§ 4.53 p.m.
§ Baroness Rendell of Babergh
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.
I am delighted to have the honour of taking this important piece of legislation through your Lordships' House. Female genital mutilation is a cruel and unnecessary practice which I have long opposed and which I am keen to see eradicated.
The main purpose of the Bill is to close what has been seen for some time as a loophole in the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. It was introduced in another place by my honourable friend the Member for Cynon Valley, Ann Clwyd, who ably steered it through its various stages. The Bill received strong support from all sides in another place. I hope that it will do so here.
The 1985 Act made clear beyond doubt that the practice of female genital mutilation or FGM would not be tolerated in this country but it does not prevent people from taking children abroad to have the procedure performed.
We cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that people are evading our law in this way. It is right that the UK should take all appropriate legislative measures to protect our children and young women from this dreadful practice, both here and abroad. The physical and psychological effects on them of FGM are enormous and a terrible violation of their human rights.
636 The Bill therefore seeks to ensure that people with a substantial connection to the United Kingdom who take girls abroad for FGM can be prosecuted on their return. At the same time it increases substantially the maximum penalty for FGM and describes the prohibited acts for what they are: mutilation.
FGM is a collective term for a range of procedures, which include the partial or total removal of or other injury to the external female genitalia. It is an age-old practice, which is perpetuated in many communities around the world simply because it is customary. Its origins are unknown. The practice is medically unnecessary, extremely painful and poses severe health risks, both at the time when the mutilation is carried out and in later life. It has no possible physical advantages; is not called for in any religion and is not limited to any religious group.
Typically, FGM is performed on girls between the ages of four and 13 but also in some cases on new-born infants or on young women prior to marriage or pregnancy. The practice is particularly prevalent in Africa and occurs to a lesser extent in the Middle East and Asia. However, those who have undergone or are at risk of undergoing FGM are increasingly found in Western Europe and other developed countries, primarily among immigrants and refugee communities.
Estimates of the number of women and girls who have undergone FGM world-wide range from 130 million to 150 million, with an estimated 2 million at risk each year. The extent to which FGM is practised in the UK is not known but there are thought to be 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 of undergoing it.
In countries where female genital mutilation is prevalent the conditions in which it is carried out are often unhygienic and the instruments used crude and unsterilised kitchen knives, razor blades, broken glass and even sharp stones are the tools of the trade. Worse still is the fact that in most cases no anaesthetic is used. Children are simply held down while the procedure is performed. A recent Channel 4 documentary about FGM, "The Day I Will Never Forget", showed two young Somali girls undergoing the procedure and made harrowing viewing.
The severe health consequences of FGM cannot he underestimated. Immediate consequences include severe pain, haemorrhage, shock, infection, septicaemia or even death. Longer-term consequences include difficulty in menstruating and passing urine, infertility and sexual dysfunction. FGM also greatly increases the risk to women in pregnancy and 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. It is unlikely that FGM was ever legal in this country. Even before the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act came into force, it could almost certainly have been prosecuted as an offence against the person. The purpose of the 637 1985 Act was to remove any uncertainty about the legality of the practice and to make it clear that such a barbaric custom has no place in our society.
The Act was a result of a Private Member's Bill introduced in another place by the Member for Broxbourne, Marion Roe, and supported by the government of the day. As one of the first pieces of legislation on FGM in the world, it broke new ground. So too does this Bill.
Like some other countries, which have specific laws against FGM, the UK has seen no prosecutions since the 1985 Act came into force. Research carried out by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population Development and Reproductive Health prior to the hearing that it held on FGM in May 2000 suggested that it is most often pressure from the family or community to remain silent which leads to offences going unreported. Many victims may be too young and vulnerable or too afraid to report them. Lack of awareness of the law and fear of cultural sensitivities are also factors.
As a member of the panel at the FGM hearings in 2000, I am particularly pleased that this Bill gives effect to a number of our recommendations for changes in the existing law. First, it substitutes the term "genital mutilations" for "circumcision". The term "circumcision" in this context is misleading, not least because FGM is not in any way comparable to the accepted practice of male circumcision. The Long Title of the Bill removes any doubt as to the acceptability of this dreadful practice. It describes the prohibited acts for exactly what they are—mutilations.
Secondly, and most importantly, the Bill gives extraterritorial effect to the existing provisions. This means that any of the prohibited acts done outside the UK by a UK national or permanent UK residents will be offences under domestic law and triable in the courts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. That is a significant and ground-breaking extension of the present law.
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.
Concern was expressed in another place that the extraterritorial provision should apply to all UK residents who commit the prohibited acts; in particular, those seeking asylum from countries where FGM is endemic. But there is a limit as to how far the UK can go in protecting children from and prosecuting people for offences of FGM committed outside our jurisdiction. We cannot legislate to protect all victims outside our jurisdiction, nor can we prosecute everyone and anyone who has committed FGM abroad and who happens to have touched our shores.
638 The people that the extraterritorial provisions are intended to catch are those who take children abroad for FGM and then return to—and can thus be tried in—the UK. Those who have permanent residence here are free to leave and return to the UK at will and are thus more likely to be able to do this than those who do not.
Asylum seekers, on the other hand, are much less likely to leave the UK for FGM-related or, indeed, any other reasons. An asylum application still under consideration by the Home Office is regarded as withdrawn at the time of departure if the applicant leaves the UK; and an asylum appeal pending in the UK will be treated as abandoned if the appellant leaves.
It is important to emphasise too that the Bill, like the 1985 Act, covers anyone, including foreign students and visitors who commits a prohibited act in this country. It is only when the acts are committed overseas that the restrictions as to nationality or residence apply.
Thirdly, the Bill increases the maximum penalty for FGM from five to 14 years' imprisonment. Other than life imprisonment, that is the highest sentence that can be imposed. It was argued in another place that increased prison terms will not have any effect if people are not prosecuted, but the higher penalty may have a greater deterrent effect. Someone prepared to risk five years' imprisonment may think twice before risking 14.
That covers how this Bill will change the present law. Otherwise, it simply re-enacts the provisions of the 1985 Act. Nevertheless, 18 years on, re-enactment has provided a valuable opportunity for debate on these provisions. In particular, on the saving that is provided for necessary surgical operations.
Necessary surgical operations are those that are necessary for physical or mental health. But Clause 1(5) of the Bill specifically provides that in assessing mental health, no account is taken of any belief,that the operation is needed as a matter of custom or ritual".So FGM could not legally occur on the ground that a woman's mental health would suffer if she did not conform with the prevailing custom of her community.
Concern was expressed in another place about the need for and potential misuse of the savings of those surgical operations that are necessary for mental health. This is particularly in the context of so-called "designer vagina" operations where women undergo a voluntary procedure to improve appearance or enhance sexual pleasure. Anecdotal evidence suggests that that is a growing trend.
When the 1985 Act was passed, it was not Parliament's intention to place any statutory limitation on operations that are genuinely necessary; nor is it the intention of the Bill. Such operations may well be rare, but they do occur, and it would be wrong to criminalise them. But unless they are medically necessary, any operations involving mutilation of the external genitalia—"designer vagina" or otherwise—are already illegal if carried out by a person in the UK. Under the Bill's provisions, they will also be illegal if 639 carried out by a UK national or permanent UK resident outside the UK. That will be the case even if the woman on whom the operation is carried out consents.
The climate in which we are debating the Bill today is very different from that in 1985. There is now much greater awareness of the practice of FGM and people are perhaps less inclined to believe that cultural beliefs are sacrosanct. We must of course respect other cultures and traditions, but that does not mean accepting the unacceptable. FGM is a brutal practice. It cannot be supported on cultural, medical or other grounds.
Of course, legislation alone will not bring an end to this abhorrent violation of women's bodies. Much still needs to be done both here and abroad to educate the practising communities about the serious health consequences and persuade them to abandon mutilation. I hope that the Government will continue to support those organisations which already do such valuable work with the practising communities. But the Bill sends a powerful message. It is a reflection of the seriousness with which the problem of FGM is viewed and is a welcome step in the right direction. I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Rendell of Babergh.)
§ 5.7 p.m.
§ Baroness Gould of Potternewton
My Lords, I must first declare an interest as the president of FORWARD, one of the organisations to which my noble friend Lady Rendell referred, which works in the field. Secondly, I should like to thank her for promoting the Bill in the House and for the way in which she has presented it today. I should also like to thank the Government for their support for the Bill.
I have one regret, which is that all the speakers in this debate are women. It is important that men take part in this issue. When I introduced a debate in your Lordships' House in November 1998, I was extremely gratified that half of the speakers were men. It is a pity that that is not the case today. Nevertheless, I know that we have their support in what we are trying to do.
When I introduced the Bill in November 1998, it was an attempt to see how far we had gone to implement the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985—an Act which was passed due to the persistence of some Members of your Lordships' House.
I was prompted to revisit the subject after listening to Waris Dirie, a UN special ambassador on the subject, at a meeting organised by the All-Party Group for Population, Development and Reproductive Health. Waris is a model born in Somalia. She described how she was subject to the ordeal at the age of five and promised in marriage to a man aged 60 and how she then fled the village at the age of 14 and sought refuge in Britain. She said of the campaign to outlaw all female genital mutilation:I have seen girls suffer and die from FGM. I was strong enough to survive and I want to make the difference. I can talk because I have experienced the pain".640 The Bill is a step in her campaign to bring to justice those who help to perform such terrible acts.
Credit must also be given to the all-party group for, as my noble friend said, holding a series of hearings on the subject after listening to Waris Dirie. I was also a member of the panel on those hearings. Its crucial recommendation was that the title of any new Act should refer to female genital mutilation, not to female circumcision. My noble friend was right in saying that it was a very important change, because the reality is mutilation. It in no way compares to male circumcision; nor, as suggested by Germaine Greer, is it a form of cosmetic surgery.
Clause 1 provides a definition of FGM, but the details given by my noble friend express more clearly the reality and show how grim the act is. Although the health consequences vary depending on the procedure used, they are usually serious. They range from damage to the external reproductive system to psychological scars. The practice can leave a lasting mark on the life and mind of the girl who has undergone such a trauma. Such psychological complications may be submerged deep in a child's subconscious and can cause behavioural problems. Girls hold on to their secret, feeling guilty and isolated, and grow up suffering from a feeling of incompleteness, anxiety and depression. It is important for those girls that the public debate continues and that it takes place out of the shadows.
What are the justifications for carrying out the barbaric practice of unnecessary painful mutilation of the body, euphemistically known as "cutting the rose"? It is believed to ensure virginity until marriage, to maintain family honour and to ensure a sense of belonging to the group that the girl comes from. It is a control of women's sexuality, keeping them subordinate to men. Women are made to believe that it will increase their husband's enjoyment of the sexual act, irrespective of the fact that it is extremely painful.
My noble friend referred to the 130 million girls at risk of undergoing the practice in some form. Most girls and women affected live in Africa, but, as she said, FGM is increasingly practised in western Europe. With the movement of people to Europe from countries where the practice is endemic, the practice comes with them. It is a cultural practice that people may hold on to as a perceived important part of their identity once they leave the country. We must consider that very seriously when we negotiate with communities and discuss the dangers of the practice that they are undertaking.
As my noble friend also said, the exact number of refugees and immigrants from practising countries and in communities in the UK is not known. Based on figures extrapolated from the 1999 Labour Force Survey, FORWARD estimates that around 6,500 girls under the age of 16 are at risk from FGM. One of the causes has been the ability to take girls out of the 641 country. It is therefore encouraging that the Bill agrees fundamentally with the recommendation of the all-party group when it said:UK residents who take girls abroad for FGM can be prosecuted under the UK law on their return, regardless of the legal status of FGM in the country where the mutilation took place".That is of crucial importance.
Equally, it was necessary to know whether the extradition legislation currently going through the House would apply. For that reason, during the passage of the Extradition Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, who will speak later, and I took the opportunity to get clarification from the Government of their attitude to the extradition of persons who have committed offences under the Bill. We felt it was important that there be extradition to the UK after conviction if a sentence had been imposed for a crime in the UK under the Act.
The amendment that we tabled identified FGM as a specific offence which should be classified as conduct that constitutes an extraditable offence if it occurs in the UK. Furthermore, it identified that if the offence of FGM occurred outside the country, it would still amount to an extraditable offence. The important question was asked as to whether the powers available under the Extradition Bill would be used in practice. We were quite encouraged by the Minister's response. He said:We hope that the police will pursue such matters vigorously. As with any extradition case, there can be no guarantee that the request will be successful. However, that is not a reason not to have the power in statute to allow us to pursue it. The penalties that FGM already attracts mean that it is always extraditable".—[Official Report, 10/17/03; GC 138.]That was encouraging and very good news indeed, partly because of the point made by my noble friend about there having been no prosecutions in this country under the 1985 Act. Legal action against FGM is also possible under the Children's Act 1980, so the courts could, if they wished, prevent the removal of a child from the UK for the purposes of carrying out the mutilation abroad. I appreciate that one cause of inaction was the difficulty of getting evidence, but the other cause was the loophole in the previous Bill.
FGM is a fundamental human rights issue with adverse health and social implications. It violates the rights of women and girls to bodily integrity. It is vital for those at risk that the new law is fully implemented and that the Government, the police and the agencies involved work together to ensure that that happens and that this abhorrent practice is eliminated.
§ 5.16 p.m.
§ Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
My Lords, the Medical Women's Federation, of which I am a past president, has for many years called for action to prevent female genital mutilation. I feel humbled to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton, who has 642 campaigned to outlaw this barbaric practice for many years and to try to safeguard the girls in Britain who are at risk of female genital mutilation.
Female genital mutilation is just that—it is excessively mutilating. I have thought long and hard about whether to outline what happens. I feel that, as a doctor, not to do so would be to comply with the myth that has sustained denial about how terrible female genital mutilation really is. However, I sympathise with Hansard who have to transcribe our words.
The girls, usually between seven and nine years of age, are subjected to forcible restraint and, without any anaesthesia, have their genitalia operated on. Do not forget that, anatomically, this area is highly innervated with sensory nerve endings, so the pain is excruciating. Girls have died from the force of being restrained. The same blade is often used on girl after girl. There is no aseptic technique and there are deaths in Africa from infection, including from gas gangrene. Since HIV in children is now increasing through vertical transmission, cross infection must also now be considered a risk.
The mutilation ranges from cutting off the skin over the top of the clitoris, to completely cutting off the labia minora and even the middle third of the labia majora—the inner and outer lips of the vagina—and stitching and/or clamping the vaginal wall closed around a piece of wood, so that just urine and menstrual blood can escape, although stagnant pools of blood often remain behind the scars. If the girl does not die at the time from haemorrhage or infection, the scarring is horrible. When pregnant, these women have terrible labours, with the risk of major tears and the resulting incontinence of faeces.
Cutting the clitoris is done to reduce the woman's sexual desire and, hence, to ensure her virginity until she is married. The more extensive operations involve stitching the vagina and have the same aim of ensuring chastity until marriage. The reduction in the size of the vaginal opening is supposed to increase the husband's enjoyment of the sexual act. It does not. Penetration may be difficult and very painful for both partners, if possible at all. Sometimes, these couples present as infertile, but actually penetration has never occurred.
From the family's point of view, social and religious pressures mean that the operation ensures a satisfactory bride price. An eligible man would not consider marrying a girl who had not had the operation. The practice is widespread in Africa, especially in Somalia, among all communities, not only the Muslim groups. By and large, female genital mutilation is carried out in Western countries among immigrants from African countries. Conservative estimates in the UK published in the British Medical Journal suggest that about 10,000 girls are currently at risk or have been mutilated. Yet, no prosecutions have been brought, as the previous speakers have said. That demonstrates that, sadly, the previous legislation proved impotent.
It is estimated that about 32,000 to 42,000 girls are at risk in France and possibly 168,000 in the United States. It is not a minor problem. The operation can be 643 regarded as an exercise in male supremacy for purported sexual pleasure. Many genitally mutilated women who have had their daughters mutilated to make them marriageable report bitterly regretting it.
This is a major issue for male education to alter men's attitudes and to safeguard the lives of girls. For too long, our society has been cowardly in addressing just how terrible female genital mutilation is. The Bill should act as a template for other governments. It must move unhindered and with speed.
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen
My Lords, I am pleased to support the Bill. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Rendell of Babergh on piloting it through the House.
I decided to speak in the debate because I can still remember my reaction to learning about female genital mutilation over 30 years ago. At that time, I worked in the equality department at the TUC. It was one of my jobs, as a new assistant, to open the post and pass on the most important letters to the head of department. One morning, I opened an envelope to see a circular that had obviously been typed on an old-fashioned typewriter and had been badly reproduced. My first instinct was to put it on one side. As I glanced at it, the words "female genital mutilation" caught my eye, and I read it.
I could not believe what I read. I could not believe that such mutilations took place. I was shaken to the core to learn not only that they took place but that female relatives of those who were mutilated took part in the proceedings. Such was my naivety at that time. My head of department told me that she had first learnt about the practice at international conferences of women. She told me that it was often difficult to discuss the issue because many women from the countries in which it was practised defended it as being part of their culture and nothing to do with other nations and other cultures.
Since that time, I have discussed the issue on many occasions. One occasion sticks in my mind. I met a young African woman at a women's international conference in Geneva. She was a professional woman in her late 20s, and she told me of her personal experiences. She had been born and brought up in a village in which female genital mutilation was the norm for the girls and women living there. She remembered vividly the agony and the bewilderment that she had felt during and after the mutilation. Her bewilderment came about because her mother and her aunt assisted in the excruciating process. She had many health problems throughout her teens because of the mutilation.
In her early 20s, she became a teacher, moved to a town and met and married a teacher from the first school in which she taught. They had two daughters and were determined that no form of female genital mutilation would be performed on them. When the girls were six and eight, they went to stay with their maternal grandmother during the school holidays. After a few days, the parents went to bring them home. 644 They found two little girls with faces swollen from crying. The grandmother, with others, had performed the mutilation on the children, despite being fully aware of the parents' wishes. The young woman told me that she could not forgive her mother for what she had done, although she recognised that her mother genuinely believed that it was necessary for the girls because, otherwise, their prospects of marriage would be nil.
I tell your Lordships that story to illustrate how female genital mutilation is perpetrated in some communities and because many women and girls from the same community as the young African woman to whom I spoke now live permanently in this country.
I know that we already have laws to cover these practices, but they obviously need strengthening. This Bill does that. As my noble friend said, the Bill alone will not be sufficient. It must be accompanied by education and explanation of why it is necessary, especially aimed at the immigrant communities who practise the mutilations. The Minister in the other place said:Educating them about the dangers and unacceptability of such a brutal practice is the best way to break the cycle of mutilation … Between Royal Assent and the legislation's being brought into force, health professionals and others will work with those communities that practise FGM in order that they become aware of its provisions".—[Official Report, Commons, 11/7/03; col. 1563.]I believe that that is the way forward. I support and welcome the Bill.
§ 5.25 p.m.
§ Baroness Trumpington
My Lords, if one speaks in the gap, I believe it is de rigueur to ask a question. I assure your Lordships that I have one. Before I ask it—I am not going to make a speech even on a subject about which I feel passionately—perhaps I may go down memory lane to 1985 when the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act, sponsored by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, became law. I am sad that the noble Baroness could not be here today. Incidentally, the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, may be interested to know that several men spoke in the course of that Bill. Lord Kennett twice introduced a Bill, which, through no fault of his, failed to get through before the Bill sponsored by the noble Baroness. Lady Masham, was successful.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, received full support from the government of the day. Today, as a Member of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition, I should like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on raising this delicate subject. Having re-read the Third Reading of the 1985 Bill, with which I was associated, I am amazed that it was such a scratchy, bad tempered affair. However, there were some excellent speeches displaying real knowledge of the subject, both in this country and elsewhere. Those speeches are as relevant today as they were then. I wish this important Bill every success. My only question is: why is Scotland excluded?
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Baroness Thomas of Walliswood
My Lords, first, I should like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, for introducing this useful Bill today. She is a doughty campaigner and champion of the cause of ending this noxious practice, which the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, described so vividly and painfully to us. As the noble Baroness said, the Bill puts right some defects in existing legislation as regards the horrific and totally unacceptable practice of female genital mutilation.
First, the Bill changes the description of the practice from female circumcision to female genital mutilation. I thoroughly support that. The medical value of circumcision for boys may be debatable. But, as a physical intervention, it cannot be compared to the practice of cutting, partial removal and/or sewing up of the external female genitalia, which is what is meant by the ostensibly benign phrase, "female circumcision". In this case, it is highly desirable that the law should call a spade a spade.
Secondly, the Bill removes a loophole in existing legislation. It enables people who take their children abroad to obtain genital mutilation to be prosecuted in this country, whether or not it is an offence in the country in which the mutilation takes place. As the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, said, this is an extension of the principle of territoriality. One may be against extra-territoriality in some cases, but this is a case in which it is justified.
As my honourable friend Sandra Gidley put it in a debate on this Bill in another place, female genital mutilation is subjugation of the female to the male. It is also child abuse. I do not accept that there should be any reluctance to take the action necessary to eradicate this practice, even though I can easily understand that some professionals may be afraid to intervene because such action could lay them open to charges of racism.
Thirdly, I support the provision to increase the maximum penalty provided for the offences of procuring or carrying out female genital mutilation. This additional, extended penalty emphasises the seriousness of the offence in the eyes of the law and of citizens in the United Kingdom.
In sum, we support the Bill and will do nothing to impede its progress through the House. However, there are some other considerations slightly beyond the remit of the Bill itself which I wish to raise briefly in the hope that the Minister may be able to respond to them positively when she intervenes in the debate.
I turn to the lack of prosecutions brought under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, to which several other speakers have referred. This failure to implement the existing legislation has led to suggestions that there is little sense in increasing penalties for crimes which are never brought to court. It may be that the broadening of the scope of the legislation proposed in this Bill will in itself make prosecution more likely because of the greater difficulty of procuring genital mutilation abroad. Alternatively, the increase in penalties may bring 646 home to people society's total condemnation of this disgraceful practice and thus act as a deterrent. I am sure we all hope that this will be the case.
On the other hand it seems that attitudes differ from country to country in their attitude towards the prosecution of those who procure or practise female genital mutilation. The practice is most widespread in Africa and, to a lesser extent, in some Arabic countries and parts of south-east Asia. There is a growing movement within affected nations, encouraged by the international community, including the United Kingdom, to try and stamp it out, with a target date for eradication of 2010.
Several of the countries in which the practice is prevalent have already introduced legislation to make female genital mutilation illegal. So have a number of developed countries, into which the practice has been introduced as a result of population migration driven by war, internal disturbance, starvation or other causes. These countries include Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and the United States, as well as the United Kingdom. Interestingly, while no prosecutions have been brought in any of those developed countries, prosecutions or arrests have taken place in Burkina Faso, Mali, Egypt, Ghana and Senegal. Further, in France, which has no specific legislation outlawing female genital mutilation, successful prosecutions have been brought under existing laws prohibiting acts of violence against children.
My first request to the Minister is that she should ensure that good codes of practice are developed and training programmes set up to encourage and enable the police, social services and the judicial system to tackle this kind of violence against children exactly as they would any other form of violence; namely, with the seriousness which it deserves.
Bearing in mind the efforts being made in other parts of the world to change hearts and minds, my second request is for the Minister to tell us when an effective outreach programme will be in place to persuade people in affected communities in this country to abandon this terrible practice. It is a crime against human rights, including the rights of the child, as well as against United Kingdom law.
I am old enough to remember being taught about the terrible practice of foot binding in China. Like female genital mutilation, this was a crime against the rights of the woman and of the child, and a cultural practice undertaken to please men. It was not fully abandoned until the Communist revolution in China. I hope that this Government, along with employees in all the relevant areas of the public services, will now do all in their power to eradicate this practice in our country. That would be the best way to make the Bill as effective as its promoters and supporters would wish.
§ 5.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Anelay of St Johns
My Lords, I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue. I offer my personal and my party's congratulations to the 647 noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on her sponsorship of the Bill. I should also like to put on the record my appreciation of the important work on this issue that has been carried out over several years by the noble Baroness. Lady Gould of Potternewton. As she mentioned. in earlier debates she tabled amendments to the Extradition Bill, together with my noble friend Lord Hodgson and myself—but she was very much the leading light—which gave us the opportunity to debate these issues. It should be noted that in that debate not a single voice was raised in opposition to the objectives of this Bill. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, I should also like to put on the record my thanks for the thoughtful way in which the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Filkin, responded to the amendments on behalf of the Government.
Like others who have spoken today, I 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. 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. Immediate and short-term health implications, as we have heard, 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, as we have heard, there can be lasting psychological damage.
We have also heard how FGM can cause complications later on in life 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 indeed complex and numerous. Indeed, it has not even been possible to determine when or where the tradition originated. However, I agree with earlier speakers that it is definitely 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.
As we have heard, 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; to lower female sexual desire; to maintain chastity and virginity before marriage; and allegedly to increase male sexual pleasure. Ironically, it may also be believed by some, we are told, to enhance fertility and chances of child survival, which is the exact opposite of what is really the case. What is clear is that those varied reasons stem from traditional power inequalities and ensuring the compliance of women to the dictates of their communities.
648 But above all else, as noble Lords have made clear, this is an issue 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. We have heard moving stories today from the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson of Market Rasen.
Let us not doubt that FGM is child abuse. As such, it requires carefully planned and sensitive interventions into the family situation. Health practitioners and the organisation Forward, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, referred, do valuable work in campaigning against this practice among African communities in Britain. However, they believe that FGM is still a significant and growing problem within the United Kingdom and that we will fail to tackle it unless we ensure that our agencies are equipped to deal with the problem here in our own backyard.
Mention has been made of the fact that in 1985 Parliament legislated to outlaw FGM, although it was referred to as female circumcision at that time. I am pleased that my noble friend Lady Trumpington spoke in the gap today to remind us of the fact that great support was given to that Bill by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and that it was supported by the then Conservative government, just as I am delighted to see that this Bill is supported by the present Labour Government.
The question we have to ask—it has been posed today—is whether the Bill will increase the likelihood of successful prosecutions for FGM in Britain. It is a mark of sorrow for all of us that no prosecution has been brought, although we know that FGM has occurred.
We have to recognise that 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 could be academic if knowledge of the offence is poor and prosecution remains impossible.
I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Baronesses, Lady Rendell and Lady Gibson of Market Rasen, that the Bill must be accompanied by work with communities to explain the law and address their knowledge and beliefs. When we strengthen provisions against people who carry out FGM, we must also ensure that community-based local strategies provide education and support. Several grass-roots community organisations and interest groups such as Forward are best placed to deliver those strategies. I invite the Minister to pledge her 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 649 country to which they are travelling. However, sadly, the Act is of no use where FGM is not illegal in the destination country. We need to remember that.
The measures we are debating are vital in that they introduce a new offence of assisting a non-UK person to mutilate a girl's genitalia overseas. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, referred graphically to a situation in which a family resident in the UK finds that a girl has been mutilated overseas. That case, sadly, would still fall outwith the Bill because the parents did not arrange for the girl to go overseas with that objective. However, the Bill will stop persons who are resident here being able with impunity to send a child overseas to have FGM performed, as they will face a penalty.
It has, I hope, been clear from my speech that I welcome the Bill as a whole. It is a valuable opportunity to improve the protection of girls and women in the United Kingdom from FGM. It is a welcome reflection of the importance of this issue and the seriousness with which it deserves to be treated. I hope that it may be helpful to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, if I make it clear that I have no intention of tabling any amendments to the Bill. I wish it the speediest of journeys on to the statute book.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness; we have had unanimity of voice in this House.
In the spirit of the debate so far, I begin by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, on her sponsorship of the Bill. It is an extremely worthwhile piece of legislation, which has the Government's full support. If I may, I should like to comment on the sentiments expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, when she noted that we are few in number. Notwithstanding the fact that we are few, we are many in sentiment and we few, we happy few, we band of sisters, are able to have our voices heard.
I would particularly like to take the opportunity to pay tribute to my honourable friend Ann Clwyd for giving priority to this important issue in another place, and to all those who have contributed to the successful passage of the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, not least, as has already been said, the honourable Marion Roe in the other place, who was the driving force behind it. It is a testament to their combined efforts that we are able to bring forward these measures today in an atmosphere of much less opposition.
Sadly, some of the noble Lords concerned are no longer with us but they, and others, particularly the noble Baronesses, Lady Masham and Lady Trumpington, laid the foundation for what we are doing today. I am particularly delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, is in her place and that she took the opportunity to speak in the gap.
The noble Baroness asked, "What about Scotland"—to which I can say, "I am here". The criminal law has been devolved to Scotland and, in the 650 past-devolution era, the convention is that we should not legislate for Scotland in devolved areas of the law, unless the Scottish Parliament passes a Sewel Motion allowing us to do so. We understand that the Scottish Parliament intends to introduce similar legislation of its own on this matter. I hope that gives the noble Baroness some comfort.
I also acknowledge the work of colleagues of all parties from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population, Development and Reproductive Health. The group has done much to raise the profile of female genital mutilation. Indeed, some of its recommendations led to this very Bill.
I endorse wholeheartedly and without reservation, and I pledge my support as the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, invited me to do, in relation to all matters in relation to this debate. Female genital mutilation is an extremely painful and harmful practice that has no religious significant whatever. It was graphically and almost painfully described by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandff, in her medical exposition of what the practice entails. It is indeed horrific.
The Government roundly condemn the practice and want to see it eradicated once and for all, both in this country and abroad. It is wholly unacceptable that we should allow a practice that can have such devastating consequences for the health of a young girl throughout her life. The mutilation and impairment of young girls and women can have no place in modern society, where equality is prized.
We all recognise that female genital mutilation may be deeply steeped in the culture and tradition of those communities that practise it. Several noble Baronesses have mentioned that today. However, respect for other cultures does not include condoning or ignoring such a terrible violation of human rights—in particular, the right of the child to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health, as set out in Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the right of women under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women not to be discriminated against because of their gender.
I shall confine myself to the questions asked by the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas of Walliswood and Lady Anelay. The 1985 Act, which was one of the first in the world to make female genital mutilation explicitly illegal, was an important and necessary step in the fight to eradicate this abhorrent practice. But in the light of what we now know—that parents of some communities are deliberately evading our law by taking girls abroad for female genital mutilation—it does not go far enough. It is essential that the law is strengthened to protect girls from mutilation, even beyond these shores. I hope that the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, can see it as a positive that people are removing their children from this country, as it shows an appreciation that they cannot do it with ease here.
Some of those who have debated the provisions in another place, together with the noble Baronesses, Lady Thomas of Walliswood and Lady Anelay, question the wisdom of strengthening legislation that 651 has yet to result in a prosecution. As we have heard, among the countries that have specific laws against female genital mutilation, the UK is not alone, regrettably, in having no prosecutions. One reason may be that people can evade our law by going abroad, which is what the Bill seeks to address.
The nature of the offence, the vulnerability of its young victims and the conspiracy of silence within the practising communities are also barriers to prosecution. In practice, prosecution can occur only if an offence is reported to the police, a referral is made to the Crown Prosecution Service and there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal proceedings. The willingness of victims and others to come forward to give evidence in court is crucial. We need to create a climate in which victims will feel able to come forward and receive the help and support they need to give their best evidence.
Above all, we need to change the way in which people think about female genital mutilation. It is a sad fact that, as the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, so graphically described, older women who themselves are victims of female genital mutilation are often the strongest advocates for the continuance of the practice. Such attitudes are deeply ingrained and it will take more than legislation to change them. That is why, as noble Lords have said, legislation must be accompanied by raising awareness of the law and a continuous programme of education aimed at the grassroots level.
On the domestic front, the Home Office and the Department of Health already help to fund two of the voluntary organizations—which have already been mentioned—that do such valuable work to combat female genital mutilation: the Foundation for Women's Health Research and Development (FORWARD) and the Agency for Culture and Change Management. Both organisations work closely with health, education and child protection agencies and of course with the practising communities themselves to promote understanding and encourage solutions to the problem.
Our stand against female genital mutilation is supported by the major bodies in the medical profession, which have issued guidance or position statements on FGM. Women and girls from the FGM-practising communities have the same right of access to NHS services as everyone else ordinarily resident in the UK. It is important that they are treated sympathetically. Health professionals have a particular role to play in dealing with FGM—which is why I was so glad to hear the comments by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. However, it also involves all professionals looking at this issue together.
Internationally, many are working in a large number of countries, particularly Africa, to eradicate female genital mutilation and to provide adequate healthcare for girls and women affected by it. We are supporting their work. The Department for International Development seeks to reduce the incidence and consequences of FGM by ensuring worldwide awareness of the practice, funding research 652 and supporting activities and projects designed to change behaviour in the long term. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is also working through our bilateral programmes and the UN and other international bodies to encourage countries which have not done so to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women and to implement the agreements made at the 1995 Beijing and the 2000 Beijing + 5 Women's Conferences.
In short, the Government believe that educating the practising communities, both here and abroad, to abandon FGM is the best way forward in breaking the cycle of mutilation. We do not underestimate the difficulties of ending centuries of a practice that is deeply ingrained in the social fabric of those communities. However, I should like to reassure all noble Lords that the professions and the agencies are determined to look at this practice, and we now have many more and much better tools with which to do so. I, too, wish the Bill Godspeed.
§ 5.53 p.m.
§ Baroness Rendell of Babergh
My Lords, I am profoundly grateful to all noble Lords—perhaps I should say all noble Baronesses—who have spoken this afternoon and to my noble friend the Minister who was, as always, gracious, eloquent and supportive. The speakers are all distinguished Members of this House and they made interesting, informed and above all compassionate speeches. I appreciate my noble friend the Minister's reference to us as a band of sisters.
I should like particularly to single out the contribution of my noble friend Lady Gould, who has been an untiring campaigner over several years towards this further FGM Bill. It is a subject dear to her heart. She regretted the absence of male speakers, and there I am afraid that I must agree with her.
As a doctor, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, gave a detailed description of these harrowing procedures and outlined familial traditions which lead to them. My noble friend Lady Gibson gave a vivid picture of her own reaction when she first learned what FGM was and told a typically horrible story to illustrate it. The noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, who was a Minister during the passage of the 1985 Bill, spoke eloquently about the Bill. The noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Walliswood, made a point of supporting the proposed severe penalty and asked some pertinent questions to which my noble friend the Minister has replied.
A cogent contribution was made by the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay of St Johns, when she underlined the horrible consequences of genital mutilation and pointed out that FGM is not an Islamic practice. She stressed its child abuse aspect.
Time is getting on and we are running late. I shall not detain noble Lords any longer. We have had a fruitful and, I think, unusual debate. When this Bill finally goes through, those who have supported it will, let us hope, have the satisfaction of seeing a large 653 number of women, hitherto helpless victims, saved from a wretched fate and a lifetime of pain and discomfort.
I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.