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House of Lords Hansard
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Female Genital Mutilation
07 March 2019
Volume 796

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to reduce the risk of female genital mutilation for girls in the United Kingdom and internationally.

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My Lords, FGM is child abuse, and the Government are clear that we will not tolerate this appalling crime. We have strengthened the law on FGM and were pleased to see the first UK conviction earlier this year. We are also helping communities around the world to end this harmful practice once and for all.

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My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend confirms that FGM is indeed child abuse. Would she also agree that the excuse of cultural practice is no reason for cutting young girls, either in the UK or anywhere else around the world?

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I totally agree with my noble friend. Cultural practice is often used interchangeably with religious reasons. In fact, the practice of FGM has nothing to do with religion. If cultural practice is harmful to children—and this practice is terribly harmful to girls, not only when it is done but throughout their whole lives—then we will look to end it.

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My Lords, as a criminal lawyer, I am fully aware of the problems of successful prosecutions, particularly when there are family interests, but the fact that there has been only one successful prosecution must mean that something is deeply flawed in investigating or prosecuting. Will the Minister convey to the Attorney-General my request that he considers inviting the inspectorates of police and CPS for their views?

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What I think the noble and learned Lord is pointing out is that, actually, this is quite a hidden crime. It has various protections, if you like, with family members and doctors not willing to come forward. Although we have had only one prosecution, we have at least had that one and we now need to work from there. We have had a lot of campaigns in local communities to highlight the fact that this is an illegal practice and should not be going on in communities.

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My Lords, would not a simple and effective step be to make the responsibility for ensuring that children are being effectively taught about the dangers and illegality of FGM part of Ofsted’s responsibilities? I met with Nadhim Zahawi and Karma Nirvana last summer and Mr Zahawi seemed enthusiastic about the idea, but I have not heard anything since. Could the Minister gently nudge the right honourable gentleman and find out whether he intends to implement this measure?

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One thing the noble Baroness might find helpful is that it is an offence to fail to protect a girl from FGM. She mentions schools—clearly, they have not only a safeguarding role but a welfare role. Professionals are now being trained to look out for the signs of whether a girl has gone through FGM, forced marriage or another form of illegal practice.

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My Lords, is the Minister aware that in 1985 I took the first bit of legislation on female circumcision through your Lordships’ House and that the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, who is here today, was the Minister? This shows how difficult the situation is, as there have been several bits of legislation since 1985.

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I commend the noble Baroness for the work she did back in 1995—

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In 1985!

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In 1985—even further back. I also commend my noble friend Lord Glenarthur. The noble Baroness points out the difficulties of this. If people, particularly family members, are reluctant to come forward, it becomes very difficult to drive out. However, we have made a small amount of progress, and certainly some of the FGM protection orders that we have introduced have helped to stop girls from being cut.

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Does the Minister know about the spoon campaign—that is what I call it—where young girls are told about putting a small spoon inside their underwear when they go through checks at airports? This alerts the security officers to the fact that these young girls are frightened and need to be taken care of, so that their parents cannot take them out of the country to be cut.

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I certainly have heard of the spoon campaign—I heard the lady who initiated it speaking in Manchester the other week. It prevents not only FGM but forced marriage, which is another benefit. It is such a wonderful, simple campaign, and I commend it.

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My Lords, the Government are to be congratulated on the various pieces of legislation that have been taken through. However, this is much more complex and is not simply a legal issue, as we have heard. That does not seem to solve the problem; it is clearly a cultural issue. The Minister has already referred to some of the attempts that have been made to change culture. What efforts are being made to talk to community leaders, who are some of the key people in those more traditional and sometimes hierarchical communities, to try to get the cultural change, so that this becomes an unacceptable practice and something which we really can see addressed?

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The right reverend Prelate goes to the nub of the problem: it cannot be solved by legislation alone. Certainly, we are doing some work around the world in giving UK aid. At home, we need to get to the point where those community leaders not only see that this is wrong but articulate that to members of their community, explaining that this is not only unacceptable and illegal but that it maims girls for life.

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My Lords, when I was the Member for Bristol East in another place quite a long time ago, I used to work with secondary school head teachers to discuss instances when girls said they were being taken to another country, often a home country of their family, for a long holiday. The school would then do what it could to investigate the purpose of the trip and try to alert the authorities. What work are the Government doing with schools?

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As I outlined to the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, professionals in schools clearly do not have only a duty of care to their children and a safeguarding role; there is now an offence for failing to protect a girl from FGM. Schools are now trained in spotting various safeguarding issues, including the signs that a girl might be taken away. Actually, the girl is not necessarily taken away or taken abroad; it can definitely happen here at home and we must not dismiss that. We have work to do in training our school staff but also the work in communities that the right reverend Prelate talked about.