My Lords, they said today would be a baptism of fire, and I did expect this, I will be honest.
The Government are committed to safeguarding women and girls, which is why in the tackling violence against women and girls, or VAWG, strategy—as noble Lords know, DHSE loves acronyms—we announced our intention to ban virginity testing. It is widely acknowledged that such tests have no scientific merit or clinical indication, are a violation of human rights and have an adverse impact on girls’ and women’s well-being. Details of any offence are being carefully considered and the Government will make virginity testing illegal when parliamentary time allows.
My Lords, I join others in welcoming my noble friend to his ministerial position and wish him all the best in his important brief. I am very encouraged by the clear indication in the violence against women and girls strategy that the Government intend to ban virginity testing when parliamentary time allows. The Health and Care Bill allows just that, and I hope that the Government will accept the amendments in the other place.
Virginity testing is inextricably linked with hymenoplasty, and any commitment to ban virginity testing will be undermined if we do not ban them both together. I am aware of an expert panel that has been convened on this, but I do not believe that it is necessary, as experts are aligned that there is no clinical or ethical reason for either invasive or harmful practice. Can the Minister tell me when that panel will report back so that action can be taken as quickly as possible, and we do not miss the opportunity to ban hymenoplasty in the Health and Care Bill at the same time as banning virginity testing?
We completely agree with my noble friend’s sentiments. It is really important that we ban virginity testing and hymenoplasty as soon as possible. The issue on hymenoplasty in particular is that, unfortunately, because it is classified as a cosmetic procedure, introducing legislation in this space might take away the right for women to make decisions about procedures that they wish to have and be counter to current regulation on cosmetic surgery. It is important that we work out how we can ban this practice, but those objections have been raised—and if those legal objections have been raised, we have to be careful that we work properly to make sure that we ban these procedures.
I give the commitment that I shall push as much as possible to make sure that we ban both virginity testing and hymenoplasty as soon as possible. My noble friend mentioned the amendments in the other place. The Member who submitted those amendments has been in consultation with the Department for Health and Social Care, and we hope to be able to introduce those changes, particularly those bans, as soon as possible.
My Lords, I also welcome the noble Lord, Lord Kamall, to the Dispatch Box. I want to pick up on points that the noble Baroness, Lady Sugg, raised. Some private clinics advertise these procedures to women, which perpetuate myths around virginity, falling way below the standards of honesty and integrity that are rightly expected of doctors. Indeed, the GMC ethical guidance on communicating information explicitly outlines that, when advertising your services, you must make sure that the information that you publish is factual, can be checked, and does not exploit patients. We have waited far too long for this to be made illegal. Can the Minister please press to make this happen sooner rather than later?
I thank the noble Baroness for her question, but also for having a meeting with me to discuss some of the issues that we will debate in future weeks and months. All preparation and revision are welcome.
I give a pledge that I will push back at my department and push to have both these practices banned as quickly as possible. However, as I said, some concerns have been raised from a legal perspective, given that hymenoplasty is a cosmetic procedure. All of us would agree that this is an awful thing and that it should be banned, but I want to make sure that in doing it we are very careful. A few years ago, I was a research director for a think tank, and one issue that I always considered with any change of law was unintended consequences. We have to be clear that we do this in a proper way, and I hope that we can introduce these bans as soon as possible.
My Lords, I join others in welcoming my noble friend to the Dispatch Box. Virginity testing is such a demeaning process and, as has already been mentioned, an abuse against women. In October 2018, the UN human rights office, UN Women and the World Health Organization issued a joint statement calling for the end of this horrid practice, saying that it was a
“medically unnecessary, and oftentimes painful, humiliating and traumatic practice”.
What is the UK doing to support the World Health Organization, UN Women and the UN human rights office to ban this across the world and to mobilise other countries to outlaw this practice domestically?
I thank my noble friend for her warm welcome. In answer to her specific question, the Government absolutely agree with the World Health Organization’s view that virginity testing is a violation of the victim’s human rights and is associated with immediate and long-term consequences that are detrimental to physical, psychological and social well-being—as well as, in simple terms, being demeaning.
On my noble friend’s specific question about what we are doing with the World Health Organization, I shall write to her with more details.
My Lords, virginity testing is an abuse of women and a denial of their rights over their own body. The same private clinics can offer virginity testing and, once they have decided that a woman or a girl is not a virgin, they can then offer hymen repair procedure. Does the Minister agree that this should be illegal and that it is a total abuse of that clinic’s profession? Having listened, as I can hear he has, to campaigners and professionals, will he give a stronger assurance that something will be done in the Health and Care Bill?
The noble Baroness makes a valid point; I do not think anyone in this House would disagree with what she said. Virginity testing is demeaning and hymenoplasty is not only demeaning but damaging to women’s and girls’ health and we want it to be banned as soon as possible. I give a pledge that I will push for this to be introduced as soon as possible. Whenever noble Lords are told that the Government will find parliamentary time to do something, I understand why there might be some scepticism about that, but I will push to make sure that we can introduce it as soon as possible.
My Lords, virginity testing and hymenoplasty have to be made illegal at the same time, and rather than talking about it as a cosmetic procedure, it should be seen as a form of abuse. When I read the guidance from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, it is rather limp. I encourage the Minister to ensure that the medical professions recognise that they will have an integral part in reporting and preventing any of this, just as they had when we started in the early days with FGM, because it is no good creating an offence without it being enforced and actually punished.
I give the noble Baroness the assurance that I agree—I do not think anyone disagrees—that we should try to ban both these practices as soon as possible. The issue is that although I do not personally consider it a cosmetic procedure, legally it is considered as such, and that is why we have to be a little more careful about how we address the issue in legal terms, and the exact drafting of the ban. Of course, any medical professional who carries out these procedures following a ban will be breaking the law, and that is absolutely right. The other issue we then have to consider is what penalty those who break the law in this way will face.
My Lords, I welcome the Government’s renewed commitment to making virginity testing illegal, but I hope the fate of similar commitments in the health and care sector does not befall it. It is now four years since the Government made a similar pledge to end another degrading and cruel practice, that of so-called gay conversion therapy, and we are no nearer action to making it illegal than we were in 2017. Does my noble friend understand the frustration of those who want to see this repulsive practice banned but are having to wait for endless consultations and a failure to find parliamentary time? Is not the Health and Care Bill the perfect vehicle to fulfil this long-standing government commitment?
I thank my noble friend for that question. I think we all agree, as he said, that conversion therapy is an awful practice and should be outlawed. The Government have made a commitment to outlaw it. There is an interesting thing, when we talk about the history of various commitments from the Front Bench and whether they were implemented: around Christmas time, we often see advertisements saying, “A dog—or a puppy—is for life, not just for Christmas”. As we know, with ministerial life, it is the opposite: a ministerial portfolio is for Christmas, not for life. However, when I look back at my time, I would ask people to judge me on my actions.
My Lords, I welcome the Minister to his place and wish him well. In addition to private examinations performed by gynaecologists and other medical professionals, campaigners report that victims are often subject to extremely crude examinations performed at home by family members, involving such means as inserting fingers into the vagina to check if the hymen is intact. What steps are the Government taking to tackle such hidden forms of abuse?
One issue we have to think about whenever we bring in any new law or ban is the unintended consequences. One unintended consequence that has been raised is that doing so might drive this practice not only into the home but underground. If we make it illegal, it is illegal; we must make sure that, when someone subjects a woman or girl to that awful experience, everyone knows it is illegal and that they will face the full force of the law.