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That matter was certainly mentioned in yesterday’s debate. Of course, female genital mutilation is a crime under our law. I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment at the lack of prosecutions so far, if that is what he is driving at, but I think he will understand that one difficulty that the prosecuting authorities and the police have had is in the gathering of evidence.
This is too obvious a point, but I will make it anyway: FGM does not take place in public. It is difficult for independent witnesses to come across evidence, although there will be children who are examined in hospital or seen by schoolteachers or general practitioners. Now that the subject is increasingly coming into the public arena, I am sure that such people will be on their guard to ensure that those who are already victims of FGM find at least some protection under the law, despite what has already happened to them, and that children who may be vulnerable to FGM are also protected. The hon. Gentleman’s point is not one of controversy—he and I generally agree that the more we can do to protect those young women, the better and more civilised our country will be.
It is a tradition in this House to have at least four or five criminal justice Bills every Session, most of which do exactly what previous Bills did in earlier Sessions and no doubt repeat what was done in earlier Parliaments. By and large that comes under the heading of too much legislation—often too much ill-thought-through legislation. The previous Labour Government passed something like 65 pieces of legislation on criminal justice. That was utterly wasteful of parliamentary time and most of it achieved very little. However, it makes Ministers feel good.
I think that the serious crime Bill will be better than that, although it concerns me—I say this gently—that there may be some rough edges to the proposed legislation. In parenthesis, I say to Andy McDonald that as I understand it, the Bill will strengthen this country’s ability to protect vulnerable children and women and extend the reach of powers to tackle FGM, and it will also make it an offence to possess paedophile manuals. There is plenty of good stuff in the Bill, but I am concerned that in dealing with the protection of vulnerable children, the Government may adjust section 1 of the Children and Young Persons
Act 1933 in a way that will have unintended consequences. I urge the House, and the Government, to be sure before they amend the 1933 Act that that does not do something that they should not or do not intend.
At the risk of being excessively prissy and overly legalistic—a very rare thing for me—let me tell the House what the Act currently states. It is an offence if someone wilfully assaults, ill-treats, neglects, abandons, or exposes a child
“or causes or procures him to be assaulted, ill-treated, neglected, abandoned, or exposed, in a manner likely to cause him unnecessary suffering or injury to health (including injury to or loss of sight, or hearing, or limb, or organ of the body, and—”
“any mental derangement),”.
As I understand it, the new Bill follows a campaign from 2012-13 that wishes to extend that part of the Act to cover emotional distress. That seems to me a difficult area to move into when the Bill is already being interpreted in a constructive and protective way.
Some of my constituents, particularly those who are strongly religious, have written to me because they are concerned that the teaching of particular religious tenets—not just Christian or Muslim—would or could stray into the area of emotional distress. I have no view on that because I am not aware of the factual basis on which such things might be established. However, we need to be careful when wishing to send out these messages and signals—I am afraid that such phrases are used by the Government in their surrounding material for this Bill and others—because we are in danger of passing legislation that amounts to just a collection of early-day motions, rather than producing coherent, well argued and well constructed law.
Earlier this week, Libby Purves, the Times journalist, wrote an interesting article—which I recommend—headlined, “You can’t always bring ugly sisters to trial”, towards the end of which she said,
“is it not potentially damaging to ‘intellectual development’ to bring up a child in a strict religious belief that daily contradicts the evolutionary science they learn at school? Is it not detrimental to ‘social development’ to raise a girl—or boy—in the firm expectation that she or he will only marry by parental arrangement?”
“Think how many things you could potentially include. Suppose a family has a baby by donor insemination, or indeed another father, and never tells that child…Is it cruel and diminishing to deny someone knowledge of their origins? Come to that, the emotional damage wrought by divorce is well-attested and divorce is a deliberate act by at least one partner: criminal?”
I place these suggestions before the House to encourage us to be careful, as we move forward with enthusiasm in the last Session of this Parliament, about passing laws that are eye-catching. They must have some utility as well. This also applies to the social action, responsibility and heroism Bill. I cannot think of a more wonderful title for an Act of Parliament.