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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:35 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park 7:35 pm, 11th March 2019

I absolutely do, and I strongly encourage the hon. Lady to link her friend up with Jaha, who is now a high-profile and significant figure in the Gambia. She is one of the world’s most important FGM campaigners. Indeed, she was nominated for the Nobel prize last year. Again, I would be happy to talk about that after this sitting, to see whether I can do something to link the hon. Lady’s friend up with the right people.

Clearly, there is more to be done, both here and abroad, but this Bill is part of that. I am not going to pretend that it will stop FGM—it will not—but it does provide another potentially crucial legal tool in the fight against it. I want to explain briefly what the Bill does and why it matters. First, let me point out that it has just two clauses, the second of which provides only for the Bill’s extent, commencement and short title. I therefore wish to focus on the first clause, which is the only substantive one.

At present, the Children Act 1989 allows courts to make an interim care order—an instruction to a local authority to share parental responsibility for a child. Such an order can last up to eight weeks and it can be renewed, but that can be done only if there is a belief that the child in question is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm. The local authority would then be part of any decisions relating to where the child should live or how their welfare should be maintained. I do not think anyone would argue that a girl who has undergone or is likely to undergo FGM is not suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, but the 1989 Act does not currently allow interim care orders to be issued for FGM. A court may only direct an interim care order to be made in “family proceedings”. Section 8 of that Act defines what is meant by “family proceedings” for the purposes of the Act. It contains various statutes relating to domestic violence, forced marriage and so on, but it does not include proceedings under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. The effect of that is that it is not open to a judge to issue an interim care order for FGM. Clearly, that is an omission in law—I do not think this is deliberate—but it means that our courts do not have the full suite of powers that they need to protect girls who are at risk.

As Lord Berkeley pointed out when he introduced the Bill in the other place, that means that although a family court can protect a girl who is at risk of forced marriage or domestic abuse, it cannot protect a girl who is at risk of FGM. That needs to change. David Maddison, the family lawyer who raised this issue with Lord Berkeley, has pointed out that this is not an academic or abstract concern; it is a practical one. There have been occasions when the police have sought an FGM protection order in the family court and the judge has wanted to employ the powers of the local authority in an order but has not been able to. The Bill will grant the power that has been missing.

All the Bill does is to insert the proceedings for FGM protection orders from the 2003 Act in the section of the 1989 Act that defines which family proceedings constitute grounds for an interim care order to be made. To be clear, it inserts that part of the 2003 Act that relates to FGM protection orders in section 8 of the 1989 Act. That makes FGM a family proceeding for the purpose of issuing care orders under the 1989 Act. I hope the House agrees that this is a simple and uncontentious change. If the Bill passes, it is unlikely to lead to the issuing of a huge number of new care orders—they are rarely used—but it is important that judges have all the power we can give them to protect girls who are at risk. Currently, that is simply not the case.

I have no doubt that when some Members speak they will argue that the Bill is not enough to stop FGM entirely. I am not going to argue with that. Those Members are right that we need better support, particularly mental health support, for survivors. We need better education so that girls and boys grow up knowing that FGM is wrong. We need to get better at identifying at-risk girls, as in France where they do it better than we do.