The Home Affairs Committee does not believe in publishing reports with a lot of recommendations and then just walking away from them. That is why this week we revisited the conclusions of this report and took fresh evidence. I can say now, even though we have not written another report, that I was not overly impressed that huge progress has been made since we published this report, but we made a promise to the campaigners that we would look at the issue again, so we will produce a report as a result of our revisiting it. However, it will be for our successor Committee in the new Parliament to look at it again.
The worst possible thing that we could do for those who suffer every day is to produce a report, let it lie on the shelf, wait for the Government response and not pursue it. We wish to pursue this matter until we see real change, and I do not mean just the kind of FGM that we have been discussing today. We raised with all witnesses that which is happening as we speak in places such as Harley street—private clinics that women go into to create what are described as designer vaginas. They consent to that happening; they are not forced to do it by individuals holding them down. They go voluntarily, for whatever reason—peer pressure or another reason—and have these operations themselves. I believe that this should be a criminal offence, and I am very pleased that all the witnesses who gave evidence to us this week—barring Detective Chief Superintendent Niven, who thought there should be a debate about this—also felt very strongly that it should be a criminal offence.
The argument is that we can allow this to happen if there is consent and it is done in the private sector, but not if it is done in people’s homes and redone sometimes in the public sector when women go to hospitals and doctors perform the operation again, for whatever reason. We should not have double standards. That is why I believe that what we have proposed should happen.
I wish that I could say in conclusion that, as a result of something we have done, someone has been prevented from being the subject of FGM. We do not claim that. All we say is that we hope that we have raised the issue in a positive and constructive way. I believe that we are pushing at an open door. Government and Opposition are united on doing something about this. I saw the Prime Minister’s personal commitment during the Girl summit. Leaders came from all over the world to support the initiative that he and the Department for International Development had taken.
The Minister should take credit for the Girl summit and her involvement in that. Everyone is for it and everyone is united, but this practice is still going on in London, Leicester, Bristol and Manchester and is not being stopped. We have to stop it, because that is the right thing to do, it is the humane thing to do and it protects the human rights of girls and women.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir
I welcomed very much the Home Affairs Committee’s decision to hold an inquiry on FGM and the publication of this report. I will reserve my comments on the Government’s response until I can, I hope, intervene on the Minister, although I did think that there were some areas in which that could have been stronger and more enthusiastic about the Committee’s recommendations, especially with regard to personal, social, health and economic education.
As hon. Members know, the witnesses to the inquiry included Integrate Bristol, and much of the leadership on this issue has come from young women in Bristol, including Fahma Mohammed, who was chosen to spearhead the campaign by The Guardian against FGM, as well as the e-petition, which gained more than 234,000 signatures. That petition alone did a huge amount to raise awareness of FGM. When I first became aware of it and started talking about it, after I became an MP in 2005, awareness was very limited, but FGM is now very much on the radar. People understand what the issue is, even if they do not know all the details. I pay tribute to the work of young women in helping to raise awareness.
Fahma also successfully persuaded the previous Secretary of State for Education to write to every school to highlight his Department’s safeguarding guidance. It is very disappointing that, as the report says, many schools—70%, I think—did not appear even to have looked at that, certainly within the first month of its being sent. I will come back to talk about the work that is done in schools.
Bristol is not included in the report’s list of places that were found to have a prevalence rate of FGM of more than 2%, although it should be noted that the data used were from between 2001 to 2004, so they are now rather out of date. There have been considerable demographic changes in Bristol, so those data may not reflect the true picture for 2015. Much of the evidence on FGM is, as the report notes, anecdotal, but whatever the true rates are, any instance of FGM being carried out is obviously completely unacceptable and something that we must continue to work to challenge.
The Select Committee describes the failure of the state—be it the Government, the police, or health, education or social services—over recent years to protect girls from FGM as a “a national scandal”. The mutilation of many of those girls—girls to whom the state owes a duty of care—could have been prevented, and the fact that we did not manage to do so, and that we continue to fail to do so, is shameful.
The community in Bristol that is most at risk is the Somali community. I was pleased to note from the report that according to the Tackling FGM initiative, support for the practice among settled members of the Somali community has waned in recent years. Very good work has been done in the community in Bristol. I have particularly highlighted the work of young women in Integrate Bristol, but whenever I meet Somali community groups, I find that men are also very committed to challenging FGM. The Committee’s recommendation 19 states that the Government should
“encourage the roll-out of best practice from groups such as Integrate Bristol.”
It has been more than two years—I think it was in November 2012—since the former Director of Public Prosecutions came to Parliament to reveal to a group of MPs his action plan for FGM. At that time, we were impressed by the points that he laid out in the action plan, as well as by the fact that he was taking a personal interest in the issue and coming to speak to us himself. The report outlines why it has proved to be so difficult, even with that action plan, to secure a prosecution, and cites as the main reason the fact that
“there have been very few investigations by the police.”
I tabled parliamentary questions several years ago in an attempt to find out where the blockage was and whether the CPS was reluctant to take cases forward. I was told that there was no lack of will on the part of the CPS, but that very few cases were being brought to its attention. As the report says, about 20 cases had been brought to the attention of the CPS. The fact that some prosecutions are moving ahead is good news but, as we have heard, the numbers are nowhere near the scale that France has managed to achieve. I have spoken to the police about this many times and they always say that they would be happy to investigate if evidence was brought to their attention. As the DPP has said, however,
“if you wait for the archetypal young girl to come through the door to tell you what has happened to her…that is not going to happen”.
The police cannot rely on self-reporting from victims; they need referrals from other sources. I welcome the work that has been done in Bristol in recent years to improve FGM awareness among health professionals and those who work in the voluntary sector.
As the report highlights, there is still a failure to perceive FGM as a safeguarding issue in the same way as other forms of child abuse, which is what it is and how it must be treated. Indeed, the report says that the record of referrals by health care practitioners and others is extremely poor. I note the Committee’s recommendation that there is no point simply publishing multi-agency practice guidelines online and that they should be put on a statutory footing. It also states that FGM should be included as
“an essential part of all child protection training”,
with which I agree.
The report highlights misplaced concerns about cultural sensitivities, which is one reason why I believe that campaigning by young women from those communities that are most affected—young women who have undergone FGM, who have been at risk, or whose family members have undergone FGM—is so important. I have watched a session at St Brendan’s sixth form college in Bristol in which young women from Integrate Bristol were explaining FGM to pupils from their age group, and hon. Members will, I hope, recall an episode of “Casualty” that featured an FGM storyline.
I endorse the report’s recommendation on compulsory PSHE, as that subject has been raised with me repeatedly by professionals who work with young people on not only FGM, but issues such as teenage pregnancy, physical or emotional abuse, relationships and drugs. When I go to schools or talk to youth groups, young people always say that they think that PSHE should be made compulsory and extended to cover more areas. That is important, so I do not understand the Government’s reluctance to move on that. As I said, the Government’s response to that recommendation is disappointing. The recommendation that Ofsted should explicitly examine a school’s approach to FGM and violence against women—that is what FGM is—is also worthy of further consideration by the Government. I would be interested to know whether Ofsted has responded and whether it believes that it could take that up. The Government say that Ofsted does not conduct inspections of specific subject areas such as PSHE, but it will take account in its overall assessment of how schools deal with issues such as violence against women. I believe that that should be nailed down, because we know how schools respond to the threat of Ofsted’s verdicts, and I hope that Ofsted will give greater priority to the issue.
The section of the report on health care professionals is important. Muna Hassan from Integrate Bristol tells of the experience of her mother, who gave birth in Sweden. The midwife raised the issue of FGM as soon as Muna’s mother found out that she was pregnant, and it was followed up as Muna progressed through nursery and beyond. That is something that we can learn from. The report notes:
“Healthcare professionals have a vital role in breaking the generational cycle of FGM.”
The Committee recommends that
“the FGM status of the mother and her intentions for the child…be made a compulsory question at the antenatal booking interview”
and that, as a matter of policy, referrals should be made to children’s social care or the local multi-agency safeguarding hub if the mother has undergone FGM or there is perceived risk to the child. The Government say in their response that such professionals are already required to inform police if there is any risk of abuse, but I would appreciate it if the Minister would elaborate on that. According to the Committee’s recommendation, the simple fact that a mother had undergone FGM would be enough to trigger a referral, but the Government do not seem to believe that that should be the case. The report also says that GPs should ask new women patients about FGM as a matter of routine and states:
“We do not accept that patient confidentiality should prevent practitioners from making a referral where a child is at risk: as with any other form of child abuse, the law allows for disclosure where it is in the best interests of the child.”
We should all be focused on the best interests of the child.
I note the Committee’s recommendation that there is a strong case for strengthening the law on FGM and the Government’s response that they are doing so. The introduction of FGM protection orders is an interesting recommendation, so perhaps we can raise that with the Justice Secretary when he answers questions in the House next Tuesday.
Finally, I note the Committee’s finding that there is
“too little provision of clinical and mental health support services for the many thousands of women and girls in the UK who have undergone FGM.”
That is important, because FGM affects a woman throughout her whole life, physically and psychologically. Although we are focused on preventing FGM, we must not forget those whom it was not possible to protect and who still need our support.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate and to contribute to the ongoing discussion about how we respond, as a Parliament and as a nation, to female genital mutilation and how we can strengthen the effectiveness of our response.
I thank the Home Affairs Committee for its report. I particularly thank the Committee Chair, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), for his persistence in ensuring that the report was not simply placed on a shelf. The report and the Government response not only resulted in immediate legislative changes —the amendments made to the Serious Crime Bill—but raised awareness of the issue of FGM. They gave campaigners, activists and MPs a great deal of information and evidence, and provided the tools to extend the conversation to our communities.
So many activists, campaigners and charities are involved in tackling FGM. We have already paid tribute to Leyla Hussein, and I would like to mention Nimco Ali and others in Daughters of Eve, the Hawa Trust and Celestine Celeste in the west midlands, which I have worked with. So many across the country have raised the issue of FGM and championed change in their own areas, as well as contributing to the national conversation. It is vital that we work with communities and give them the tools that they need, as well as building a bridge between them and what happens at a legislative level.
Although the Government have responded to some of the recommendations in the Home Affairs Committee report, I believe that, in some areas, the Government have not gone far enough. We need to go even further in our response to FGM when it occurs and in our national prevention strategy. FGM affects thousands of women and girls in this country, and many more are at risk, particularly where mothers have been victims and survivors of FGM. I pay tribute to the hon. Members who have made the vital point that there is no cultural excuse for FGM and that it is not a matter of religion. Indeed, 300 faith leaders signed a declaration last year to the effect that FGM is not part of their religion. This whole debate, led by the Home Affairs Committee’s work, has been important in helping to put that idea to bed and saying that we have a new consensus on taking forward the debate nationally. We are trying to be a leader on the world stage.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) raised some vital points that I wholeheartedly support, particularly on the importance of early education in schools. It is staggering that the Conservatives, and the Government as a whole, have voted against measures to make sex and relationship education compulsory in schools. Such education is a vital part of ensuring that teachers understand the issue and that young people have the tools to raise issues if they happen in their own lives and to raise awareness of what may be happening to others around them so that intervention can take place.
Where survivors and victims are identified, whether by safeguarding procedures or through health services, the provision of mental health support services is an issue. I have heard in conversation that those who have been cut have ongoing health conditions that they do not necessarily associate with FGM or with what has happened to them, which stops them getting the health support they need. There is a big message about how we need to join up justice, health and education services with a cross-Government strategy, which remains an important part of how we continue to move forward.
It is a scandal that we have not seen a successful prosecution since we passed the law making FGM illegal. A case is going through the courts, and there are ongoing discussions about that case, but the encouragement of FGM is an issue that I will go on to address. Some of the report’s recommendations have been included in the Serious Crime Bill and deserve a mention. I thank those Members of the other place who were important in strengthening the Bill there. Among those measures, lifetime anonymity for survivors is important because although many of those who have been cut feel a sense of shame and do not want their community to know, they want justice.
FGM protection orders, which we debated in Committee, are set to play an important part, and I am pleased that, in Committee, the Government committed to our call for legal aid for those protection orders. We cannot have measures in law that people do not have the means to access, particularly when an application for an FGM protection order might come from a girl herself. If the girl, her family, her colleagues or her school cannot help her to secure the necessary resources, that will be a measure in theory and not in practice. It is important, as the Government have recently committed to, that legal aid is made available to provide legal services not just for supporting paperwork, but for advocacy. It is important that the Government adhere to that commitment.
There has been an important move to broaden the scope of the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 to cover girls who are habitually resident in the UK, which was a vital gap, because people have different immigration status. We need to ensure that all girls in the UK are protected. In Committee, we debated how that will be taken forward, which is important. The Bill is still passing through the House, and we need to know how we will be working with agencies abroad and how the Home Office will be working with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to ensure that, if any girl who is habitually resident in this country is at risk either abroad or here, moves can be made to ensure that, as with those at risk from forced marriage, agencies abroad are trained and able to work together to ensure that there is protection for girls who are at risk.
The Bill introduces the new offence of failure to protect a girl at risk from FGM, which is an important measure that sends the right message that parents or guardians who do not safeguard their child will be held to account. It would be helpful to know what further dialogue the Minister has had on how that could be effectively implemented so that parents who have not taken care to safeguard their children may be successfully prosecuted in this country, as has happened abroad.
In Committee, we called for more action to address encouragement of FGM, which is a vital part of ensuring that we address some of the cultural issues in relation to FGM. I pay tribute to Dexter Dias QC, the people he has worked with and the many who have contributed to his research on why the current measures do not go far enough to intervene early to help to prevent FGM occurring in the first place.
There is huge pressure on parents from within affected communities, and campaigners feel the same pressure. We heard about the harrowing experience of campaigners such as Leyla Hussein, particularly when they stand up to the forces of tradition within their own communities. It is important to pay tribute to what those campaigners do, because it is not easy for them to stand up within their own community on issues that affect them, their friends and their family, as opposed to an issue of concern that does not have a direct effect on their own community.
Some important messages came out of the work done by Dexter Dias QC and others on the encouragement of FGM and the need to consider a distinct offence making such encouragement unlawful. That is an important part of strengthening not only our response and legislation in the UK, but our obligations under international law to combat FGM effectively, rather than merely reacting to ongoing practice, vital though that is.
The UK’s international law obligations are clear in their requirement that we take active steps to end the practice of FGM. We have been calling for the encouragement of FGM to be made illegal in this country because such a move is necessary for stopping FGM at its root. We propose a strengthened measure that builds on the amendment made by Baroness Meacher in the Lords in July 2014. We propose a tighter offence that, for the first time, would give parents who do not want to participate in this tradition, but who need the strength to challenge what they are being asked to do, the tools in law to challenge the public encouragement of FGM. Preventing encouragement in its strongest sense has been welcomed by survivors. Such a measure would, in our opinion, help to effect an important culture change within FGM-practising communities.
Effective communities often retain a strong hierarchical structure, in which encouragement or admonishment from elders can carry enormous weight. Not only are parents told that their daughter may never get married, but whole families can be ostracised and isolated as unclean. It is incredibly important to have a way to strengthen what families can do within their communities. The Hawa Trust, an organisation that works with local communities in Hackney, told the Select Committee on Home Affairs last year:
“The young uncircumcised girl is still considered today as a second-class citizen, impure… Such a young girl can neither marry nor even be allowed to prepare the family meal until she agrees to be circumcised.”
Sara, a teenager from a community practising FGM, told researchers working with Dexter Dias QC and others what makes parents do it:
“People. People telling them to. You call it encouragement, I call it people telling them you must follow our tradition, or else.”
If we are to end FGM we need a much stronger prevention strategy. What we propose goes further than what is on the statute book. This is not a free-speech issue about a matter of opinion; this is about challenging active encouragement to offend. We have said that a statement would need to be published with the intent to encourage members of the public directly or indirectly to mutilate the genitalia of a girl, or be reckless as to whether members of the public would be directly or indirectly encouraged.
Particularly if that could be followed by the police issuing encouragement warning notices and, where those were breached, applying for an encouragement warning order, followed by a criminal offence, we believe that it would be a proportionate response that strengthened the conversation we are having and sent a message of zero tolerance of such violence against girls. It would send out the message that FGM is child abuse and must be considered as such. Just as we would not tolerate anyone in our communities advocating child abuse, we should not tolerate anyone in our communities across the country advocating FGM or pressuring parents to cut their daughters.
Through the availability of such tools, the police and local services will be able to respond far more effectively and support campaigners for change who need help to intervene in their own communities in the interests of the majority who want change to happen.
To close on some other issues raised in the Government’s response, although the Home Affairs Committee rightly discussed the definition of reinfibulation, we also discussed that when considering the Serious Crime Bill. Again, the Government were reluctant at that stage to change the definition to make it explicit that reinfibulation was FGM and intended to be covered by the legislation. We have continued to hear concerns from royal colleges and others that it has not been clear to everybody in the health and justice sectors whether the original Act was intended to cover reinfibulation. It is important that the Government continue to consider whether to introduce a simple amendment, such as we proposed, to make it clear in the Serious Crime Bill that reinfibulation is part of the original definition of FGM.
Once again, I thank the Home Affairs Committee, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester East, for one of the most powerful interventions in my area of preventing violence against women and girls. It has engaged external communities, as well as Members of Parliament, with the issue, galvanised change and challenged Government and Opposition on this vital issue, on which we should continue to take a lead in ending FGM in our country and around the world.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Weir. I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) on securing this debate, and I thank him and other Committee members for their interest in the issue and their detailed report. I am pleased to see the public health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison), arrive; she has campaigned long and valiantly on this issue.
The coalition Government formally responded to the report on 9 December, setting out how the majority of the recommendations are in line with work that the Government are already undertaking. I will touch on some of them in due course. Many powerful contributions have been made to this debate, for which I am grateful; it has been a good discussion. This is an issue on which I am pleased to say all sides agree. It is probably the first issue I have campaigned on in politics where I have not found anyone against me, including the media.
After my speech, I intend to pick up on the points made by hon. Members before concluding. As set out in our response, the Government agree fully with the Committee’s assessment that tackling FGM requires a comprehensive approach. We recognise that the issue must be addressed through a range of measures focused across prevention, enforcement, support and protection. At the Girl summit last July, we announced an unprecedented package of measures to tackle FGM domestically, and we are on course to deliver those commitments ahead of the election.
Time, although I have a lot of it, precludes my setting out point by point everything that this Government have done to tackle FGM. Our actions include updated guidance, communications campaigns, training materials and a suite of resources for front-line professionals and communities, but I will provide more detail about how that action has contributed to increasing awareness of and focus on FGM. Demand for awareness material has increased even since the Girl summit. Since July 2014, we have received more than 230,000 orders for the materials, which include copies of guidance, fact packs and posters.
Although I hear that those measures are about process, the demand created by the high-profile nature of the issue is reaching people. The online training tool, while not the end of the line—I agree that colleges need to train their professionals—is making a substantive difference. Calls to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children’s dedicated helpline have almost doubled in the six months since the summit, but the coalition Government recognise fully that we must sustain and build on that momentum if we are to protect the thousands of girls at risk from this horrendous practice.
I recognise that it is always helpful to have the Home Affairs Committee hold our feet to the fire. As a campaigner who kicked off the Government campaign—it only really fired up about two and a half years ago with the launch of the £35 million campaign to support the African movement—I think that things have moved on apace, and I agree that holding feet to the fire must be done regularly. The worst thing that could happen would be if all the work that all of us have done, and the passion that we feel across all parties, lost momentum in successive Parliaments down the years.
I acknowledge the work done in this area by the public health Minister, the hon. Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison).
May I hold this Minister’s feet a little closer to the fire, as she has offered to have them put there, especially in relation to Government funding of community organisations involved with this issue? We were very surprised that the organisation headed by Leyla Hussein, for example, receives no Government funding; it receives funding from Comic Relief, which is not yet part of the Government, but no direct Government funding. I put that question in particular to the Minister.
Also, on the issue of awareness, does the Minister agree that it is important that we fund organisations that can get into the community, rather than just giving out Government leaflets and doing this work through Government agencies?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but we are already funding community organisations. Of course, anyone who does not get funding always says, “I haven’t got funding.” We are trying to underpin a number of organisations, including with funding. There is a £270,000 European fund and a £100,000 Home Office fund, and they are both funding community organisations. I went to visit one in Battersea, in fact. I am sure that the public health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, will want to talk about that if she intervenes on me.
Furthermore, community champions are being created—10 feisty females who are taking this message right into the communities. It is not only the Somali community that is affected; so often that community is put forward, and of course it has an extremely high prevalence of FGM. However, a whole range of communities are affected. There are champions from all of them who can take the message right into the heart of their communities, where they are accepted in a way that middle-aged politicians would not be. That is not ageist; it is just—
Would the hon. Lady mind if I simply finished? If there are points she wants to raise as I get towards the end of my speech, I will give way then. There are so many issues to get through.
The Committee has rightly focused on the low number of prosecutions for FGM. We all agree that prosecutions are not the sole answer and that the well-being of victims is paramount. However, it is equally important that the people who perpetrate this type of child abuse should have to feel the full force of the law, and I am pleased to say that the first people to be prosecuted for FGM in this country are currently before the courts.
There has been a continual cry that over all these years there has not been a prosecution, but I have to point out that under the coalition Government work has been done and we have created pressure. Indeed, the Director of Public Prosecutions who preceded the current DPP, who is Alison Saunders, chaired the action plan group and had his own action plan. When she came into post, Alison Saunders was enthused and advised to go forward on this issue. Nevertheless, there were no prosecutions prior to this time because there had been no referrals to the police. There is clearly much more to do in this respect, but we must recognise that progress has been made.
Prior to 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service was unaware of any cases being referred by the police for a decision to charge. Obviously, that brings me on to mandatory reporting, which I will discuss in a minute; that will be constructive in upping the rate of referral.
Since 2010, 14 cases have been referred. These referrals resulted in the case currently being heard at Southwark Crown court, and a number of other live cases. Importantly, a review of those cases by the CPS has led to some of the changes to the law before Parliament now, in the Serious Crime Bill. They will help ensure that law enforcement and the courts have the powers to bring the perpetrators of FGM to justice.
There has also been an increase in the number of police investigations into FGM; the figure varies from force to force, obviously, according to the prevalence and experience of FGM, although they are not entirely co-related. For example, between January and November 2014, West Midlands police received 118 reports of suspected FGM—a significant increase from the 25 reports they received in 2013. The Metropolitan police have seen a similar increase and have conducted joint operations at the border with the Border Force. It is important to reflect that while those investigations may not have resulted in prosecutions, the police have stressed that they have contributed to a robust safeguarding response that has helped to protect those at risk; prevention is much better than having to prosecute after the event.
Clearly, not all forces are as advanced in their approach to tackling FGM as the West Midlands police and the Metropolitan police, but the law enforcement response is being improved more broadly in a number of ways. The CPS has appointed a lead FGM prosecutor for each CPS area in England and Wales, and joint police-CPS investigation protocols for FGM have now been agreed with the 42 police force areas. In addition, 390 police and prosecutors have benefited from training on FGM, and the College of Policing is introducing a new authorised professional practice on FGM to raise awareness among investigators and to better equip them to tackle the practice.
Furthermore, in the past year the Home Secretary has commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to conduct a review into how police forces tackle honour-based violence, including FGM. It is planned for later this year and we will use the findings to strengthen further our approach to FGM.
Several hon. Members asked about the law. As I have already mentioned, we are strengthening the legal framework. A number of legislative changes concerning FGM are being taken forward in the Serious Crime Bill. First, we are extending the reach of the extraterritorial offences in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 to habitual residents of the UK, as well as to permanent UK residents.
Secondly, we are making changes to grant lifelong anonymity to victims of FGM, to help encourage victims to come forward. The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston (Seema Malhotra) raised the issue of anonymity and it is very important. Although we no longer have any truck with cultural eggshells, FGM is obviously still a very sensitive and personal issue; how one might be reviewed and regarded in one’s community is a big thing for those survivors who want to come forward to speak out. Granting them anonymity will be a protection for them.
Thirdly, the Serious Crime Bill creates a new offence of failing to protect a girl from the risk of FGM. That would make potentially liable someone who had parental responsibility, or who had assumed parental responsibility, for a girl under 16 who had been mutilated, if that responsible person knew or ought to have known that there was a significant risk of FGM being carried out but did not take reasonable steps to prevent it. I would assume that if a parent has suffered FGM, there is a high likelihood of a risk to their child.
We believe that these new measures will improve our ability to prosecute this appalling crime. Although we are keen to see the criminal law being used, ideally we want to prevent FGM from happening in the first place. Following a consultation launched at the Girl summit, the Serious Crime Bill also introduces a civil order to protect those at risk from FGM and those who are already victims of FGM.
The FGM protection order will operate in a very similar way to the existing forced marriage protection order. It will enable the courts to make an order that could include, for example, a requirement for a passport to be surrendered, to prevent a girl from being taken abroad for FGM. Although we know that FGM is being carried out here—I come from Haringey: it is happening there and in other areas—we also know that many girls are taken back to their mother countries to be cut, particularly in the cutting season, which is in the spring to early summer.
As the Home Affairs Committee report highlighted, those in safeguarding professions are absolutely key to reporting FGM. The Government have now consulted on how best to introduce a new mandatory reporting duty, to ensure that professionals report cases of FGM to the police. As the right hon. Member for Leicester East said, there is some nervousness in some quarters about mandatory reporting, but we also disagree with that. Some professionals have historically had concerns that confronting harmful cultural practices would result in their being labelled as politically insensitive, lead to issues of confidentiality or somehow drive the practice underground. We have to deal with that as we go. FGM is against the law—it is child abuse, and we must move this issue forward. There can be no equivocation about that.
At this point, I pay tribute to Efua Dorkenoo, who is the mother of tackling FGM and who tragically died very recently; we are absolutely bereft without her. She was absolutely clear about FGM. She knew the communities affected by it and she knew every difficulty that there is to know. She was unequivocal about the need for mandatory reporting and for cases to come to prosecution. I say, “Hear, hear, Efua!”
In addition, we want to see an increase in the number of cases being referred to the police. Having mandatory reporting will bring clarity for front-line professionals. At the moment, the situation is very difficult because there are always two halves to a professional. One of those is to protect, to care and to worry about things; that may lead to a fear that if a report leads to police action or a police referral, that will dent, or make more difficult, the caring side of their profession. Having a mandatory duty to report should clarify that position and take that onus and burden away from them.
Alerting the police to actual cases of FGM will allow professionals to investigate the facts of each case and increase the number of perpetrators apprehended and prosecuted. The consultation has finished, and we are considering all 150 responses and some of the issues around the sanctions. The mandatory reporting duty will help make the changes happen. We will set out our response to the consultation shortly with a view to legislating in this Session.
Legislation alone, however, cannot end FGM. Prosecutions would send out a strong message on the rule of law, but are unlikely to end the terrible crime. Prevention and protection are also of critical importance, and part of that work is continuing to ensure that those communities in the UK practising FGM are aware that it is considered to be child abuse here. There is a great lack of knowledge and penetration into some of those communities, although that is beginning to happen.
I recently went to Mogadishu, Somalia—previously, one could barely raise the issue or even say the words “female genital mutilation”, particularly in Sierra Leone and Somalia—and I talked with Prime Ministers, Presidents, women’s groups and a whole range of people. I spoke with activist girls in Somaliland. There has been an amazing step change from two years ago, which gives one real hope that this is a movement for change. It is not just happening in one country. The African Union has sent a resolution to the United Nations. The UN banned the practice worldwide in December 2012. Some 25 countries in Africa have banned FGM. Our diasporas and their mother countries are connected. We will not end FGM unless we support Africa, the middle east and other places where it is practised to end it.
Through education and protection measures, we will prevent more girls and young women from having this so-called procedure. I agree about the work in the communities, which is incredibly strong.
I will give way, but first let me get through some more of my speech. There will be a few minutes at the end.
The Government have published and updated the multi-agency practice guidelines on FGM. The guidelines highlight the risk factors that teachers, nurses, GPs, police officers and social workers should be looking out for during their work and set out what action they should take. To ensure better compliance with the guidelines, we have consulted on our commitment to making them statutory, as recommended by the Home Affairs Committee.
We are also supporting and funding community engagement work to raise awareness, which I covered earlier. We are ensuring that NHS acute hospitals are routinely recording information on FGM and using that to support social services and the police, as well as sharing it to provide appropriate health care for girls and women. The work that my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea has done in the Department of Health has motored the step change, because previously FGM was not even recorded. In that respect, it did not exist in the health professions.
The first statistics were published on 16 October and showed that for September, 125 of the 160 eligible acute trusts in England—that is 78%—submitted signed-off data. There were 1,279 active cases, and 467 newly identified cases of FGM were reported nationally. The statistics continue month by month, but I will not read all the months out. Those statistics represent a massive step change, because, as we all know, in politics if it cannot be counted, resources cannot be obtained, the problem does not exist and it does not get addressed. We now have concrete data, which is a huge step forward. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work she has done to make that happen.
The Government’s new FGM unit launched on 5 December 2014 and will work with local areas to strengthen their response. The unit will deliver a comprehensive programme of engagement with affected communities and front-line professionals. That includes a series of training workshops to local safeguarding children’s boards in areas with a high prevalence of FGM.
As the right hon. Member for Leicester East and the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) said, safeguarding is the name of the game here. Safeguarding boards have been slightly behind the curve in getting to grips with this issue. The local level is the right place to hold the ring—it has the appropriate understanding, confidence and knowledge to address the issue across all the different agencies in any location. The training workshops in high-prevalence areas will work in partnership with the Department of Health on a series of FGM conferences and on bringing together all law enforcement capabilities—the National Crime Agency, Border Force and the police—to co-ordinate action to support prosecutions on FGM.
Ensuring that front-line professionals in high-risk areas have the information and training they need to identify and tackle FGM will also be supported by NHS England’s national FGM prevention programme and statutory guidance on multi-agency working, called “Working Together to Safeguard Children”, as well as statutory guidance on the role of schools, called “Keeping Children Safe in Education”. Better data on FGM will also provide high-prevalence areas with the evidence they require to introduce dedicated FGM training and to commission services to support victims.
Various Members raised the issue of schools and education, and I am already on the record as saying that education on FGM has to be mandatory in schools as part of PSHE. Sex education should be compulsory. We are not at that stage, but I assure Opposition Members that it will be in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, as I am sure it will be in theirs. I hope we can move forward on the issue, because I can think of no better place to start raising awareness. In primary school, that awareness raising can be with the parents. I have met the parents of girls at risk. A primary school in Bristol is the first to have an FGM safeguarding policy. I met the head of that school—I am sure the hon. Member for Bristol East knows her—and she is doing a fantastic job with the parents to say, “This is our law. This is our safeguarding policy in our school.” I think that that is a progressive way forward.
The Home Office has launched an e-learning tool so that all practitioners, whether they are social workers, teachers, health care professionals, Border Force or the police, can undertake an introduction to FGM. Well over 8,000 people have accessed that training. There are reforms to social work, education and practice to protect children from FGM and other forms of abuse. Prevention is at the heart of that work to safeguard and protect all girls and women who may be at risk.
The Government are also, as I am sure all Members know, working to tackle FGM internationally. In March 2013, the Department for International Development announced an ambitious £35 million programme to address FGM in Africa and beyond. The programme aims to see a reduction in FGM by 30% in 10 countries in five years, measured by prevalence among nought to 14-year-olds. It is working towards seeing an end to FGM in one generation. It is vital that money is spent overseas to tackle FGM, to persuade communities here who adhere to the practice to stop. The diasporas are even more closely wedded to identity traditions than the mother countries. When Chinese foot binding ended in China, it continued in California for years afterwards. We are intrinsically linked to the mother countries through the diasporas.
We have made huge progress on FGM. We have raised the profile of the issue and made it clear that FGM is child abuse and violence against women. It is a serious crime and we want to maintain our momentum. Next week, to coincide with the international day of zero tolerance for FGM, we are hosting a European conference to ensure we are learning from other jurisdictions. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Leicester East will be particularly pleased to know that representatives from France will be attending that conference.
On the French issue, I have visited France and spoken to the French Ministers. My understanding of the 40 prosecutions is that most of them originated from the prosecution of one very prolific cutter. We have a different system here. We want prosecutions, but I am not sure that the prevalence of FGM in France has been as brilliantly reduced as we might be led to believe by the conversations that we have.
In a sense, we are motoring now. We have to give what we are putting in place a real chance. We want to see more prosecutions, prevent more FGM from taking place, raise awareness of it in our schools and see all our front-line professionals having that training that will make a huge difference. Mandatory reporting will also make a significant difference. On the day of zero tolerance, we will also hold a cross-Government meeting, which I will host with the public health Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea. Such events offer an opportunity to take stock of what we have done and to continue the drive to prevent FGM and to protect and support victims.
Before I finish, I pay tribute to Efua, the mother of tackling FGM. I am sure other Members in the room will have been present when campaigners and survivors such as Leyla Hussein, Nimko Ali, Fahma and Alimatu have spoken out so bravely. I am sure Members will have heard their stories and will have sat there in wonder and awe that these women have had the courage to do what they have done.
People often ask me why I took up the mission of tackling FGM. In 2010, the Prime Minister appointed me as the international champion for tackling violence against women and girls across the world. These issues all go back to the lack of equality, women’s position in the world, patriarchal societies and the social norms that keep us in our place.
After I was appointed, I was looking across the piece when two things coincided. Daughters of Eve came to see me, took me by the collar and threatened me, saying, “You do not understand.” Before, we had all been using the phrase “female genital mutilation”, but we needed to cut through the issues—that was a terrible use of words. Daughters of Eve said to me, “This is child abuse. You are a Minister. You have to do something,” at which point I got reshuffled. However, what they said worked, and I did do something. When I went to DFID, I said, “We are going to tackle this. We are going to tackle it in Africa. If we do it there, we will have to do it here as well.” The timing meant that the passion Daughters of Eve had for what they were doing in Bristol and other places was combined with what was happening in Africa.
Terrible violence is done to women right across the world, including in the UK. That violence takes all forms—domestic violence at one end and rape as a weapon of war at the other. However, it seemed to me, as the ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls overseas, that FGM was totemic, in that it encapsulated the whole agenda. Who could be more powerless than a three-year-old girl who has absolutely no choice, no control and no voice in what is happening to her? What issue could be more meaningful? The idea that someone can come and damage the rest of her life—physically, psychologically, healthwise and in terms of power and control—is why I took up this issue. If anyone ever wonders why, that is why.
This has been a passionate and informed debate. In closing, let me make it clear that we can and must eradicate this terrible practice. I assure hon. Members that the Government fully understand that. Although we are not doing everything the Home Affairs Committee advised us to, we are resolutely committed to fighting FGM.
I am most grateful to all those who have participated in the debate, as well as for the commitments made by the Minister. We in this House can ensure that we continue to raise awareness. I pay tribute to newspapers such as The Guardian and the Evening Standard for the articles they have published on this subject, and to all the campaigners involved. I am glad that the Minister will ensure that the issue is in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and I hope all the other political parties that have been represented in the debate will ensure that it is in theirs.