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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:03 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Gloria De Piero Gloria De Piero Shadow Minister (Justice) 8:03 pm, 11th March 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Zac Goldsmith. The Bill passed through Committee with a large degree of consensus. Although I pressed the Minister on some issues, as I will today, it was pleasing that when something of this magnitude comes before us we could seek consensus to bring about change.

Once again, we have an opportunity to discuss the Bill and what more we can do in the House to tackle female genital mutilation, because it is an abhorrent act, an abuse of children of all ages, and one we must endeavour to eradicate. The impact on women and girls is devastating and can still be felt long into later life. In the short term, there are risks of severe pain, infections and excessive bleeding. In the years following, there can be complications relating to childbirth, sexual intercourse, and menstrual and vaginal problems. I repeat the words of the World Health Organisation in saying that there is “no benefit, only harm”. Despite that, instances of FGM in the UK are occurring, which is where the Bill fits in, so I shall again outline Labour’s position on it.

To give further power to judges to intervene directly in instances of FGM with temporary care orders through a technical amendment to the Children Act 1989 is a reasonable and sensible action. Female genital mutilation protection orders are currently the best tool to tackle FGM, but allowing local authorities to provide interim care and ensure the safety of those at risk is a welcome extra step. The ability for local authorities to act in this way is currently present for cases in which a child is at risk of abuse, molestation, forced marriage or other abuses, so it seems only right and proper that it should also be present if girls are at risk of FGM.

As it stands, it is difficult to know the full extent of FGM in the UK and just how many people are affected. NHS Digital has produced experimental statistics, but many recorded cases are not necessarily newly committed instances of FGM. Estimates are significantly higher than the figures produced, and we know that, given the obstacles associated with reporting and recording FGM—for example, the act is likely to be committed by a family member—scores of cases go unreported. I therefore press the Minister to outline what the Government are doing to provide more accurate data and recording of FGM occurring in the UK, to help us fully to understand the extent of the problem.

Just as the scale of FGM in the UK is likely to be larger than it seems initially, so the Government must do more to tackle it. Last month, we saw the first prosecution for FGM in the UK. With estimates of those affected in the tens of thousands, it seems staggering that that is the sole example of a prosecution for carrying out the act. The Minister has spoken in the past about strengthening the laws on FGM in a number of ways, to increase protection for girls at risk, but clearly such measures fall short when compared with the numbers actually prosecuted. Just as they identify who is at risk, will the Minister tell me what the Government are doing to identify the perpetrators of this barbaric practice and to bring them to justice?

I welcome the Minister’s previous comments on the cross-departmental approach that the Government are taking to tackling FGM. Such an approach is necessary and appropriate for a problem that must be tackled not only through prosecutions, but through education and by tackling the culture and assumptions that lead to FGM, as Members have said. Will the Minister tell us more about what the Government are doing to increase education and awareness of FGM, and about the ways in which schools and local groups in at-risk communities are being involved?

Does the Minister recognise that it is cuts to other Departments, much like those to the Ministry of Justice, that have ruined the vital provisions on which many vulnerable women at risk of FGM depend? Our NHS is strained at every level, after years of underfunding; schools are under-resourced and understaffed; local authority budgets have been slashed to the bone; and there is a catastrophic shortfall in the provision of children and women’s services. These frontline services are best placed to identify, intervene and prevent FGM, but they have been decimated by the Government’s near decade of austerity. What assessment, if any, have the Government made of the impact of the austerity agenda on the tackling of FGM? What extra provision are the Government affording the services tasked with addressing it?

Ultimately, this is a welcome Bill. Despite the efforts of a certain Member on the Government Benches, we are pleased to see it brought before the House again. It provides an extra tool for local authorities and judges to fight FGM and prevent its occurrence. As my colleague Baroness Massey said in the other place, at the very least it

“adds to the armoury of those who hear these cases, and that can only be to the good.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 July 2018; Vol. 792, c. 1420.]

Alone, though, it will not be enough to protect the many girls throughout the UK who are at risk of this barbaric abuse. It must be met with greater action by the Government, and I hope the Minister commits to just that this evening.