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Female Genital Mutilation

Volume 753: debated on Thursday 20 March 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are the impediments to bringing prosecutions in cases of female genital mutilation.

My Lords, the Crown Prosecution Service can consider prosecuting only those cases that have been referred to it by the police following an investigation of a number of significant factors affecting the reporting of female genital mutilation. Those include a lack of information from affected communities and the age and vulnerability of the girls and women, which prevents them from coming forward to report offences or to give evidence in court. However, your Lordships’ House should be in no doubt that the Crown Prosecution Service is working hard to bring a successful prosecution.

I thank my noble and learned friend for the encouraging reply and initiatives the Government have been taking. However, he will understand when I say that these are not yet enough. Female genital mutilation is a crime. It is estimated that 66,000 women and children in England and Wales are victims, yet there has not been a single prosecution. Can my noble friend assure the House that, while we are rightly sensitive to the interests of minority cultures, the Government will never neglect our fundamental British culture, which deems that this practice is little less than butchery and must be stopped? While the Minister rightly emphasises the role that education has to play in stamping out this practice, will he accept that by far the best way of driving this lesson home and saving as many innocent women and young girls as possible is to ensure that those responsible are identified, prosecuted and locked away, where they can do no further harm?

My Lords, there is widespread frustration that there has been no prosecution, albeit that there has been legislation on the statute books since 1985. At present, the Crown Prosecution Service is considering or advising the police on 11 cases, four being re-reviews of cases that had previously been considered and where a decision was made that no further action should be taken. My noble friend is absolutely right: this is a crime. It is a very serious form of violence against girls and women and is a form of child abuse. I assure my noble friend that the criminal law applies to everyone, without exception.

My Lords, ought not the Government look beyond the CPS at teachers in schools, and particularly the college of GPs, and ask GPs to check girls in certain minority communities to see whether or not they have been victims of this practice? This really needs to be done. It is not up to the CPS to do this; it cannot proceed unless it has the relevant evidence. We need to go to the core groups that deal with these children, particularly the college of GPs.

My Lords, the noble and learned Baroness is absolutely right: the Crown Prosecution Service can take only cases referred to it by the police. In turn, the police require co-operation and engagement on the part of those involved in schools, education, the health service, including GPs, and, indeed, the communities themselves. That is why there is a range of activities across government, agencies and the third sector to try to raise awareness and improve lines of communication so that cases can be reported with more confidence.

My Lords, the Minister’s answers are very clear, and I agree entirely with the noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss. It is clear that legislation alone has not been an adequate deterrent. However, the French system works particularly well, whereby young girls who present to hospital are examined to see whether they are victims of FGM. We would not necessarily want to go down that route but, given that it has been successful, will the noble and learned Lord take on board the comments made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, but also look at other ways of addressing this issue, including involving hospitals and other agencies which could bring evidence to the attention of the CPS to ensure that we get a prosecution, as that will be the only genuine deterrent that will really make a difference?

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentions France. My understanding is that there is no specific crime of female genital mutilation in France. Nevertheless, I think that other issues are involved there which are somewhat different. However, I reassure the noble Baroness that the Crown Prosecution Service is looking at experience in different jurisdictions to try to get information on best practice. With regard to hospitals, which she mentioned, as from next month there is intended to be a reporting requirement from hospitals of cases which they discover, and a database will be built up. It is important to remind those involved that there is a legal obligation on NHS staff to safeguard children and young people and that, if they identify someone they consider to be at risk, or who has already undergone FGM, they must respond appropriately by involving the social services, which, in turn, can involve the police.

My Lords, this morning the BBC revealed that, since 2009, some 4,000 patients have been treated in London hospitals for the after-effects of FGM. Clearly, this is a very widespread and serious health problem. Will my noble and learned friend look at our own jurisdiction with regard to civil protection for forced marriages and consider whether, instead of relying only on the criminal process, with the difficulty of the burden of proof and all the rest of it, it might not be sensible instead to amend the law to ensure that civil protection orders can be imposed in the family courts, as in the case of forced marriage?

My noble friend makes an important point. Last month, there was a round-table discussion involving Ministers, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Director of Public Prosecutions and a whole range of government departments which have an interest in this issue. The fact that this matter goes across a number of departments has been reflected in the questions asked today. One of the action points to be taken forward by the Ministry of Justice is to seek views on how a civil prevention order might work alongside criminal legislation to protect potential victims because protection—preventing it happening in the first place—is vital, as well as prosecuting those who have perpetrated this offence.

My Lords, I ask the Minister whether these girls have any access to confidential information. For example, we have ChildLine, Rape Crisis, services for battered wives, and all those areas where people can, if they are in positions like this, phone up and get some help and assistance. I have never heard of one for this bestial practice. Is there any charity that we could approach and ask?

My Lords, I can reassure my noble friend that the NSPCC has in fact initiated a helpline, in co-ordination with the Home Office. Perhaps one of the issues is the need for greater dissemination of that. Another recent initiative has been the issuing of a statement opposing FGM, of which 41,000 copies have been sent out in over 11 languages to raise awareness and to bring this issue to the attention of those who have been victims. One of the issues that has been looked at by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service is that, for those victims who do come forward, the appropriate witness protection is in place to give them reassurance and to help them. People obviously have been very brutally treated.