As public awareness of the abhorrent practice of FGM increases and the momentum swings firmly behind positive action which will ensure that women and girls are fully protected, we as legislators have a duty to strengthen existing laws to ensure that the courts have all the necessary powers not only to prosecute those whose facilitate FGM, but to safeguard victims and those at risk. This is a simple Bill, but it gives us an opportunity to protect members of our society who have no voice and cannot speak for themselves, namely children.
The campaign against FGM in British society is not, as some advocates of the practice have suggested, a war against religious groups or cultural practices. It is simply about doing what is right, so that women and girls can lead normal, healthy lives and have control over what happens to their bodies. We must recognise that in the case of nearly all victims of FGM it is not their choice to be cut, because they are too young, while older victims find themselves being coerced into the procedure, heavily influenced—as we have already heard—by dominant family members, or by people who play central roles in their communities. As we have also heard, last Friday,
The Children Act 1989, as amended, allows a judge to grant an interim care order if there are reasonable grounds to believe that a child has suffered significant harm, or is at risk of suffering significant harm. However, the Act does not currently include the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 in the list of statutes under section 8(4), and that therefore does not constitute “family proceedings”. Had the Bill been on the statute book, a judge might have had the opportunity to grant an interim care order in the case that I have mentioned, thereby protecting an innocent victim from the irreversible pain and trauma with which she will have to live for the rest of her life. The National FGM Centre has estimated that, in England alone, 60,000 girls are currently at risk of FGM. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said:
“we will not tolerate FGM and not rest until perpetrators of this horrific crime are brought to justice.”
There are some pieces of new legislation that appear to be merely adjuncts to existing laws, but whose long-term consequences may be profound. The Bill definitely fits into that category, and it has been a pleasure to sit on the Committee that has brought it to this stage. However, during proceedings on the Bill, I received emails from academics and lobby groups raising several issues. One individual made a good point when they highlighted the need for community-led educational information, and more support for dialogue with FGM-practising communities. I know from listening to other speakers that that is definitely happening.
It has also been highlighted to me that data may have been misinterpreted. For example, in 2016-17 it was reported that 9,179 cases of FGM were identified in England, of which 5,391 were newly recorded. It is important to note that that does not mean that 5,391 girls had recently been subjected to FGM; that was the number of cases that had been newly identified. Of course, it follows that those new cases may not have occurred in this country.
We must use every tool in our armoury to stamp out FGM, not just here in the UK but across the world. We celebrate Commonwealth Day today, and it is incumbent on our Commonwealth friends to play their part in stamping out this practice. Many countries where FGM is prevalent have laws against the practice, but, as we have found in this country, the enforcement of the law is often the problem.
To eradicate FGM, we need community groups and individuals who are passionate about campaigning to stop it. We need the legislation in place to secure prosecutions, and we need the powers in the Bill to protect those who are at risk. FGM is a human rights issue, a gender equality issue—or, I should say, a gender inequality issue—and a health issue, but justice should always remain our focus.
It is surely not right—indeed, it is shameful—that in our civil society, where the number of at-risk girls is so high, only one person has been successfully prosecuted since the practice was first outlawed in 1985. If this Bill, which clearly commands cross-party support, allows the courts to safeguard a handful of girls who are at risk, I believe it will have done its job. I look forward to its speedy passage on to the statute book.