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Legislation against Female Genital Mutilation

Volume 654: debated on Monday 11 February 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Women and Equalities if the Government will introduce further legislation to protect vulnerable young girls against female genital mutilation.

I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on this important matter. Female genital mutilation has no place in our society. It is an extremely painful and harmful practice that blights the lives of many girls and women. The Government have taken the lead in tackling this barbaric crime. We strengthened the law in 2015 to introduce FGM protection orders and help prevent this appalling crime, and nearly 300 of these orders have now been made. Lord Berkeley’s Bill, supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), would improve the powers of the courts to protect children, and it is disappointing it was objected to on Friday. I am pleased to say, however, that we are working to bring it back in Government time.

I thank the Minister for her response and I welcome the Government’s commitment on this issue.

We need greater protection for girls at risk of female genital mutilation. The statistics clearly prove that female genital mutilation is on the rise, yet successful instances of protection orders being obtained are as rare as ever, and only four cases have ever been prosecuted. Can the Minister update us on the implementation of the legislation?

The successful prosecution 10 days ago of a mother who had inflicted this practice on her young daughter illustrates the flaw with current legislation: prosecutions only take place after the crime has been committed, and even then rarely. Further protections are needed to ensure that young girls do not have to go through the brutal, life-changing and sometimes life-threatening trauma of female genital mutilation. Can the Minister assure the House that the Government are willing to explore all legislative options, including amending the Children Act 1989, to ensure that young girls do not stay in a home where they are at risk of female genital mutilation?

We have an issue with serial objectors to private Members’ Bills. Mr. Speaker, you will be aware that my private Member’s Bill on upskirting met the same fate last year. Since the failure of Lord Berkeley’s private Member’s Bill on female genital mutilation, seven Ministers and the Conservative Chief Whip have come out in support of the proposed legislation. Can the Minster explain how the Government plan to deal with those of their own Back Benchers who serially object to private Members’ Bills that the Government seem to support?

In 2016, the Procedure Committee made recommendations for improving the process of private Members’ Bills that would prevent this type of situation from arising. Given the outcry caused by last Friday’s objection, will the Government commit to reviewing these recommendations?

The hon. Lady, who I was pleased to work with on her private Member’s Bill on upskirting, raises some very important issues. She is right that we need to protect these vulnerable women, and I am pleased to say that, as she said, we have recently had a successful prosecution in this area.

Since 2015, the Government have introduced a number of measures to protect women and girls from female genital mutilation. We have created several offences, including failing to protect a girl from FGM. We have introduced civil protection orders, and there is a mandatory duty to report known cases involving under-18s. As I mentioned at the beginning, the Government will present a Bill in Government time.

As for the broader question of private Members’ Bills, the hon. Lady will know that many have passed through the House successfully, including important measures involving my own Department relating to emergency workers, to mobile phone technology, and—last Friday—to Finn’s law.

I welcome my hon. and learned Friend’s commitment to ensuring that the Bill will be given Government time, but will she give me an indication of when she expects this amendment to the Children Act to be presented to the House?

I cannot give my hon. Friend a precise indication, as that is not within my power, but the Government intend to act very swiftly.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) on raising this pressing issue.

Female genital mutilation is an abhorrent practice, which can have dreadful consequences for the women and young girls who fall victim to it. Since legislation in 1985, there has been only one—very recent—conviction, although the NHS reports that nearly 15,500 cases presented at hospitals with symptoms of FGM in the past two years. The absence of successful prosecutions in our country indicates the failure of the current procedures. It is essential that we recognise the secrecy and fear surrounding the practice and address the fact that it makes people unlikely to report suspicions or instances of FGM.

The Serious Crime Act 2015 provides for protection orders, which offer a legal means of protecting and safeguarding potential victims. Since 2015, more than 240 orders have been granted to help victims and those at risk, which demonstrates that such protections are effective and can be used as a means of proactive assistance.

The clear need for increased protections makes the actions of the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) even more shocking. His reputation for objecting to important Bills precedes him. Today, I am not using the term “honourable” when referring to our colleague, because “honourable” implies “principled”, and the Member for Christchurch displayed no such principle in the Chamber last Friday. His objection to the FGM Bill sank to new depths. However, the issue should never have been left to be dealt with through a private Member’s Bill.

The Bill will protect countless women and girls, and any delay in its passage puts them at unnecessary risk. The Government should have introduced legislation long before now. Relying on a private Members’ Bill was a risky strategy, given that, as we know, worthy Bills have been talked out or objected to on many such occasions. We cannot now leave this Bill on the sidelines. If the Member for Christchurch has done nothing else, his antiquated and appalling behaviour last Friday has exposed the Bill’s importance. I seek an assurance that it will be back before Members during Government time, and very shortly, so that we can pass an essential piece of legislation.

The hon. Lady cares deeply about protecting vulnerable people, and I am pleased to have met her to discuss a number of matters in the family justice sphere. She makes a number of important points.

It is essential to protect women and girls, and since 2015, the Government have introduced a number of measures to ensure that they are protected. As I have said, the Bill will be dealt with in Government time, but let me clarify what it does. It is not the case that without it, women and girls do not have protection; we introduced protections in 2015. What the Bill will do is enable a judge to make a care order during the same proceedings.

The hon. Lady makes another important point about the number of protection orders. She said that more than 200 had been issued since September. In fact, the number has gone up to 296; so just under 300 protection orders have been granted since their introduction at the end of September 2018.

I want to make a final point because a number of Members rightly identified that not enough prosecutions are successful, and this is a very important point that we must tackle. We are tackling it in a number of ways, through funding for education and through the bringing of legislation, but these are very difficult cases to prosecute for a number of reasons: cultural taboos, lack of information from affected communities and the fact that the age of the vulnerable girls might prevent them from coming forward. The issue we have in this country is not isolated; there is a very low prosecution rate for these kinds of offences across Europe, but this Government are committed to doing whatever we can to protect these girls further from this terrible crime.

FGM is barbaric and also illegal, and I thank this Government for bringing in FGM protection orders. Can the Minister confirm that closing this specific loophole to make sure the protection orders can come within the definition of family proceedings will be dealt with not only in Government time but as a matter of urgency within Government time?

As my hon. Friend identifies, this is an important matter. It will come before the House in Government time; as the Chief Whip has indicated, this is a matter that he would like to proceed with, as would the Government.

FGM is a violation of human rights. Data released over the weekend showed that in the past two years medics in Scotland’s cities have treated victims of FGM on more than 230 occasions, which is horrific and quite chilling to think of, but we still know very little about the extent to which it is practised despite women being treated who have already suffered FGM.

In Scotland, we have laws in place to tackle this illegal practice and are looking at introducing protection orders also for women and girls at risk, which would give judges the power to prevent a woman or girl believed to be at risk of FGM from being taken out of the country. I know from some of my own constituency cases that that is a very real concern, and some of my constituents have raised it with me. We also have a national action plan to prevent and eradicate FGM.

The more crucial point about this today, however, is that it is disgraceful that this Bill has been blocked. It is becoming increasingly frustrating in this House to have the will of the House circumvented by one male Member, whom such issues will not affect, standing in the way of progress when we want to get on and do good things that would prevent women and girls from being harmed. So what will the Minister do, and will she speak to her colleague the Leader of the House and others to ask for measures to be put in place to prevent this abuse of the House from happening again? The private Member’s Bill system has already been said by the Procedure Committee, on which I serve, to be broken and discredited, and we cannot have faith that Bills will progress if somebody can object to them as easily as we saw last week.

Lastly, the Minister has not given a date for when this Bill will return to the House. I understand that the Leader of the House will make a statement tomorrow in the House after the Prime Minister’s statement; will there be any update on when this will happen then?

I am very pleased to hear of the measures being taken in Scotland, because of course this is not a domestic problem that affects any region in particular but is an international problem. The Home Office is working with all regions to deal with this issue, and I am very pleased that when we brought in the legislation in 2015, we extended the reach of extraterritorial offences to ensure we could help prosecute in relation to cases affecting the UK that were carried out elsewhere.

I am pleased to hear the Minister stating that this Government regard dealing with the harms of this awful issue of FGM to be of the utmost importance. We must give a clear message on this, and does the Minister agree that the best way to do that would be by giving time to bring this amendment in this Bill forward as quickly as possible?

I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that the Government think that this is a very important matter. Across the Departments, we think that it is an important matter, and the Chief Whip has indicated that he does, too. We will be bringing forward this Bill in Government time.

Like everybody else in this building—and, frankly, in the country—I am disgusted by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope). If I were ever to be in charge of a political party, I certainly would not allow him to keep his Whip, should he ever do anything like this in this place again. He is a total disgrace. New laws are very nice but they are often just words on goatskin to the women who are affected by these and other crimes, so what will be in this Bill to make sure that the services that used to exist in Birmingham for victims of FGM and their families will be put back?

I know that the hon. Lady takes a great deal of interest in women’s issues, and I have been pleased to work with her on a number of issues that cross my Department. I know that many of them stretch beyond my Department as well. She talks about funding and the importance of working in the community, and she is right to identify the fact that this is not simply a matter of making laws. It is about action, education and understanding. Of course, laws must set the boundaries and tell people what is right and wrong, and this crime is absolutely horrific and must be stopped, but that is not the extent of the Government’s actions on FGM. The Home Office’s FGM unit is driving a step change in our nationwide outreach, and it has done more than 100 events across the country to raise awareness. The Department of Health and Social Care has provided £4 million for the national FGM prevention programme in partnership with NHS England. The Department for Education has provided nearly £2 million for a national programme to improve the social care response to FGM, and it has announced a further £1.7 million to continue that work. That is what is happening in this country; the Department for International Development does an extensive amount of work overseas in addition to that, to ensure that women worldwide do not suffer from this horrific practice.

I am glad that the Minister is granting Government time for this Bill. When I sat on the Opposition Benches and was a regular attender on a Friday, the Labour Government Whip would, as a matter of course at the end of each sitting, object to every Bill that was listed but undebated, whatever the merits of those Bills. That was also my duty on Fridays when I became a Government Whip. Why has the Government Whips Office abandoned that duty to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch? If we want more debating time for legislation, as I certainly do, we know where we can find it, don’t we?

Women who have been subjected as children to the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation are much more susceptible to contracting cervical cancer, and it can also make smear tests much more painful, both emotionally and physically. I am proud to be an ambassador for Jo’s Trust, the UK’s cervical cancer charity, and I wonder whether the Minister would commit to meeting me to discuss how we can further support the survivors of FGM.

I would be very happy to meet the hon. Lady. She has pointed out some of the terrible consequences of this horrific act, and I should like to take a little bit of time to refer to some of the others. In a leading judgment in the Supreme Court in a case concerning FGM, Lady Hale said that

“these procedures are irreversible and their effects last a life time. They are usually performed by traditional practitioners using crude instruments and without anaesthetic. Immediate complications include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage, tetanus or sepsis, urine retention, ulceration…Long term consequences include…urinary incontinence…and sexual dysfunction…It is likely that the risks of maternal death and stillbirth are greatly increased”.

This is a horrific activity, and we must do everything we can to prevent it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) is delayed elsewhere, on the Committee corridor, but I know that if he were here, he would start by paying tribute to what the Government have done so far and by echoing the dismay being expressed by all Members today at the behaviour of one of our colleagues on Friday. He would also say that it is a pity that our hon. Friend is not here to give an account of himself, because there might be a perfectly good reason for this. Will my hon. Friend the Minister please convey to those who manage procedure and Government business that many of us are just fed up with this kind of behaviour? We want a different system in which this sort of thing does not happen.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his comments and to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for his sponsoring of the Bill, which the Government supported and continue to support. I am sure that those in charge of parliamentary procedure are listening and have heard those comments.

From talking to colleagues across the House, I know that we are all upset by the actions of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope), so I am pleased that the Minister intends to bring legislation before the House. I understand that business will be quite light next week, so I wonder whether she might take the opportunity to bring a Bill to the House then.

My portfolio is quite large, but I am not in charge of parliamentary business. However, I am sure that those who are in charge of it are listening to this debate. The Government are keen to bring legislation forward in Government time and will do that shortly.

Female genital mutilation is abhorrent and barbaric and should never be inflicted on any girl or woman in this country or, indeed, any country. In the spirit of equality, will the Minister update the House on the Government’s policy on male genital mutilation?

My hon. Friend has a number of concerns relating to family justice that I am happy to have talked to him about over recent months. This Bill was about female genital mutilation, and the Government will be bringing forward legislation to address that matter.

Some people, although possibly very few indeed, will accuse the MPs condemning the behaviour of a Government Back Bencher of virtue signalling. Expressing abhorrence at the deliberate mutilation of young girls and changing the law to protect them is our duty, but if the Government are also to avoid the charge of virtue signalling, will the Minister indicate when the Bill will be brought forward?

I am happy to repeat that the Government take this matter seriously. The Chief Whip has identified this subject as a matter of importance, and it will be given Government time shortly.

Female genital mutilation is an abhorrent crime and must be dealt with severely. The Minister keeps saying that this is an important issue and that it is horrific, but let us look at the reality. This crime was made illegal in 1985—34 years ago—but there has been just one prosecution. The Government need to make a little change to the Children’s Act 1989 to include the FGM amendments, but they have relied on a private Member’s Bill, introduced in the other place two years ago, to get the changes through. Until just the other week, the Government had not committed to allocating days for the consideration of private Members’ Bills, so it is completely inappropriate for Her Majesty’s Government to rely on a private Member’s Bill to make these important changes. The Government now say that they will allocate Government time to get the legislation through, and it is about time, too. They should have done that in the first place.

I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to those points. Under this Prime Minister, the Government have taken a number of actions over several years to ensure that the offence of FGM is properly identified and prosecuted, that funding is allocated to addressing it and that girls are protected. The Government have introduced both a new offence of failing to protect a girl from FGM and civil protection orders, which have been well used since their introduction last September, and have made it a mandatory duty to report known cases involving under-18s. While the matter is important and the Government will bring forward new legislation, I reiterate that these changes would enable a judge to make a care order in the same proceedings. The protections that have existed since 2015 remain in place and will continue to protect individuals.

Further to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), the legislative programme for next week is not exactly heavy. The public will simply not understand how such important legislation can be stopped by the shout of one man when it has cross-party support. I repeat the call for the Minister to speak to the Chief Whip about bringing forward a Bill next week. Such a Bill would have bipartisan support and would go through the House very quickly.

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, and I understand that the measure has cross-party support. When the Government introduce a Bill, I look forward to its swift passage through the House.

Like one or two other Members here today, I was present on Friday. The Minister will know of the cross-party support not only today but on Friday, too, so I welcome her announcement that a Bill will be introduced in Government time. Will she take back my concern that a Bill be introduced as soon as possible? I echo Opposition Members: if there is time next week, so be it. Let us bring it forward.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments and for being in the Chamber for the private Member’s Bill on Friday. His comments have been heard.

I share the deep concern of the Labour Front Bench and other Opposition colleagues about the actions of the hon. Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope).

How many young girls does the Minister think Britain would be leaving more at risk of female genital mutilation if the proposal by some Conservative Members for a multibillion-pound cut to the work of the Department for International Development were implemented?

What we do know is that there are victims of female genital mutilation in the UK, where FGM is being carried out. In November 2018, the Department for International Development announced £50 million to target and prevent female genital mutilation in African countries, and that is part of a wider investment by DFID. So far, through its support, DFID has protected 3 million girls worldwide from FGM.

That is a difficult choice. I believe the hon. Member for Hendon is a doctor. Let us hear from the fella.

That is correct.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for making a statement today. I also welcome that she does not see a moral equivalence between brit milah and female genital mutilation. There is no moral equivalence between the two. I urge her to bring forward legislation as soon as possible, because I would like to hear the reasons why my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) opposed the Bill. I do not believe it is sustainable to say, “I objected to the Bill because of procedure rather than its content.” Let us bring forward a Bill as quickly as possible so that not only can we hear that defence but, more importantly, we can hear the will of the House by taking a vote on the issue.

I can confirm that we will shortly bring forward a Bill in Government time, and I look forward to the cross-party support that I am very pleased to see today and that I experienced during the recent passage of the upskirting Bill, which I co-sponsored, to ensure we do as much as we can to continue protecting vulnerable children and women.

I also thank the Minister for her positive response and for her commitment to act and legislate quickly. Like her and everyone else in the House, I believe we must do all we can to stop this horrific and barbaric mutilation of girls. Will she outline the steps that will be taken to educate communities at an early age, especially given that the first guilty verdict for FGM was against a mother? There is a need to change the thinking in some communities.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Often we change the law, but what is really important is that we change the culture. That is why the Government are spending sums across Departments to ensure that we educate people. As I mentioned, the Department for Education has provided nearly £2 million for a national programme to improve the social care response to FGM, and it has announced a further £1.7 million to continue its work. That Department is also providing grant funding for two projects to help safeguard girls from FGM. The Home Office’s FGM unit has participated in over 100 engagement events across the country.

I was one of the few Members here on Friday afternoon. I have also used the “object” procedure, mostly to object to Bills that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Sir Christopher Chope) is moving to progress without debate. I therefore find some of his reasoning somewhat questionable. It is vital not only that we change the law to bring in this provision, but that it is then used. What work is the Minister engaged in with those who deal with child protection to ensure that once the law is changed, the orders are used?

That is also an important point, because laws need to be implemented and be a matter for a number of other agencies, including the Crown Prosecution Service, to look at in taking forward prosecutions.