Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill [Lords]

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:09 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Chair, Women and Equalities Committee, Chair, Women and Equalities Committee 8:09 pm, 11th March 2019

I am proud to take part in this debate today. I would like to commend not only Lord Berkeley in the other place and my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith for the work that they are doing, but the Government for realising that legislation in this place can be improved and that FGM has absolutely no place in society. We have a great deal of legislation in place at the moment to try to prevent FGM, but it is not working as well as it should. I am proud to take part in a debate where that is acknowledged. I am proud, too, that we are supporting those who, clearly, have done a huge amount of work to identify ways in which we can improve the legislation on our statute books. Making existing legislation more effective by enabling care orders to be issued in connection with girls who are at risk of FGM will help to save some girls. It will also help to outlaw this abhorrent practice in some communities. As hon. Members said earlier in this debate, the number of Members who are here this evening shows the strength of feeling on this issue across the House.

The Bill in front of us today comes at a timely point, following as it does the first conviction in the UK for female genital mutilation. I applaud the Government for being so gracious with their support for this Bill. I am sure the Minister will come on to talk about that later. FGM has been illegal in the UK since the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, which was then replaced by the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, and extended by the Serious Crime Act 2015. Successive Governments of all colours have wanted to try to act on this issue, but today’s Bill shows that we have not gone far enough and that we do need to go further, and I hope that it enjoys wholehearted support across the House.

If we are to have really effective legislation, then as legislators we should acknowledge that law alone is not enough and that there is a much broader context: how society views these issues; how our schools deal with things such as relationships and sex education; and how the Government put this issue into a much broader strategy of violence against women and girls. We should be encouraged by the current situation where, as has been said, we have not only relationships and sex education, but, for the first time in more than a decade and a half, guidance on how an issue such as female genital mutilation should be dealt with in our schools. The small point I would make is that it is not enough to have guidance and to make it mandatory that schools deal with the issue; we have to make sure that it is being implemented in practice on the ground.

These are not easy issues for schools to deal with, and sometimes they can get the wrong message from this place—for example, that schools can allow parents to withdraw their children from such lessons. That is a “get out of jail free” card in communities where these issues are difficult, and we cannot send that message out from this debate today. We must not only encourage schools to engage with parents on the issue of FGM, but ensure that they are doing so. It is important that schools ensure that parents do not withdraw their children from relationships and sex education. We need to do all we can to ensure that schools see their responsibility in this area. It is, of course, right that we not only give parents the respect that they deserve in terms of their views on relationships and sex education, but respect the rights of children to get the education that they need to live in a modern society, and that must include understanding the appalling impact that FGM can have on women’s lives.