HL Deb 19 April 1999 vol 599 cc939-40

3.2 p.m

Baroness Rendell of Babergh asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether there have been any prosecutions under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, and whether they plan to introduce a programme of educating Somali immigrant parents to persuade them to stop this practice.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, there have been no prosecutions to date under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. The difficulties in obtaining enough evidence to support a conviction are considerable. The Government fund a range of educational projects in Britain, where strong links have been formed with Forward, the leading voluntary organisation in the field, and abroad working alongside and within these communities. We believe that that is the best way to ensure that this most harmful practice is stamped out.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that most helpful reply. Does she agree that a policy of encouraging young Somali graduates to become social workers and health professionals might be a wise course as people more readily accept advice from members of their own ethnic group?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, my noble friend is right. We need to have educational and social services which reflect the communities they serve. They would be effective in this area if we gained the trust of those communities and worked within them. For that reason, we have funded a range of projects to help professionals both from those communities and those who work within them to develop sensitive educational materials to take forward the work. We have also funded a project specifically to investigate the dynamics of the continuation of female genital mutilation among young Somalis living in London.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a successful and popular programme of education in this field is PLA, participatory learning in action? How much support are the Government giving to that?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am afraid that I was not aware of that programme, but I shall certainly look into it to see whether it can be applied. Undoubtedly, we need to use whatever avenues are effective because the problem is difficult to tackle.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, do the Government accept that there are two ways to eliminate or diminish this horrible practice? One is by education, as proposed in the Question; the other is by prosecution under the 1985 Act. Does the Minister remember that both Houses of Parliament were well aware of the existence of those two ways when the Act was passed and decided that the practice was so horrible that it ought to be made a criminal offence? Does she agree that when considering the mother in such cases. one's mind turns to education, but that when considering the child who is mutilated while the parents are being educated, one's mind may turn to prosecution as being the quicker answer?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I believe that where there is evidence that the practice takes place and where we could successfully prosecute, we ought to do so. It is right that we made the practice a criminal offence. However, there is no evidence that the police or the Crown Prosecution Service are holding back on such prosecutions. For reasons which my noble friend will understand, it is very difficult to obtain appropriate evidence. That is why the education effort is particularly worth while. When offences are committed, we should prosecute in order to protect children. However, we can take other measures through the Children Act in order to safeguard children who are at risk.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, is there a requirement under the Act for medical doctors to report to the police when they have evidence that such mutilations have taken place?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as regards medical practitioners, the prosecution requirements for this criminal offence are the same as for other criminal offences.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, does the Minister accept that any doctor on the UK register found to have performed the operation would, under law, be referred to the General Medical Council with an issue of serious professional misconduct arising? However, there is no law in this country which prevents anyone, however unqualified, carrying out surgery. Under the law, people are not allowed to be called "registered medical practitioners" if they are not. Is it not right that those unqualified individuals, few in number, who are carrying out this operation. resulting in great mutilation, should be pursued as vigorously as possible?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant. The General Medical Council has acted in an exemplary fashion in cases where there has been evidence of people willing to undertake the work. All professional groups in this country have done what they can to educate their own members about the importance of being on the lookout for the practice. Perhaps I may reiterate that where there is evidence, the possibility of prosecution will be looked at most seriously by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service.