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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:47 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Lucy Frazer Lucy Frazer The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 9:47 pm, 11th March 2019

The Government are pleased both to support this Bill and to give it Government time. It is a very short piece of legislation. With two clauses, it is a simple Bill intended to fill a small and unintended gap in the law. It will further protect women and girls, and will allow our courts to make orders and to do so quickly—in a single proceeding—to protect children who are at harm. I thank all Members from across the House who have taken part in this important debate.

Many points have been made in the debate, and I will try to draw them all together. As my hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith started by saying, there has been a cross-party effort to bring this legislation through the House swiftly and with some consensus. I thank Gloria De Piero for her helpful comments. My right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, in her powerful speech, drew attention not only to the cross-Governmental approach to addressing FGM, but to the presence of so many Departments on the Treasury Bench during this debate. I thank Ministers from the Home Office, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of Health and Social Care, the Government Equalities Office, the Department for International Development, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department for Education, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Wales Office and the Ministry of Justice for taking part in this debate through their presence today.

A number of Members have highlighted the importance of this Bill because of the effects on the victims. My hon. Friends the Members for Richmond Park, for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Dr Johnson), for Dudley South (Mike Wood), for Stevenage (Stephen McPartland) and for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), and the hon. Member for Ashfield, all highlighted these effects. My hon. Friends Maggie Throup and for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), and Sarah Champion, said quite rightly that FGM is child abuse.

That point was made in the sentencing remarks of the judge in a recent conviction for FGM. Perhaps those who marked the terrible effects most closely were those who told stories of the impact on the victims, such as the terrible story of Aminah told by my hon. Friend Helen Whately and the horrific story told by my hon. Friend Rachel Maclean, showing us so graphically the terror of the girls who are experiencing this crime and the impact on their lives for ever.

So what are we doing, as a Government, to address FGM? My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park mentioned the legislation that goes back several decades to ensure that we are taking steps on FGM. In 2015, we strengthened the law to improve protection for victims by, for example, introducing a new offence of failing to protect a girl from FGM, and allowing for protection orders. My hon. Friend Chris Green asked what more can be done. I am very pleased to say that we are taking steps across Government to ensure that we wipe out this dreadful crime. The Home Office’s FGM unit has participated in over 100 outreach events to raise awareness of FGM. The Department of Health and Social Care has provided £4 million for the national FGM prevention programme, in partnership with NHS England. The Department for Education has announced its intention to reform the curriculum in schools to teach children about the effects of the emotional damage, and has provided nearly £2 million for a national programme to improve the social care response to FGM.

However, as my hon. Friends Vicky Ford pointed out, it is not just about tackling FGM in this country but tackling it overseas. DFID has done a significant amount of work. In addition to a £35 million package to end FGM across 17 countries in Africa, at the end of last year the Government announced a £50 million package to support an African-led movement to end FGM by 2030. That is the single biggest investment by an international donor.

Many Members referred to the statistics on those who have experienced this horrific crime. As the hon. Member for Ashfield rightly identified, we do not know the precise figures on those who are suffering from FGM in this country who have had that crime perpetrated here, but, as the hon. Member for Rotherham stated, we know that it is happening and that, as Dr Allin-Khan said, it is happening to children at a very young age.

It is very, very difficult to prosecute this dreadful offence. Like my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, I would like to refer to the powerful speech that the judge made in a recent conviction of a perpetrator of FGM who committed an offence against her daughter. I will read a few of the words from that judgment, which are incredibly powerful. The judge said to the perpetrator:

“You were convicted following a trial of female genital mutilation…The person mutilated was R. R is your daughter. She was just 3 years old when you cut her. FGM has long been against our law. Let’s be clear: FGM is a form of child abuse. It involves deliberate physical mutilation. It is a barbaric practice and a serious crime. It is an offence which targets women, typically being inflicted on women when they are young and vulnerable. It is often done with the collusion of family members. And then it is hidden. This case contains all those features.”

For that particular crime, although there were convictions for other crimes, the judge sentenced the woman to 11 years. As my hon. Friends the Members for Faversham and Mid Kent and for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) rightly mentioned, what is so terrible about this crime is that it was done by someone the victim trusted and in a home where the victim should have felt safe. Those were both aggravating factors in the sentencing.

We are tackling this issue by increasing the protections that we offer to victims of FGM. The Bill will define FGM protection orders as family proceedings for the purposes of the Children Act 1989, which will provide for a simplification in the court process. That is a sensible and practical change, which will allow our courts to make orders quickly, in a single proceeding, to protect children at risk of harm.

I would like to answer a number of the points put to me in the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West rightly referred to the different procedures and medical examinations that take place in France and elsewhere, but those take place in a different social and legal framework from the UK so are not directly comparable. Frontline medical staff have a mandatory duty to report known cases of FGM in under-18s to the police. As my hon. Friend Mrs Latham said, there is a need for medical staff to report it.

The hon. Member for Ashfield asked what we are doing to get more prosecutions. There is now an FGM lead prosecutor for each area who liaises with the police. She also asked what we can do to educate more. The Home Office’s FGM unit has participated in more than 100 outreach events and is raising awareness of FGM across the country. As I mentioned, the Department for Education is reforming relationships and sex education and health curriculum guidance, to stipulate that secondary schools should address the physical and emotional changes caused by FGM.

The hon. Member for Rotherham rightly mentioned local authority funding. She is right to say that the Department for Education made more than £1.6 million available to run the National FGM Centre for three years. As she acknowledged, the centre hopes to become self-sustaining from April 2020. The University of Bedfordshire is evaluating the centre, and that evaluation is due to be completed by July this year. The Secretary of State for International Development mentioned to me that DFID and the NHS are looking at co-funding specialist expertise, to help deliver services such as those at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital, and she is happy to speak to the hon. Lady about that.

This is a small change, but it will add to the measures that the Government have brought forward to tackle FGM. No one who has spoken in this debate, and neither my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park nor the Government, has suggested that the Bill will end FGM. We cannot be complacent about the threats to women and girls. The Government will continue to work to prevent FGM here and abroad, to support the victims of FGM and to pursue those who cause or allow this terrible practice to continue. I am happy to make the commitment that my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park asked me to: we will continue to ensure that victims are protected. My hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset and the hon. Member for Tooting referred to their children. We need to continue to protect the children of others across the world.

I would like to end by thanking those who have taken part in the debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park, who has not only steered the Bill through the House so ably but, as we heard in his speech, has done so much to campaign so well with individual campaigners and cross-party to help solve FGM issues here and across the world. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North, who rightly pointed out that we need to thank both men and women who have taken part in this debate. This is not just a female issue solved by females; it needs a co-ordinated approach, cross-party and cross-gender. I congratulate Lord Berkeley on identifying the issue that a small change in the law could solve and on introducing the Bill in the other place. I thank the Members who sat on the Bill Committee, and I thank my Bill team yet again for the tremendous job they have done. It has been reassuring and heartening to see such solid cross-party support and clear commitment to the Bill. I commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, without amendment.