HC Deb 21 March 2003 vol 401 cc1188-208

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am
Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this important Bill. Its main purpose is to extend the scope of the law prohibiting female genital mutilation—FGM. It will prevent parents from taking their daughters abroad to have the procedure performed. It is about protecting the human rights of women, which is a strong reason for my choice of this Bill over the many hundreds of others that were suggested to me. I am pleased that the Bill is being strongly backed by the Home Secretary.

Female genital mutilation has been explicitly illegal in this country since 1985, when the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was passed. However, in some communities in the UK, as well as abroad, the practice is still accepted and even condoned. Its victims are often young and vulnerable. They suffer enormous physical and psychological harm throughout their lives, yet they suffer in silence. Offences are rarely reported to, or acted on, by the authorities.

FGM is not reported for many reasons, including ignorance, fear or community or cultural pressure to remain silent. Although we understand that and we sympathise, we cannot condone it. We cannot allow the situation to continue. We should be failing our children, our young women and our communities if we did so.

We need to send a strong message that the practice of FGM is wholly unacceptable. We cannot leave the matter to be decided by personal preference, culture or custom. FGM is harmful. I hope that the Bill will send that message very powerfully indeed. The Bill is just a starting point. There is much to be done to educate communities and to provide women with the support that they need to oppose this barbaric practice openly. All that is beyond the scope of the Bill.

The Bill makes it clear that we will not condone those who want to take their daughters abroad so as to evade UK law. To reflect the harm that we think results from the procedure, the Bill will increase the maximum penalty from five to 14 years.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

I agree with almost everything that the hon. Lady has said, but can she explain how increased prison terms will have any effect if people are not prosecuted, as is currently the case?

Ann Clwyd:

I should have liked the hon. Gentleman to hear more of my speech. He will see what we have in mind as it develops. There have been no prosecutions in this country and that is deplorable, but we need to send a strong message about the penalties that can be imposed if there is a successful prosecution.

FGM is the collective term for a range of procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs, for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. It can have devastating and harmful consequences for a woman throughout her life. The health problems experienced vary depending on circumstances. Sometimes, the procedure is performed in unsanitary conditions, which lead to infection and other complications. Sometimes the girl resists, which, unfortunately, increases the likelihood that she will be harmed.

In those parts of the world where FGM is the norm, it is usually performed by traditional "circumcisers" in unsanitary conditions, and with non-sterile equipment. It might be carried out with crude instruments such as kitchen knives, razor blades or broken glass. In some areas, it is carried out by professionals in hospitals, but most international organisations—including the World Health Organisation and the British Medical Association—agree that health professionals should not carry out FGM. It is slightly safer for the procedure to be carried out in that way, but that does not prevent the harmful consequences that can ensue. Some time ago, the Select Committee on International Development produced a report on women and development. The report considered this issue closely, and we took evidence from a number of people.

Longer-term consequences can be particularly severe, and there can be associated difficulties in pregnancy and in childbirth. Women who have been mutilated are twice as likely to die in childbirth, and three or four times as likely to have a stillborn child. This is a frightening statistic. Estimates suggest that between 130 million and 150 million women and girls have undergone FGM worldwide. It is reportedly practised in 28 African countries, as well as by some ethnic groups in the Arabian peninsula, the Persian gulf and south-west Asia. It has also been reported in immigrant populations in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and north America.

However, FGM is no longer confined to Africa, parts of Arabia and south-east Asia, where it is practised as the norm. The general movement of people and ease of travel have led to people from these areas moving to western countries. Ongoing wars and civil unrest, especially in the horn of Africa, where the practice is endemic, mean that there will be a continuing exodus of people to other parts of the world, especially Europe, the USA and Australia. These people bring their customs and practices with them—including FGM.

Accurate information about the extent to which FGM is practised in this country is difficult to come by. The most accurate view is probably that of the Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development—Forward—which estimates that there are 74,000 first-generation African immigrant women in the UK who have undergone FGM, and as many as 7,000 girls under 16 within the practising communities who are at risk from FGM. This estimate is based on the number of immigrants and refugees settled in the UK from countries, mainly in the horn of Africa, where FGM is endemic. There are substantial populations from these countries in London, Liverpool, Birmingham Sheffield and Cardiff. In the familiar pattern of first-generation immigrants, they tend to settle together in these inner cities.

The origins of FGM are not known. It is an age-old practice that is deeply steeped in the culture of the practising communities. Reasons for maintaining it include purification, family honour, hygiene, aesthetic reasons, protection of virginity and prevention of promiscuity, enhancing fertility, decreasing the sexual desire of women, acceptance by the community, and increasing matrimonial opportunities. However, although it is performed by many different religious groups, including Muslims, Christians and Jews—and by non-believers—FGM is not a religious practice, as some claim. Leaders of all the main faiths, I am glad to say, have spoken out against it.

The age at which FGM is undertaken varies. It is usually performed on girls between the age of four and 10, but in some cultures it is practised as early as a few days after birth, or as late as immediately before marriage, during pregnancy or after the first birth. Support for the eradication of FGM is international, and is being pursued at all levels by organisations such as the World Health Organisation. The practice is now widely perceived as a form of child abuse, although the members of those communities that practise it genuinely believe that it is in their child's best interest, and do not intend it as a deliberate act of abuse.

Concern is occasionally expressed that in acting against FGM we are seeking to impose liberal western values on FGM-practising communities, and that we should be more culturally sensitive. Indeed, I remember that, when the Select Committee on International Development took evidence, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) took issue with Germaine Greer, who thought that we should leave the culture alone. My hon. Friend had some very strong things to say about that.

FGM is in no way like male circumcision. It is much more harmful, and there is no medical justification for it. Respect for other cultures does not mean that we should ignore practices that are so harmful, and that violate the most basic human rights: the right of women not to be discriminated against because of their gender, under the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women; and, in particular, the right of the child to enjoy their childhood, and to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health", as laid down in article 24 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.

FGM was probably never legal in this country, because it almost certainly constitutes an offence against the person. However, in order to remove any ambiguity that may have existed in law, it was decided to make the practice explicitly illegal. The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was the result of a private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), and I congratulate her on that. It was supported by the Government of the day, and the Bill before us follows in this tradition. It will strengthen and extend the protections then put in place.

Legal protection against FGM is also provided by the Children Act 1989. If a local authority has reason to believe that a child is likely to suffer significant harm, it is obliged to make such inquiries as it considers necessary to enable it to decide whether it should take action to safeguard or to promote the child's welfare. Under the 1989 Act, a prohibited steps order can also be made to prevent parents from carrying out a particular act without the consent of the court. So the court could, even now, take steps to prevent the removal of a child from the UK so that mutilation might be carried out abroad.

As I have said, to date, there have been no prosecutions under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act. That could be, at least in part, because people who practise FGM tend to live in closed communities, and because many of the victims are so young and vulnerable that offences are not reported to the police. I hope that the strong message sent out by this Bill and the unanimity of community leaders on this issue will, in themselves, help to encourage communities to stamp out this hidden abuse. However, the lack of prosecutions may also be because our current law can be evaded. The fact that people can—indeed, evidence suggests that they do—circumvent the 1985 Act by taking young girls abroad for FGM, has been seen for some time as a loophole in law.

In November 2000, the all-party parliamentary group on population, development and reproductive health issued a report on its survey of, and hearings on, FGM, which were carried out earlier that year. The purpose of the hearings was to raise awareness of FGM, and to generate support for prevention and eradication programmes. The group was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), who has a long-standing interest in this subject, and who has put a great deal of effort into trying to get the law changed. She was supported by a very distinguished panel of people.

The all-party group made several recommendations for changes to existing legislation. Those included substituting the term "genital mutilation" for "circumcision" in the legislation; ensuring that UK residents who take girls abroad for FGM, even to countries where the practice is lawful, can be prosecuted on their return to the UK; and increasing the maximum penalty for FGM. I am pleased to say that the Bill will give effect to all those recommendations.

First, the Bill will repeal and re-enact the 1985 Act. The short title of the Bill describes more accurately the prohibited acts and removes any suggestion of acceptability that the word "circumcision" might imply. Secondly, and more importantly, the Bill gives extra-territorial effect to the existing provisions. That means that any of the prohibited acts done outside the UK by a UK national or permanent UK resident will be an offence under domestic law and triable in the courts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Permanent UK residents are people who ordinarily live in this country without being subject under the immigration laws to any restriction on the period for which they may remain. The Bill will therefore catch those with a substantial connection to the UK, but not those who are here temporarily, for example, foreign students or visitors.

Mr. Djanogly

If a mature woman were to go abroad of her own free will to have such an operation, for whatever reason, would that be permitted under the Bill?

Ann Clwyd

I would not expect so for one moment, although I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by a mature woman.

Mr. Djanogly

Not a child.

Ann Clwyd

Such matters can be further explored in Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will become a member of the Committee, as he is obviously very interested in the subject.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

This is an important Bill and I support it. However, for the sake of clarity and for the record, will the hon. Lady confirm that the terrible things that she has described in her speech are separate from the body piercing that takes place in the UK? Is that a completely separate issue, or is there any overlap?

Ann Clwyd

It is a completely separate issue.

It is unusual in international law for a state to take jurisdiction over acts committed abroad by its residents, permanent or otherwise, as well as its nationals, especially when there is no requirement for the act to be illegal in the country in which it is committed. However, it is important that we take that step in this case. We have a duty to protect all our residents. The new Bill will mean that people who have a close connection with the UK, in the form of permanent residence, cannot evade the scope of the Bill by temporarily leaving the UK.

Thirdly, the Bill will increase the maximum penalty for FGM from five to 14 years' imprisonment. Other than life imprisonment, that is the highest sentence that can be imposed and reflects how seriously we take the offence.

There is no quick fix to the problem of FGM in this country or abroad. It is, unfortunately, too deeply embedded in the culture of the practising communities. Legislation on its own cannot eradicate it, but the Bill will send a powerful message about the unacceptability of FGM to those who seek to perpetuate that abhorrent practice.

9.54 am
Mrs. Marion Roe (Broxbourne)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on being successful in the private Member's Bill ballot and on choosing the very important issue of female genital mutilation as the subject of her Bill. I also wish to thank her for her kind remarks. As one of the sponsors of the Bill, I give my full support to its principles and wish it every success during its course through the parliamentary process. I also congratulate the all-party parliamentary group on population, development and reproductive health on its report, which was published in November 2000, and on the work that it has done to raise the profile of the issue again in recent years.

I first heard about female genital mutilation, or female circumcision as it was known in those days, in the late 1970s, when I was a member of the Greater London council. As a local government representative in London, I became aware that female genital mutilation was being practised in the United Kingdom by certain immigrant communities. That horrified me. It is not only a violation of every child's rights, but is physically harmful and has serious consequences for a girl's health.

As soon as I became a Member of Parliament in 1983, I began to seek support from other parliamentarians of all parties, as well as the Conservative Government, for a private Member's Bill to prohibit female circumcision in the United Kingdom. Although there was much pressure from the immigrant communities affected—I was called a racist and I was accused of intervening in religious freedoms, cultural traditions and so on—my Bill became the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, 18 years ago. It was one of the first pieces of legislation on the issue in the world.

In formulating my Bill, for which I received full co-operation from both sides of the House, I was at great pains to block every avenue whereby those wishing to continue FGM in the UK could get around the law. I remind the House that I was breaking new ground and had no examples of similar legislation to call on from other countries. For example, much pressure was exerted on me not to include explicit wording on a surgical operation by a registered medical practitioner on a girl for her mental health. Obviously, the intent was to use the stress on a girl who is not conforming to a traditional practice as an excuse to find a gap in the legislation. Although the Bill would change the wording of my Act, I warn hon. Members of the importance of including in the Bill clarification of its intent, so that there is no question that those who wish to find loopholes to exploit will be able to do so.

I strongly believed that making FGM unlawful was only a first step. More needed to be done to persuade those parents and family members involved to change their behaviour. While my Bill was passing through Parliament, I persuaded the Conservative Government to guarantee funding for educational purposes, not only in the United Kingdom but internationally, to eliminate the practice. I am pleased to say that the present Labour Government have continued to honour that commitment, providing hundreds of thousands of pounds for educational programmes and research, including partly funding the all-party parliamentary group report on population, development and reproductive health, to which I alluded earlier and which produced many worthwhile recommendations to the Government on the issue.

I should also like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many excellent voluntary and charity groups, such as Rainbo and Forward, which do magnificent work at the grass-roots level among the communities. Their efforts are vital and I am sure that they and other non-governmental organisations will be able to give expert advice to members of the Committee on how to ensure that the principles of the Bill protect young girls effectively in the way that is needed. The Government continue to give grants to NGOs as a contribution to their core activities, including collecting data on FGM in the United Kingdom; addressing linked practices impinging on FGM, such as early marriage and childbirth; and mobilising men in the practising communities, something that is very important indeed.

Shona Mclsaac (Cleethorpes)

Does the hon. Lady acknowledge the role that many women's monthly magazines play in educating young women about the abhorrent practice of female genital mutilation?

Mrs. Roe

I certainly accept that. Awareness programmes, wherever they come from, are much appreciated and desperately needed.

On the international scene, since 1997—these are the earliest figures that I have, but I know that international funding was given earlier—£226,000 has been given in aid to a project in Gambia, £200,000 has been allocated to a well women media project in the horn of Africa, £150,000 has been granted to Burkina Faso to assist in overcoming traditional practices harmful to women, and £140,000 has been used to support the World Health Organisation in training health care providers on the prevention of FGM and the management of complications in Ghana, Egypt, Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Cameroon. Many more countries have received the sort of aid that is vital to programmes that they are trying to initiate. The European Parliament has also considered the issue, making nine recommendations to all member states on 20 September 2001 to condemn FGM as a violation of human rights and as a crime.

Not only should FGM be made illegal and educational programmes be initiated, but social workers and the medical professions should be included in the fight to eliminate the practice. Their participation is crucial. The British Medical Association has published detailed guidelines on FGM that are of interest to many of those who must deal with women who suffer the after-effects of FGM. That demonstrates the influence that doctors, nurses, social workers and teachers can have when they work in communities that practise FGM. Their sensitive involvement can have a lasting effect, particularly among younger women.

My all-party friends and 1, having taken my Bill through Parliament and seen it become an Act, believed that we had done something worth while and that FGM in the UK would, in time, become a thing of the past. We were therefore gravely disappointed to discover that no prosecutions were being brought under the 1985 Act. When I questioned why that was so, I was told that it was impossible to persuade children to testify against their parents and families. It seemed to me, however, that there was also a conspiracy of silence among certain members of the immigrant communities, which was very difficult to break. It became apparent that children from immigrant communities were being sent back to their country of origin for a so-called holiday so that FGM could be carried out.

My Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act makes FGM illegal if it takes place within the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom. A person may be guilty of conspiracy if he or she conspires in the UK to commit FGM in a country where it is also illegal. However, a person cannot be guilty of conspiracy if the FGM occurs in a country in which it is legal. It is not an offence to conspire in the UK to commit an act abroad that is not illegal in both the UK and the country in which it is planned to occur. The question of a prosecution being brought under UK law on a family's return from abroad has been a matter of great concern to me over recent years. I am delighted that it is being addressed in the new Bill.

We must not forget those young girls and women who have already suffered FGM. At no time should they be made to feel stigmatised. Seven specialist clinics deal with FGM, seeing women without specific referral from their doctors. They also undertake reversal surgery on mutilated women, which proves effective in some cases. The well-known clinic at Guy's hospital in London does magnificent work.

A positive approach to FGM is evident in the UK. We must continue our commitment to women's rights with dedication and perseverance. I have also been pursuing my quest to eradicate FGM beyond our shores. With other Members of Parliament of all parties, I have represented the UK at Inter-Parliamentary Union conferences for more than five years and have raised matters of concern relating to children, including child labour, child health and female genital mutilation. The IPU organised a panel discussion on "Violence Against Women—FGM" during its 106th conference in Burkina Faso in September 2001. Its purpose was to make parliamentarians aware of the importance of eliminating this harmful traditional practice. The session was well attended by men and women Members of Parliament who wanted to take the matter further.

A further brainstorming session was organised at the next IPU conference in Marrakesh, Morroco in March 2002, and a parliamentary think-tank for the eradiction of FGM was created. The six members of the panel were Members of Parliament from Kenya, Nigeria, Norway, Uganda, Senegal and the United Kingdom. I am the UK member. The panel has been mandated to study the possibility of working towards an international convention on the eradication of FGM and organising, if need be, a parliamentary conference on parliamentary action to eradicate FGM. That conference should be convened jointly by the IPU and the African Parliamentary Union. It should bring together MPs, Inter-African Committee representatives, religious and traditional leaders, non-governmental organisations, and former practitioners of FGM, as well as many others involved in the issue.

A further meeting of the parliamentary think-tank will be held at the next IPU conference in Santiagio next month and discussions should result in the presentation of recommendations to the International Council of the IPU on FGM and on further work to be done in the field by the IPU, in co-operation with the APU, and by national Governments. The IPU has also set up sections on FGM on its website, including details of countries throughout the world in which FGM is practised and what action, if any, Governments have taken to eliminate it. The idea of the website is to disseminate information to anybody and everybody who has an interest in eradicating FGM so that the wheel need not be reinvented and good practice can be spread. Many African countries have found the website extremely helpful.

I also attended a conference—"Zero Tolerance to FGM"—in Addis Ababa in February, which was organised by an NGO, the Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices Affecting the Health of Women and Children. I listened with great interest to presentations and comments made by young and old people representing NGOs and voluntary organisations from countries throughout Africa, as well as representatives of UNICEF and the World Health Organisation. They described plans to mobilise religious leaders, community leaders and youth with projects for entrepreneurial training for former circumcisers so that they can find new employment. There are, of course, also many awareness programmes.

I remind hon. Members that every year 2 million young girls are estimated to be at risk from this harmful practice. It was a heartening experience to hear religious leaders explaining that there is no religious base to FGM and also to hear young men condemning that abuse of human rights. At the conference there were former circumcisers who had abandoned their practice and were now preaching to their communities the error of their ways.

The conference adopted a common agenda for action and concluded that the fight against FGM called for a concerted and co-ordinated approach with periodic consultation and the exchange of information between all those involved in its eradication, including parliamentarians. It also endorsed the role of advocacy and lobbying to influence policy within Governments at regional, national and international levels, and declared 6 February to be an international day of zero tolerance towards FGM. The target is to eliminate FGM completely by 2010.

We parliamentarians, male and female, must work together if we are to eradicate FGM. We must give encouragement and assist our international colleagues in making FGM illegal wherever it is practised. I congratulate those who have already done so—for example, Burkina Faso, which passed a law declaring FGM illegal in November 1996 and set up a national committee to combat the practice. We must support educational programmes and ensure that adequate funding can be found for awareness projects. We must continue the fight until we have achieved our goal of preventing young girls and women from undergoing violation and suffering. Only our determination, our voices and our actions will establish their rights and remove health risks, We have that power, and I wish the Bill—an extension of my Bill—a safe passage through its procedures as a further step forward along the long road to halt the violation of the rights of children and women.

10.12 am
Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on having the courage to promote the Bill and my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on having had the foresight to promote the original Bill in 1985.

As a politician, I am not an expert on female genital mutilation, and as a woman I can only begin to imagine the personal trauma and suffering that the practice causes to women who have been subjected to it. I intend to base my remarks on the findings of the parliamentary hearings on FGM that I chaired in May 2000. It is important to set out a few main statistics. It is estimated that 130 million girls have undergone FGM and that every year 2 million girls worldwide are at risk of undergoing some form of the practice. The procedure is usually performed on girls between the ages of four and 13. The World Health Organisation has stated that FGM doubles the risk of the mother's death in childbirth and increases by up to three to four times the risk of the child being born dead. As we have heard, most of the women and girls affected live in Africa, but women and girls who have undergone, or are at risk of undergoing, FGM are increasingly found in western Europe and other developing countries, primarily among immigrant and refugee communities.

In the United Kingdom, no national FGM prevalence data are available, but it is estimated that 3,000 to 4,000 girls are subjected to FGM here in the UK every year. It was in that context that the a11-party group on population, development and reproductive health decided to take on board the issue of FGM and to hold parliamentary hearings. At those hearings, we heard evidence from a wide range of experts from the UK and abroad. The witnesses gave evidence on issues such as training, the effectiveness of the law against FGM, support services and care and work with community-based organisations.

A law on female circumcision—the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985—already exists, but there have never been any prosecutions, despite evidence that FGM is taking place In this country. It is estimated that more than 7,000 girls in the UK are at risk every year.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)

My hon. Friend suggests that there have never been any prosecutions. There is presumably no time limit on prosecutions, so could not women who have come forward to welfare groups and so forth be encouraged to give evidence, albeit perhaps many years later?

Chris McCafferty

I am sure that that is the case. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley said, such matters are more appropriately debated when the Bill reaches Committee, as I hope that it does. I know that it has support on both sides of the House, and I am sure that it will proceed.

There are probably many reasons why there have been no prosecutions, but the survey that we conducted prior to the parliamentary hearings suggested that the two main reasons are lack of awareness of the law and fear of cultural sensitivities. Our questionnaire was sent to all the organisations that we identified as working on FGM in the UK, Europe, Africa and the USA. In the UK, questionnaires were sent to every health authority and local authority and to all social services departments and refugee councils. Surprisingly, fewer than half the people surveyed—only 46 per cent.—mentioned awareness of the law. In the UK, there was a fear of being seen as racist, and the survey of the questionnaires also showed that 25 per cent. of the UK respondents expressed a fear of being perceived to be culturally insensitive.

FGM is a fundamental human rights issue with adverse health and social implications; it violates the rights of women and girls to bodily integrity. The issues raised by it are many and complex. It is a cultural practice that communities living in the UK may hold on to more strongly than communities back in their home countries, as it becomes an important part of their identity here in Britain or in other countries. As with other instances of abuse of women, many women who have had it done to themselves become strong advocates for its continuance. That is sad, but true. The right of one dominant culture to criticise or to try to stop a practice of another minority culture is rightly a subject for debate. Germaine Greer famously entered the debate when she compared FGM to cosmetic surgery carried out on American women and questioned our right to sit in judgment on other cultures. Our hearings, however, concluded very firmly that respect for other cultures should not include condoning or ignoring practices that abuse and deny human rights. Personally, I believe that cultures are sacrosanct only if they are consistent with human rights.

One of the witnesses at our hearings was Linda Weil-Curiel, an advocate from France who has been responsible for bringing several circumcisers to court in France. She said to us: Torture is not culture … if a white child is cut … it would cause a scandal. Why should we be quiet if it is a black child? She does not suffer less. She is no less entitled to her physical integrity. You should not … make any discrimination between women. What hurts a white child hurts a black child. I think that that is very important to remember when dealing with this sensitive issue.

At the hearings, I asked why she thought that there had been no prosecutions in the UK. "Because you are chicken," she replied. She may have a point. We have had a law banning FGM for more than 15 years but we have had no prosecutions. Yet we know that thousands of girls are at risk here in the UK. Government and NGO workers who are responsible for FGM issues are unclear of the law.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne has said, health and social care professionals have an important role to play in addressing FGM in the UK. Clinical staff are much more likely to see examples of FGM in their work, especially if they serve areas with high populations from, for example, east Africa. I am pleased that that British Medical Association has issued new guidance, helping doctors to educate families about the health and legal issues that surround this practice, and ultimately, I hope, preventing girls from being mutilated—even if that means initiating child protection proceedings. Inter-agency co-operation is the key to addressing FGM.

The NHS has very little data about FGM, largely because it has not set out to look for such data. Our report recommended that the Department of Health should undertake much more data collection and then make use of those data when developing policies. So far, that has not happened. I am aware that the specialist NGO, Forward, has applied to the Department of Health for project grants to collect data on FGM and to address linked practices. I believe that Forward and similar groups are especially well placed to do that work. I have written to the Secretary of State to reiterate the need to obtain accurate data on the prevalence of FGM in the UK as soon as possible. We have also called on the Government to make use of our report when they produce their national sexual health and HIV strategy. I was delighted to see that the strategy states that FGM is illegal, unacceptable, and a violation of human rights". It also states that there is a need to raise the awareness and skills of health, education and social services professionals, and acknowledges that local services need to support community initiatives that are aimed at stopping this practice.

As has already been said, the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act entered into force on 16 July 1985, making FGM illegal in the UK. There have been no prosecutions under that law so far. It is vital that this new law is fully implemented and that our Government and agencies work together for the elimination of this practice. A number of recommendations from our hearings have already been acted on but we need to move things further forward in order to combat this harmful and unnecessary attack on women's sexuality and autonomy.

I am pleased to see that the proposed changes include many recommendations from the hearings—in particular, changing the name of the female circumcision Act 1985 to incorporate the term female genital mutilation; and, very importantly, changing the Act to ensure that UK residents who take girls abroad for FGM can be prosecuted under UK law on their return, regardless of the legal status of FGM in the country where it takes place. Sentences will also be lengthened. This is a serious and abhorrent offence and the length of sentences should reflect that.

As a matter of policy, I hope that the provisions will extend to all UK residents, including asylum seekers. I note that the Bill does not include anything to do with the monitoring of FGM and the roles of relevant agencies. Important though these issues are, I understand that they are not measures that can be included in this Bill. However, I hope that the Department of Health will look carefully at the need to monitor the incidence of FGM in this country. Legislation alone, as we all know, will not eradicate this practice. The aim of strengthening the law in this way is to send a strong message about the unacceptability of FGM and, we hope, to have a deterrent effect.

If this Bill does become law, I hope that it will provide a useful springboard for taking forward wider enforcement and education activities. The Agency for Culture and Change Management is, I understand, already organising an FGM conference as a follow-up to this Bill. The all-party group on population, development and reproductive health will certainly support that initiative.

Today I have focused on the situation and the education needs in the UK. However, our hearings also looked at FGM in the international context. I would like to conclude with a quote from one of our witnesses—a Senegalese village elder and imam called Pa Demba Diawara—who, at the age of 65, and after going on an education programme with a local NGO—Tostan project—to learn to read and write, has worked with his local community to abandon the practice of FGM. Demba gave evidence to our FGM hearings and told us: If I had known what I know now, I would have started 10 years ago. I did not know the amount of suffering our women had gone through. I did not know that the women in the village, who were sterile, had infections after their operations. I did not know that the girls who had died had died because of this practice … We men never talked about it. We never asked and we just never knew. I hope that this Bill will ensure that more people do ask and do know about FGM so that the practice is abandoned worldwide.

10.27 am
Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

I will try to be brief but I want to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on introducing this Bill because it is exceptionally important. I would also like to put on record my congratulations to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe). Fifteen years ago, this subject was really unknown and it is a testament to the work that she did that we are here today in an atmosphere of much less opposition to bringing the measures forward.

Liberal Democrats support this Bill. I welcome especially the change in the name of the legislation from female circumcision to female genital mutilation. Some people are unhappy with the term FGM because they think that it is over-emotive—I do not think that it is. The word "circumcision" seems to give a medical respectability to the issue—although my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), who feels very strongly about the issue, would disagree with me on that point. I think that the word "mutilation" sums things up very well.

It is very important to extend the measures in the original Bill so that people who take children out of the UK for FGM are subject to that legislation. I welcome the fact that the crime is now regarded as more serious. It is a great disappointment that there have been no prosecutions but, if we can keep on raising awareness, I hope that the heavier penalty, combined with that greater awareness, will lead to a reduction in the problem. I also welcome the inclusion of UK residents as well as nationals in the legislation. I share the view of the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) that we have to find a way of including people who are in this country temporarily.

However, there are a number of problems with the Bill that will require further discussion on Second Reading. It is interesting to note that the two male Members who have spoken in this debate have hinted at something regarding older women, but not quite said it. What they may have been referring to, but could not bring themselves to talk about, was the subject of a programme that I recently saw on television called "Designer Vaginas". It was eye-opening—and eye-watering. It illustrated the fact that an increasing body of women in this country are going abroad to have cosmetic surgery to the vaginal area.

If we think back for a moment to female genital mutilation, this really is a problem of the subjugation of women by men; 'twas ever so. Men wanted to cut bits of female genitalia away so that women would not stray because they did not enjoy sex too much; it kept women in their place. How much of the move towards the designer vagina comes from women? In the media—the magazines and films that pander to the male taste—there is an image of a fairly follically challenged female with a certain style, and women think that there is something wrong with them if they do not look like something out of Playboy. That is obviously rubbish and we should get the message across that women are okay as they are, thank you very much, and do not need to mess about with themselves in that way.

That observation brings me to an important point, because my understanding of the Bill is that it will make cosmetic surgery to the vaginal area illegal. I have no problem with that, but the issue should definitely be explored in Committee. It is regarded as a choice issue. I do not think that we should make any exceptions for white women expressing a choice for fashion reasons, when we are stopping black women, who may have no choice, perhaps because they are children, from having surgery. We must ensure that no distinction is drawn between these two practices, and it should all be part of the same message. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on whether women undergoing surgery in those circumstances, where there is no medical need, would be covered by the Bill; I believe that they should be.

FGM is a large-scale problem. The figure of 3,500 has been mentioned, but I have seen work that says that, every year, as many as 7,000 girls under the age of 16 may be at risk of undergoing FGM. We must find a way of targeting those communities at risk. Very few charities are working at the grass roots; I am only aware of four: Rainbo; Forward, which has only two members of staff; the Agency for Culture and Change Management and the London Black Women's Health and Family Support Organisation, which is also suffering from lack of funding. Their work is highly regarded. Change can be achieved only by work in the community. I think that it was the hon. Member for Broxbourne who said that we must ensure that health visitors, school nurses, even teachers, are familiar with the problem, because often a teacher may be the first to become aware of the problem when she realises that a girl is off physical education lessons for a few weeks after a holiday abroad. We must find a way of handling the issue sensitively but, more important, raising awareness so that children are not mutilated in that way in the first place.

Sarah McCulloch, National Director of the Agency for Culture and Change Management, has argued: New legislation will be most effective if area child protection committees use it proactively. In July last year the Sheffield area child protection committee wrote an open letter to all Somali parents informing them of the health problems associated with FGM and advising them that if they were planning to take their children on holiday for FGM they should reconsider … It caused a furore. People were so angry and said we were attacking their culture. But the feedback was that people were afraid and some families cancelled their trip. Much has been said about human rights today, but although those are very important, we must also stress the health benefits of not having FGM done. Relevant figures have been mentioned; I will not repeat them, but the health message must be the predominant one, because at the moment this procedure subjects women to increased morbidity in later life.

I support the Bill. There are some reservations about things that could be reviewed in Committee, but on balance, I am delighted that the legislation is before us today.

10.34 am
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley)

I have been told that I have two or three minutes, so I simply want to place on record my support for my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and her Bill. Cultural difference must never be accepted as an excuse for the denial of the human rights of vulnerable people, whether we are talking about FGM, forced marriages or honour killings.

We should also be looking in Committee towards an educational programme in schools where there are children who are perceived to be at risk of FGM. There could be problems there. When I tried to visit schools and talk about the problems of forced marriages, I was not allowed to do so because a majority of the governors were either parents or politically correct people who agreed with parents. I got into one school but was not allowed into two others.

I am a member of the Council of Europe equal opportunities committee, and two years ago in Paris we held a hearing on this subject. It was the most squirm-making meeting that I have ever attended; it was hideous. Victims, doctors, gynaecologists and social workers were there. It was the first time that I was aware of the horror of FGM.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) that, on some issues, perhaps we should not be put off by charges of cultural insensitivity. Sometimes I feel as though I want to rejoice in cultural insensitivity, especially when it is about FGM and forced marriages, since, as my hon. Friend says, cultural differences can only be sacrosanct when they respect human rights.

10.36 am
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue in the House this morning. I offer my personal and my party's congratulations to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on her choice of subject for the Bill. I also recognise the sensitivity of the issue, given that we are talking about some deeply held, traditional cultural practices, which affect some of the most vulnerable groups in society, but I commend the way in which the hon. Lady has approached this subject over many years. Standing here at the Dispatch Box, I feel that I have been here before in other debates on women's issues with the women in the Chamber. I hope that the Bill makes progress today.

I take this chance to acknowledge the work of colleagues from all parties on the all-party parliamentary group on population development and reproductive health, under the formidable chairmanship of the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), who has spoken again with fluency this morning. The group has been very active over the past few years in lobbying and drawing attention to the issue of FGM. I also pay tribute to the commitment of some of our Conservative colleagues in that group: my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who make a great contribution as well.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who spoke so briefly—I wish that she had spoken for longer—is a well-known champion against forced marriages and I join her in that campaign. I wish her more power and more access to the communities where she can convey her message.

Lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) is second to none in her contribution to this debate and to stopping the abhorrent practice of FGM. She has made a unique contribution over many years and continues to spread the message at home and abroad about this utterly dreadful procedure.

I think that we are all in agreement that FGM is a serious problem, demanding an effective multi-agency response. All forms of FGM are mutilating and carry serious health risks. However, the immediate and long-term health consequences of FGM vary according to the type and severity of the procedure performed. The immediate and short-term health implications include severe pain and shock, tetanus and other infections, extensive damage to the external reproductive system, vaginal and pelvic infections, and even immediate fatal haemorrhaging. Last but not least, there may be psychological damage. As we have heard, FGM can also cause complications later on in pregnancy and childbirth, including an increased risk of stillbirth or haemorrhaging from internal tearing. It doubles the risk of the mother's death in childbirth and increases by three or four times the risk of the child being stillborn.

The roots of FGM are complex and numerous; indeed, it has not been possible to determine when or where the tradition originated. However, I agree with earlier speakers that it is not, as is sometimes stated, an Islamic issue. The practice of FGM crosses religious, ethnic and cultural lines. In cultures where it is an accepted norm, it is practised by followers of all religious beliefs, as well as by animists and non-believers.

FGM is carried out for sociological reasons, such as initiating girls into womanhood in their society, and sometimes for misguided religious reasons. It is carried out for dangerously misunderstood hygiene and aesthetic reasons, and to lower female sexual desire, to maintain chastity and virginity before marriage and to increase male sexual pleasure. Ironically, it may also be believed to enhance fertility and chances of child survival, which is certainly not the case. What is clear is that those varied reasons stem from traditional power inequalities and the ensuring compliance of women to the dictates of their communities.

We have all heard about the excellent work in this area of NGOs, charities and even magazines, but the issue is about the beliefs and position of women in society, and it is about the expectations, and often the role, of men. It is often about sheer ignorance, particularly of the dangers of the practice. I, too, was moved by the words of the Senegalese village leader who addressed the all-party parliamentary group. He said: We men never talked about it. We never asked and we just never knew. Above all, however, this issue is about children. FGM, with its serious and sometimes devastating consequences, is carried out on children from when they are only a few days old into adolescence. Girls aged between five and 10 are particularly at risk from that damaging mutilation, which is performed for cultural reasons that they cannot yet understand. Like the hon. Member for Calder Valley, I was impressed by the French advocate who said in her evidence to the all-party group: What hurts a white child hurts a black child. There lies the heart of the argument, and some uncertainty.

FGM is child abuse, and as such requires carefully planned and sensitive interventions into the family situation. Health practitioners and the organization Forward, which has been mentioned, do valuable work in campaigning against that practice among African communities in Britain. However, they believe that FGM is a significant and growing problem in the United Kingdom, and we will fail to tackle it unless we ensure that agencies are equipped to deal with it.

I was alarmed to read the evidence given to the all-party group by Dr. Faith Mwaangi-Powell of Forward, in which she said: Yesterday I was speaking to a social worker from Leicester. She told me she had a case of a mother with two girls who were both four weeks old. The mother was intending to have them circumcised and she"— the social worker— was asking what she could do. She is terrified; she does not even want to talk to the woman. We must ensure that our agencies are equipped to deal with the problem here in our own backyard.

In 1985, Parliament legislated to outlaw FGM. Under that Act, it is an offence to carry out FGM or to aid, abet, counsel or procure the performance of FGM by another person. The offence carries a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment. The only exceptions are cases in which a surgical operation is necessary for the physical or mental health of the person on which it is performed, and cases in which such surgery is performed on a person who is in any stage of labour or has just given birth, and it is performed for purposes connected with that labour or birth. Those exceptions are valid only when the procedures are carried out by an appropriately registered medical practitioner.

As several Members have said, however, to date there have been no prosecutions under the 1985 Act. France has the best record, with between 20 and 25 prosecutions having been undertaken. There, notably, children at risk are checked out at school for evidence of FGM. We should consider adding such a provision to the Bill, if possible. In this country, two doctors have been struck off for serious professional misconduct in carrying out, or offering to carry out, FGM. As has been said, the lack of prosecutions here is largely because people under pressure from their family or community are reluctant to give evidence.

The first question that we must ask is whether the Bill will increase the likelihood of successful prosecutions for FGM in Britain. I am afraid that on that point I remain unconvinced. There are already great difficulties in communicating the law to immigrant communities, and there are further difficulties in taking action to protect girls from this practice. An increase in the maximum penalty is likely to be academic if knowledge of the offence is poor and prosecution remains almost impossible.

That is why any legislation on this issue must be accompanied by work with communities to explain the law and address their knowledge and beliefs. If the Government want to strengthen provisions against people who carry cut FGM, they must also ensure that community-based local strategies provide education and support. Several grassroots community organisations and interest groups, such as Forward, which has often been mentioned, are best placed to deliver those strategies. I call on the Minister to pledge his support for those organisations and to reaffirm the need to address underlying cultural attitudes if the law is to have a role in promoting change.

The Bill also seeks to address the issue of UK-based families organising to send girls abroad so that FGM can be performed on them. Under the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998 it is an offence for parents to take their daughters abroad to have them mutilated if FGM is also an offence in the country to which they are travelling. However, the Act is of no use in cases where FGM is not illegal in the destination country.

Today, we are debating measures that will introduce a new offence of assisting a non-UK person to mutilate a girl's genitalia overseas. That is intended to cover the situation where a family resident in the UK arranges for a girl to be taken overseas to have FGM performed. However, it applies only where the girl concerned is a UK national or permanent resident. Forward has pointed out that it does not cover those who are newly arrived in Britain, which includes many of those at most risk. That will give rise to a fundamental inequality in the rights and protections of African girls in Britain, with one rule for those who have gained UK nationality and another for those waiting for immigration decisions. Forward wants the Bill to be amended so that it offers protection to all girls, irrespective of nationality, as has been done in other countries, such as Norway, as I am sure that the Minister is aware.

It is important to note what is not covered by the Bill. It does not require health professionals and other relevant authorities to report incidences of FGM. It does not touch on Department of Health issues such as ensuring that all medical personnel are trained in cultural sensitivity and how to meet the needs of women who have undergone FGM. It does not cover the practicalities and difficulties in social services taking action under the Children Act 1989 or child protection procedures, which I know is a big issue. I mention all those areas because they were raised in the recommendations made by the all-party group in its report of November 2000.

I welcome the Bill. It is a valuable opportunity to improve the protection of girls and women in the UK from FGM. It is a welcome reflection of the importance of this issue and the seriousness with which it deserves to be treated. However, further reflections and concerns need to be addressed in Committee to ensure that the Bill offers the best possible way of tackling the issue. I hope that the Government will assist its passage, and not block it at any later stages. I wish the Bill well, as I believe that it will improve the condition of women and halt an abhorrent practice.

10.49 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn)

First, I join the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) not only on her success in the ballot, but, much more importantly, on choosing to give priority to this very important measure. I also congratulate her on the powerful case that she put for the Bill in her opening remarks. As she rightly says, FGM is a brutal practice that is illegal in this country, thanks to the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, which was promoted—indeed, pioneered—by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) and supported by my hon. Friend, among others, at that time.

I also join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), who has played such an important role in the work of that organisation. Like other hon. Members, I learned a great deal from reading the report published as a result of the hearings that were undertaken in 2000.

The Government condemn this practice and want to see it eradicated both here and abroad. That is why we warmly welcome the Bill. Indeed, the Home Secretary has said this morning that we would have wished to bring forward Government legislation if this private Member's Bill had not been tabled. That indicates the Government's commitment to the issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley has said, the extent to which FGM is practised in this country is not known. People who practice it tend to live in closed communities and offences are rarely reported to the authorities. However, in theory, all young girls in the practising communities in this country are at risk of FGM. That is why it is vital that the law should protect them.

The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 was an important and welcome step in the fight against FGM, as it made it clear that the practice would not be tolerated in this country. However, as we now know, particularly because of the work of the all-party group and others, the law needs to go further because evidence suggests that parents in some communities are evading the 1985 Act, by taking their daughters abroad for FGM.

Indeed, last year, the Agency for Culture and Change Management in Sheffield—one of the groups, as we have heard, that is working very hard to eliminate the practice—informed the Home Secretary that it had received increasing numbers of reports of families planning visits to their countries of origin, with the intention of having FGM carried out on their daughters. That is why the Bill is so important: it will assist in dealing with that by making it an offence for United Kingdom nationals and permanent UK residents to aid and abet FGM undertaken outside the UK by anyone, including foreign nationals, although the offence will be limited sometimes to cases where the victim is a UK national or permanent UK resident.

Hon. Members will want to recognise the fact that the Bill represents a significant extension of the present law because it will go a step beyond the current established international practice that dual criminality is normally needed—namely, the practice needs to be an offence in both countries to apply extra-territoriality—but I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley has chosen to do so because of the nature of that abhorrent practice.

We all recognise—we have heard so this morning—that FGM is deeply steeped in the culture and tradition of those communities that practise it. We are not in the business of preaching and imposing our culture on others, but we must be absolutely clear in setting values that are built on justice, equality of the sexes and human rights. We regard the genital mutilation of any girl or female infant as unacceptable, regardless of her ethnic origin.

Of course, as we have touched on during the debate, a degree of sensitivity is needed in efforts to educate about the practice, but we cannot ignore the basic truth that it is unacceptable and wrong. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), when a Home Office Minister, said in the context of forced marriage, which is another unacceptable practice, that cultural sensitivity should not be an excuse for moral blindness. That applies equally to FGM. That gives me the chance to pay tribute to the work done on this issue by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer).

The straight truth is that we would not tolerate our daughters being mutilated in that way, so we should not tolerate anyone else's daughter being forced to undergo that brutal practice. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) was absolutely right to talk about the importance of terminology. The Bill describes the practice for what it is, and I am sure that the House will welcome that.

The Government agree with all those hon. Members who have made the point that female genital mutilation is not associated with any particular religion or ethnic group. We recognise instead that such mutilation affects some people in certain communities. It is not called for by any religious scripture, and there is now widespread support among religious and community leaders in the campaign to prevent it from taking place.

It may be helpful if I say that, in the Government's view, the Bill is compatible with the European convention on human rights. Assuming that article 8 on private and family life—is engaged, any interference with the right would be justified by article 8.2, as it would be proportionate to the aims of protecting health and the rights and freedoms of others.

As many hon. Members have said, legislation alone cannot eradicate the practice—it sends a message, marks our abhorrence and creates a penalty—but FGM will be eradicated only if we change the way that people think about it. That needs a continuous programme of education.

The Department of Health helps to fund the voluntary organisation, Forward, of which we have heard so much. Of course, Forward provides information and advice to health, education, child protection and social services professionals. The current core grant funding for Forward is £40,000 in each of the three years to 2004-05, which is an increase on the £25,000 in previous years. It will receive £25,000 for each of the next three years for its "positive partnership with communities" project. Among other things, that project will seek to collect data on the extent of FGM—a point made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan).

The Home Office has also recently agreed to provide funding for the Agency for Culture and Change Management, of which we have also heard a great deal, as it takes forward its work to combat FGM.

The opposition to FGM also has the support of the medical community. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the two doctors who were struck off, which shows that that concern is being taken seriously.

I want to refer to the work that we are doing internationally, because it is not enough just to act at home, and the hon. Member for Broxbourne and my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley referred to that. That is why the Department for International Development has been so involved in work to reduce the incidence and consequences of FGM. Since 1997, we have committed more than £1.2 million specifically to that work because the more that we can empower and encourage women in their own countries to change the practice and other people's attitudes towards it, the more successful we will be.

In conclusion, the Bill is a welcome and necessary part of the wider campaign to eradicate FGM in this country and abroad. The Government support it unreservedly, and I commend it to the House.

10.58 am
Ann Clwyd

With the leave of the House, I wish to say that I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister, the Home Secretary and all his officials for all the encouragement that they have given me in introducing the Bill. I thank all colleagues who have spoken so eloquently today, particularly for telling us about their own experiences in certain countries and for giving examples of people who have given testimony to several committees. I also thank all the non-governmental organisations that have given us very valuable evidence. Female genital mutilation is a barbaric practice. It cannot be supported on cultural, medical or any other grounds, and we have sent out a very strong message from the House of Commons today.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 ( Committal of Bills).

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