Female Genital Mutilation — Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:37 am on 7th November 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Manzoor Baroness Manzoor Liberal Democrat 11:37 am, 7th November 2013

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report Tackling Female Genital Mutilation in the UK by the Royal College of Nursing.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, the Government welcome the intercollegiate report Tackling FGM in the UK, which is published this week. Female genital mutilation is illegal. It is important that children and young women are protected from this abhorrent procedure. My honourable friend Jane Ellison has supported the development of this report. As Minister for Public Health, she has stated that one of her priorities is to continue to work towards eradicating female genital mutilation with the organisations that are promoting the report, among many others.

Photo of Baroness Manzoor Baroness Manzoor Liberal Democrat

I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he welcome, as I do, the proposal that FGM should be treated by healthcare workers as a crime and reported to the police? Does he also welcome the work of the Liberal Democrat Minister, Lynne Featherstone, in prioritising the eradication of FGM in her work in the Department for International Development?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Female genital mutilation is child abuse and violence against girls and women. It is also a criminal offence, and cutters and perpetrators need to be brought to justice. I pay tribute to the work currently in train in the Department for International Development, which has begun an ambitious programme to address FGM in Africa and beyond.

Photo of Lord Hill of Oareford Lord Hill of Oareford Leader of the House of Lords and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord West, could not see that a Cross-Bencher behind him wanted to speak.

Photo of Baroness Butler-Sloss Baroness Butler-Sloss Crossbench

My Lords, will the Minister ensure that the police and the Crown Prosecution Service put forward far more appropriate prosecutions?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, the Government are as frustrated as I am sure the noble and learned Baroness is by the lack of prosecutions. We welcome the Crown Prosecution Service action plan, published last year with a view to bringing successful prosecutions. The CPS guidance on FGM prosecutions provides a useful framework for prosecutors to understand how to build stronger cases with the police to bring to court. It explains how they need to be aware of the fact that where there is a victim of FGM, the local authority or social services may well have material or information to support that.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, we have failed thousands of young women. This issue first came above my radar horizon as a Minister in the Home Office when one of my sisters, who was training as a midwife, explained the full horror and scale of FGM. I was completely horrified. I failed in my time in the Home Office to ensure that people were being correctly prosecuted. Since then, we have not done any better. I am glad to hear what is being said, but does the

Minister really believe that now we will ensure we have a series of prosecutions? If we do not, we will not stop this vile thing happening.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

I completely agree with the noble Lord. It is clear that we need to make a step change in the landscape here. We have continued to prioritise FGM, both at home and overseas. The intercollegiate report, however, published this week, adds a very welcome dimension to the work we are doing. It was written by health professionals and FGM experts for health professionals, and the Government will naturally study the report very carefully and consider the recommendations as part of the cross-government programme of work to tackle and eradicate this awful practice.

Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that I took through your Lordships’ House the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985? Is he aware that I, too, am most frustrated by the lack of prosecutions? Why has France convicted people with this horrific condition and not us?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

My Lords, I am aware of that. I was a new Member of the House when that Act went through, and I commend the noble Baroness for the work she did on that issue. She mentioned France. One of the features of the French system is the physical examination of all girls under the age of five. We will not be following that path. We do not think it would be right to do so. We think it raises ethical and human rights concerns. However, all children are routinely seen by healthcare staff in the universal healthy child programme that covers England, and prevention and safeguarding absolutely underpin that programme. It is an important channel for conversations to be held with parents and children, so that they can be provided with relevant support and advice.

Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour

My Lords, the 1985 Act was updated in Scotland by the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005. It extended the maximum sentence from five years to 14 years. In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, there have been no prosecutions. Will the Minister and the Government work closely with the Scottish Government to make sure that we have a unified approach across the UK to ensure that there are prosecutions in the future for this most extreme form of child abuse?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

Yes, my Lords, we work closely with our colleagues in the devolved Administrations. The noble Lord is absolutely right: FGM is a crime in the UK under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, and in Scotland under the Prohibition of Female Genital Mutilation (Scotland) Act 2005. I am advised that it is a feature of both Acts that if someone is taken overseas for the mutilation, it is still a crime in the UK if the mutilation is done by a UK national or permanent UK resident.

Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the UNICEF report released in July sets out that 129 countries practise FGM. Most of those countries—which have 125 million girls—have strong community links with the United Kingdom. Does my noble friend agree that if we are to eliminate FGM on girls in the UK we must work alongside organisations such as Tostan and AWEPA, which are successfully campaigning for the abandonment of FGM throughout rural communities in much of Africa and elsewhere? What liaison is there between government departments in this country to address FGM at home and overseas? There must be some working together here.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

I agree with my noble friend. I referred to the work being done by DfID. The approach of DfID’s programme is to work with communities through civil society organisations in at least 15 of the most affected countries. Developments in FGM abroad tend to change attitudes towards communities here, which is why the Government are confident that the work of DfID will result in culture change and, hopefully, abandonment in both Africa and the UK. I would be happy to write to my noble friend with details of the co-operative work that we are doing.