Prohibition of Female Circumcision Bill

– in the House of Commons at 1:45 pm on 19th April 1985.

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As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered; reported, without amendment.

Photo of Mrs Marion Roe Mrs Marion Roe , Broxbourne 1:53 pm, 19th April 1985

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

I am delighted that we have reached this stage of the Bill's progress because there has been pressure for such a measure for several years. I am grateful to all those who have assisted me. The purpose of the Bill is to make it clear beyond doubt that the practice of female circumcision should be illegal in Britain. Although, as the law stands, it might be argued that to perform such an operation constituted an act of actual bodily harm, there is no precedent detailing this. The degree of abhorrence of these procedures felt by all can leave no room for uncertainty. The Bill, though short, is both concise and exact and achieves that purpose.

Female circumcision is an act of mutilation performed upon young girls and women. The Bill seeks to include all the various methods adopted, from the most simple, known as sunna, to the most radical, infibulation. To achieve this, the working of the Bill, as set out in clause 1(1), has had to be of a catch-all nature. Obviously there is no desire so to leave the Bill that it interferes with legitimate medical operations, and clause 2 makes this clear. With your permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall return to that shortly.

Accordingly, any act of mutilation is included in clause 1, which creates the offence itself. This is then extended to include the aiding and abetting of another in self-mutilation. As I mentioned in Committee, this is a direct analogy with the Suicide Act 1960. No offence is committed by a person performing such a violent act upon herself. In our society, such prohibitions, echoing faintly the notion of burying suicides in unconsecrated ground, are not felt to be appropriate. But the weak need the protection of the law from those who would exploit their weakness. If these practices are to cease in this country, the law prohibiting them cannot have potential loopholes.

In accordance with the basic principle of the criminal law, the Bill therefore provides that to aid and abet the offence is also itself an offence.

The penalties envisaged underline the detestation of female circumcision in this country. The Bill does not regard the offence as one to be treated lightly.

Since the discussion of the Bill in Committee, I have received a letter from Professor Macnaughton, president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. In it he sets out the views of the college: Firstly, we are at one with you in seeking to prohibit female circumcision of any kind being performed in this country. However, there are a variety of surgical operations that are necessary for the physical and mental health of women, which have nothing whatever to do with circumcisions performed for traditonal or cultural reasons. I wish to make it clear that the College would be opposed to any statutory limitations on these legitimate procedures. The operations to which Professor Macnaughton refers can be divided into two categories—those dealing with physical health, of which cancer is an example, and those dealing with mental health.

The Bill does not seek to interfere with a patient's right to receive legitimate or ethical surgery, and therefore clause 2 excludes such operations from the scope of the Bill.

There has been some discussion of the nature of exclusions for reasons of mental health. In a very small number of cases surgery is required for reasons other than physical illness. Obviously these fall into a category which is a form of cosmetic surgery, often resulting from the distress caused by a perception of abnormality.

The problem in a previous incarnation of the Bill proved insurmountable, as the word "abnormality" was used without real regard to its definition. In practice it must be right to leave that to the judgment of the individual doctor. This consideration is essential.

There is no doubt that if a woman was deluded or imagined that there was something wrong with her, it would be good professional practice not to offer surgery but to persuade her to accept psychiatric treatment. This is a view that could adopted with all forms of cosmetic surgery, but is surely best left to the professional judgment of a doctor. Such cosmetic surgery is a long way, both qualitatively and quantitatively, from female circumcision.

The purpose of the Bill is to prevent the custom of female circumcision, not legitimate, ethical and surgical procedures. The exclusion therefore of reasons of mental health needed careful drafting. There was no point in passing a Bill that created an offence if, in a later clause, it was so poorly drafted that it allowed unlimited exemptions. Accordingly, it is worth examining precisely the offence and the practice that we find so abhorrent.

The Bill seeks to prevent the ritual mutilation of the female genitalis, hence the deliberate inclusion of the words "custom or ritual" in clause 2. We cannot create an offence and then say that the act constituting that offence is exempt from the Bill. Such legislation would be nonsense. The provisions for exemptions for reasons of mental health must ensure that reasons of custom or ritual are not justified.

We cannot allow female circumcision to occur on the ground that a woman's health would suffer if she did not conform with the prevailing custom of her community. Such an argument knows no bounds—we would have allowed suttee in this country a century ago. Would we allow it now were it still the prevailing custom in India?

The Bill has its roots in the protection of children. It stands four square behind the United Nations declaration on the rights of children of 1959, which asserts that children should have the possibility to develop physically in a healthy and normal way in conditions of liberty and dignity.

The Bill seeks to prevent an appalling practice which leads to no physical benefits and is associated with a number of health hazards, including haemorrhage, pain, shock, infection, septicaemia and long-term obstetrical problems.

We in Britain are not alone in our desire to act. Other European countries, including Sweden, have banned the practice. In Kenya, it is illegal, as are all but the simplest procedures in the Sudan.

There is no doubt that at the same time as legislation there must be a process of health education among those people who still perform the acts. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister, who confirmed in Committee that his Department would consider sympathetically any applications for grants for that purpose, but we cannot allow that consideration to prevent the Bill from becoming law. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mr Geoffrey Finsberg Mr Geoffrey Finsberg , Hampstead and Highgate 2:02 pm, 19th April 1985

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on her luck in the ballot and on bringing forward this important Bill. May I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being able to remain until the end of the proceedings.

I want to give the Bill my support because it concerns an issue that came across my desk when I was in the Department. It is one that I viewed with the greatest sympathy, but there were then, as my hon. Friend said, many difficulties. The medical profession was not perhaps as helpful as it has now turned out to be. The Department tried to get the matter working, but it was not possible. I am delighted that, clearly with the aid of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health, that has now been possible.

I congratulate my hon. Friend, and I hope that the Bill will rapidly become law.

Photo of Ms Jo Richardson Ms Jo Richardson , Barking 2:03 pm, 19th April 1985

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on her Bill, of which I am a sponsor. She has done a good service by introducing it. I hope that today we shall see the completion of its stages in this House. As she said, the subject has had a somewhat chequered legislative career. In many respects, we all understand the problems which gave rise to the complexities of legislating on this difficult subject

There is no doubt that there is enormous abhorrence of and anxiety about the practice. At the same time, as hon. Members will know, some black women feel that clause 2(2) could be considered to have racial overtones as it forbids the use of mental stress as a reason for those who wish to have female circumcision for ritual or custom as against those who use mental stress as a reason because of difficulties with deformed or enlarged genitalia. I hope that we have been able to convince them that there is no such intention behind the Bill.

It must be put on record that even now the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is not, as far as I am aware, 100 per cent. satisfied with the formulation of the Bill. Indeed, it gave me a revised amendment which I tabled unsuccessfully in Committee. The Commission for Racial Equality also has some reservations about this portion of the Bill. However, I have been unable to find any other way of changing it. Perhaps the noble Lords will have a look at it.

I underline the hon. Lady's hope that the Minister of Health will confirm what his colleague the Under-Secretary of State said in Committee two weeks ago. He said that he recognised that black women face very serious pressures in all sorts of ways because of the practice in their own community, and that they needed health counselling and health education. He undertook to look at that aspect with sympathy.

It was only by chance that before coming into the Chamber this morning I saw a letter to me from the director of the Foundation for Women's Health research and development—the organisation called FORWARD. It is a very reputable organisation with distinguished sponsors, including Dame Josephine Barnes, Lord Kennet and Baroness Lockwood. The director, Mrs. Stella Efua Graham — who, in her correspondence with me, has welcomed the Bill—sent me a copy of the letter that she sent to the Under-Secretary of State on 18 April picking up the point that he made in Committee, when he said that he would look sympathetically at accepting applications from any organisations for funding to cover such activities."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 3 April 1985; c. 16.] She points out that, in the name of FORWARD she asked for support from the DHSS in late 1983, but received no response.

Mrs. Graham is putting forward—as she has in the letter—three projects which could very well receive funding and support from the Department. It would help in terms of health education and health counselling, and would be seen by those who may be worried about the matter as a sensible way of having a public health programme alongside the legislation that we are discussing today.

Although I am not trying to bounce the Minister into an answer on the project, I hope that, when he has an opportunity, he will discuss the application with his hon. Friend. It would go a great way towards reassuring people who would genuinely like to outlaw the practice altogether but who see the difficulties of women, of their mothers and of their prospective husbands in dealing with a problem which has been so much a part of their culture and practice.

I reiterate my congratulations to the hon. Lady and hope that, when the legislation becomes law, the Department will deal with it in the most sensitive possible way and not in a nasty, draconian way, because the Bill will cause some problems and one would not want legislation to drive the practice underground in a way that none of us would welcome.

Photo of Kenneth Clarke Kenneth Clarke Minister of State (Department of Health) 2:09 pm, 19th April 1985

I happily join in the congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) on the way in which she has so skilfully steered the Bill through the House to its present stage. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Sir G. Finsberg), who was a colleague of mine in the Department until recently, that it proved an intractable and difficult problem when it came to drafting legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne has come close to leading us to a solution.

I am sure that the Bill will be welcomed by the public because publicity about those operations has aroused general indignation. Although we believe that female circumcision has been carried out in only a handful of cases in this country, it does not mean that there are not compelling reasons for legislation to make sure that there are no more such operations here. The mutilation and impairment of young girls and women have no part in our way of life. I am glad to know that that view is shared by representatives of the ethnic minorities who live here. That is why the Government warmly welcome the Bill, and have, indeed, welcomed it throughout its passage.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne that it is arguable that the procedures known as female circumcision are already against the criminal law in this country, but that is by no means certain. We have not had a case to provide a precedent. I am sure that the House would prefer that we had definite legislation making it clear in statute that it is contrary to criminal law.

The problem that arose in the early stages of the Bill was to make sure that one discriminated between female circumcision and other legitimate surgery, because in straight anatomical terms there is little difference between the operation known as circumcision, or some forms of it, and other desirable medical practices. The present drafting of the Bill, as a result of work in Committee, meets that aim and will proscribe the activities that we wish to proscribe without damaging the decision of those who wish to carry out legitimate surgery on their patients.

The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) mentioned the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. A copy of the latest letter sent by the president to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne has been given to me. It may not have reached the hon. Member for Barking yet. My hon. Friend quoted a passage from Professor Macnaughton's letter. He concludes by saying: The College will be happy to comment on any amendments that are suggested and I can confirm that the College would approve of your Bill as amended by the Standing Committee. That may mean that the college is now satisfied that any possible problems have been sorted out. While I am sure that their Lordships will wish to look at the Bill, I hope that they do not embark on amateur draftsmanship of their own and get the Bill back into complications that might run the risk of frustrating its purpose.

Like all those who have spoken so far, particularly the two hon. Ladies, I share their view that there is no question of racism in the Bill or anything of that sort. I am satisfied that it is necessary to make the references to custom and ritual for the reasons explained by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne. All the sponsors of the Bill and all those associated with it are plainly not only not guilty of any racialist views, but many of them, including the hon. Member for Barking, play a prominent part in combating racism and trying to make sure that no elements of racial segregation find their way into our law. It is the need for careful drafting that caused those references, and there is no need for people to be suspicious of them.

I agree that the Bill should be seen only as a necessary part of a wider health education campaign to eradicate that practice in this country and abroad. We do not underestimate the importance of education and counselling among the communities in which female circumcision has been a custom for millennia. Groups are now at work among those communities providing just such counselling and information services. We share their aims and commend the work that they do.

The hon. Member for Barking is ahead of me in reading copies of correspondence addressed to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. He made a helpful offer in Committee that we would look at any applications for grants. We shall do so as quickly and sympathetically as possible.

I conclude by renewing my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne on her success in having brought the Bill this far. I commend the Bill to the House, and hope that its passage through another place will be equally successful.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.