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Female Genital Mutilation — Question for Short Debate

– in the House of Lords at 7:35 pm on 4th December 2013.

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Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench 7:35 pm, 4th December 2013

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they are addressing issues relating to female genital mutilation.

Photo of Baroness Cox Baroness Cox Crossbench

My Lords, I am deeply grateful to all noble Lords contributing to this debate on a subject which is of the utmost gravity in its implications for appalling and avoidable suffering of millions of girls and women today. I am delighted that the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, is speaking, as her tireless endeavours to address that barbaric practice are widely appreciated.

My deep concern originated when I was working as a nurse, implementing an immunisation programme in a remote desert area in Sudan in the 1980s. I will never forget my horror when I first saw FGM—the extent of mutilation and the unbelievable legacy of the remaining tiny aperture with complications of utmost severity for micturition, menstruation, sexual intercourse, risks of haemorrhage, increased risks to mother and baby during childbirth, depression, post-traumatic stress and other mental health problems. I will never forget the screams of young girls in the village when they were taken into the bush at night to undergo the excruciating cutting, often with a rusty knife or broken glass, with thorns for sutures.

Together with my noble friend Lady Masham, who regrets that she is unable to take part in this debate, we supported the late Lady Jeger and Lord Winstanley in the introduction of the first Bill to outlaw FGM in this country in 1985. Earlier this year, when I re-engaged with the issue, I was profoundly shocked to learn that FGM has continued unabated, with an estimated 100 million to 140 million girls and women globally who have undergone FGM; and approximately 3 million girls are currently at risk of undergoing FGM each year in Africa.

In England and Wales, despite the 1985 Act, extended in 2003, in 2001 approximately 66,000 women had undergone FGM and 24,000 British girls under the age of 18 were at risk. That number is doubtless below the real figure, because many go to secret clinics or suffer in silence.

FGM is a very severe form of violence against girls and women, and of child abuse. Despite commendable actions by police forces—for example, Project Azure by the Metropolitan Police and Operation Sentinel by the West Midlands Police—and the action plan launched by the CPS in November 2012, there have still been no prosecutions for FGM in this country.

I pay tribute to anti-FGM campaigners such as Daughters of Eve, Equality Now and 28 Too Many for pressing for urgent remedial policies. Media coverage, including news reports, documentaries and the BBC television “Casualty” series have raised levels of public concern. FGM survivors, such as the brave young women speaking out in the recent TV documentary “The Cruel Cut” on Channel 4, are calling for those responsible for FGM to be held to account to protect future generations of girls.

I highlight the excellent report by an intercollegiate group comprising the RCM, the RCN, the RCOG, the Community Practitioners’ and Health Visitors’ Association and Equality Now, which makes important recommendations for Her Majesty’s Government and other stakeholders to develop a long-term strategy for treating FGM as a crime, with systematic and co-ordinated policies using health, social care, education and the police.

Protection requires early identification of baby girls, especially those born to mothers who have undergone FGM, as high-risk cases; their referral by health professionals as a child-safeguarding obligation to social care; and a follow-up plan to include education, counselling and support for parents. Sadly, the joined-up work needed to track such girls at risk is not happening. Except for emergency one-off cases where a girl is identified as being at risk of imminent FGM, referrals to social services are often dropped as they are deemed not to meet the threshold for assessment, and a care plan is not put into place.

Another weak link is in the education system. Most FGM occurs during a girl’s time at primary school. Teachers are expected to play a key role in protecting children from abuse, as they are able to detect warning signs and pupils may turn to them before contacting the police or social services. But in a recent YouGov survey for the NSPCC, 83% of the 1,000 teachers surveyed said they had not been given any training about FGM. Education about FGM should also be a compulsory element of personal, social, health and economic education, starting with primary-age children, because girls at risk need to be aware of the danger before they reach the most vulnerable age, which is between eight and 14 years old, to enable them to seek help, protection and prevention. FGM is a form of brutal child abuse and a crime, but the police cannot build a case for prosecution if they are not informed and there is currently widespread failure to refer.

I turn briefly to the crucial issue of support for survivors. As the number of people from countries where FGM is practised increases in the UK, there is an urgent need for policies to ensure access to support services and referral protocols between health, social care and other key services. This requires mandatory training and reporting requirements as well as a fundamental change of attitudes towards so-called cultural sensitivity and multiculturalism. There are far too many deeply disturbing cases where victims who have looked for help have been refused protection and support because of respect for local cultural traditions. We surely should never have allowed tenets of multiculturalism to take precedence over the law of the land, especially when the cultural practices being condoned are manifestly forms of torture, permanent injury and child abuse. We must move beyond this distorted priority and reassert the fundamental principle that culture cannot take precedence over the law of our land.

In your Lordships’ House last Thursday, I asked whether the Minister was aware that women who have had FGM and whose daughters are likely to be at risk of subjection to this abhorrent practice are not currently tracked through the National Health Service or social care systems, so that no preventive measures could be implemented; and why girls at school who show signs of having had FGM have not been referred to social services or the police for follow-up action. I also asked what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to ensure that robust information-sharing protocols are developed between health, social care and education agencies and the police so that appropriate actions can be taken to support victims and bring perpetrators to account. The Minister responded that on Monday—I believe it was Monday this week—the Health Minister, Jane Ellison, would be meeting healthcare professionals and stakeholders to develop policies on sharing information and data. I take this opportunity to commend Jane Ellison on all her endeavours to address this subject. Can the Minister give an account of the results of that meeting?

In conclusion, all experienced advocates agree that the time is long overdue for the implementation of comprehensive, joined-up policies of early identification, protection and support, procedures to bring perpetrators to account—as has been achieved in other European countries such as France, Sweden and the Netherlands—and an end to a culture of impunity which allows this mutilation to continue.

I finish by quoting Nimco Ali, a young British woman who lives in this country and is the co-founder of Daughters of Eve. She wishes her voice to speak for all those voices, either in far-away places or on our own doorsteps, that we cannot here hear tonight:

“There is a child somewhere today in this country, in school, in a hospital A and E Department or on a bus, who has had FGM or is at risk of this torture, who is counting on us to help her with her physical or emotional trauma—or crying out to stop it happening. That child’s protection is our responsibility. For over 25 years such children have suffered this appalling practice in this country. For how many more years will we allow this extreme child abuse to continue with impunity? The UK is laughing stock of Europe”.

She also said that girls are sent to the UK because we are seen as a soft touch. Those are not my words but those of a very articulate British woman who has endured the agony, humiliation and psychological trauma of FGM. I hope that the Minister’s reply tonight will bring substantial hope to victims, and to those living in terror of becoming victims, of this indescribable horror of FGM.

Photo of Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Baroness Hodgson of Abinger Conservative 7:45 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness on having introduced this debate on FGM because this is a taboo subject, especially in the countries where it is practised. We have already heard about the terrible impacts of FGM and how widespread the practice is. It is truly shocking that still today in Djibouti, Egypt, Guinea, Somalia, Sudan and Sierra Leone, more than 90% of women have been through some form of FGM. Many countries already have laws prohibiting FGM; it is a criminal offence in 15 of the 28 African states where FGM is prevalent, although there are few prosecutions. But where it is deeply embedded in the culture, laws alone have proved insufficient to stop it.

Education is key to ending FGM, through both teaching girls their rights and educating the general communities about the dangers of this abhorrent practice.

I would like to give two short examples. First, three years ago I visited a women’s group in Abou Mosalem, just outside Cairo, where we talked about FGM. These women explained that they were worried that if their daughters were not done, they might be rejected by their husbands on their wedding night. Then they would be returned and would for ever be an unmarriageable burden on their families, who could not afford to feed them. Some of these women had attended an informative meeting on FGM and changed their minds. It had made some of them decide not to have their daughters circumcised.

Secondly, in July 2010, I visited Komarbai village in Sierra Leone to see a project that was being run with the whole community by Plan UK. In Sierra Leone, it is often the father who will decide when a girl needs to undergo initiation. In many of their communities, it is a big disgrace for a girl to have sex without having gone through the initiation. Sometimes, families will even demand that a girl is circumcised to marry into their family. Through role-play at this village meeting, it was shown that the process not only could be lethal for girls but was illegal. When questioned afterwards, the chief and elders said that they were now not so sure it was a good idea.

In both these countries, the custom of FGM is deeply rooted but these visits show that it is possible to shift that culture. However, it will take time and needs a combination of the right laws and sensitive community education, which I hope that DfID will support, because to truly cease this practice, the communities themselves must embrace change and not just have it foisted on them from the global north.

Photo of Baroness Rendell of Babergh Baroness Rendell of Babergh Labour 7:47 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, female genital mutilation has been perpetrated on girls since ancient times. The first known instance of it was seen on an Egyptian mummy dating from 200 BC. The UN has recognised FGM as torture and in calling for its elimination describes it as cruel, inhumane and degrading to women. The first law criminalising FGM in the United Kingdom was passed in 1985, the second 18 years later. However, there have been no prosecutions to date, while prosecutions in France, for instance, are numerous. Since the passing of a law against FGM in Kuria East, in central Africa, eight people are awaiting prosecution and two are serving three years’ imprisonment for employing a circumciser to mutilate their 13 year-old daughter.

A key barrier to FGM prevention, according to the recently published joint statement by the Intercollegiate Group, Tackling FGM in the UK, is the failure of professionals to respond when presented with a child who may be at risk of FGM. Such children include a girl born to a woman who has undergone FGM and any female child whose elder sister has undergone FGM; she must be considered as at immediate risk. Girls living in the woman’s or child’s household should also be considered at risk. FGM is child abuse. It causes pain, haemorrhage, difficulty in urinating, complications in menstruation, considerable problems in sexual intercourse and childbirth, and can bring about fistula and, sometimes, death. We have a large number of child protection systems in the UK, particularly focused on FGM, but the systematic screening of girls through annual physical examinations, as is carried out in France, is seen here as too intrusive. Does the Minister agree with the findings of the joint statement that where there is a suspicion that a girl has undergone FGM, assessments and medicals are helpful and examinations should not be seen as abusive? Is she aware that, as part of a whole health assessment, the standing committee of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, children and their parents do not find such examinations traumatic?

In the UK, the number of children subjected to it is not known. Rather, the associations and groups that make assessments of numbers come up with varying figures: 66,000 women who have had FGM performed on them is a figure most agree on, but now many say that this is a gross underestimate. Knowing who and how many have suffered this abuse, however, is only half the battle. School teachers, GPs, midwives and nurses need to be aware of which children and young people in their care have suffered FGM, and report their findings to the police.

FGM has to be stopped. These words have repeatedly been uttered for the 29 years since the passing of the first Bill by those of us who are appalled by FGM. I ask the Minister whether 2014 can be the year that sees the beginning of the end of it.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat 7:51 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, who has worked so hard for so many years on this subject. I want to pay tribute to my colleague Lynne Featherstone for having secured the resources within DfID for the £35 million regional programme for Africa and countries where this barbaric practice is prevalent.

I also pay tribute to the Orchid Project, an outstanding charity that works on this subject. It pointed out something extremely important: the prevalent coincidence of FGM and other conditions—such as early marriage and ill health—which damage women. Will the Minister tell us whether DfID, in its programmes abroad, and the MoJ and the Home Office here, will ensure that their programmes on forced marriage go in sync with the programmes on FGM, so that there can be a double benefit?

The Orchid Project pointed out quite rightly that FGM is not a religious practice, it is a cultural practice. However, it said that in attempting to overcome this, it is very important to get religious leaders within communities on one side. Therefore, will the Minister say whether, in the DfID programme, and in the programmes with diaspora communities here, we are targeting religious leaders—and, in particular, men who have influence in forming opinion in communities within which this practice occurs? If we do that, we will be able to support those very brave young women such as Leyla Hussein, who herself was cut at the age of seven in Somalia and who was so eloquent in that amazing documentary, “The Cruel Cut”.

Finally, will the Minister tell us whether, in the DfID programme, there will be a particular concentration on those regions of countries where there has been a significant move towards abandoning the practice?

From that, we will learn what it was that enabled people—men and women within those communities—to build resistance to this practice, and this knowledge could then be transferred to places such as Somalia and Sudan and some parts of western Africa where, unfortunately, this practice remains all too prevalent, with all the horror and destruction for individual young women that that entails.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Crossbench 7:53 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the four noble Baronesses who have spoken before me with such feeling and passion. I thank my noble friend Lady Cox for securing this debate today. She is quite right to focus on the key issue: what are we doing, apart from legislation, to stop this horrible, horrific procedure being carried out in the United Kingdom? Through the work I do with a charity, mostly in Africa, I have seen the results in many of these women. I work with a charity that trains doctors and nurses in Africa to help women who have obstetric fistula. There are 2 million such women. FGM contributes to these women having difficulty in labour and the resulting fistulas. It also contributes to them having a higher incidence of postpartum haemorrhage and to them dying because of it. FGM, therefore, does not just cause horrific suffering: it causes death.

Why, after the series of legislation championed by the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, have we not had any prosecutions in the United Kingdom? Is it because those who are involved—members of the family, those who carry out this procedure and even the health professionals—do not fear this legislation, or are they ignorant of it, or both? The fact that there have been no prosecutions must make them feel safe. I know that my own college—I am a fellow of the Royal College of Obstetricians—and other colleges have produced guidance and asked for more policies to stop this procedure being continued in the United Kingdom.

The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, said that we needed a joined-up approach to this; that all the agencies, including the NHS and the child protection agencies, should work together. We now need leadership from the Government, and I hope that the Minister—who I know feels passionately about this—will indicate some new policy measures from the Government to help stop this. Everybody who has spoken and will speak today, and others who have spoken previously in recent weeks when we have had debates and Questions relating to this, have all felt that something must be done in the United Kingdom to stop this horrific process going on. The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, quite rightly asked that we start that process in 2014. I think that she is being generous: we should start tomorrow.

Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 7:56 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, it is a privilege to follow my noble friend Lord Patel. I begin by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on securing this debate. In the three minutes that I have at my disposal, I want to make five very quick points. First, I think that prosecution has to be far more vigorous than it has been. In order that that can happen, we need to do two things: medical professionals and care workers ought to be more forthcoming in providing evidence; and the Crown Prosecution Service should restructure its criteria of proof and responsibility.

Secondly, since we have only limited resources and energy, we should concentrate on those groups where this is far more prevalent, rather than talk about all ethnic minorities or all Muslims or whatever. For example, in Somalia, it is 98% prevalent; among the Egyptians, it is about 91%; it is 74% among Ethiopians; but when you come to Ghana or Uganda, it is barely 1%. It is important to select groups and concentrate on them.

Thirdly, we should be increasing awareness of the consequences of female genital mutilation, not that women do not know. After all, many of those who perpetrate this have already suffered: they know the consequences. I have in mind the young girls within the family—trying to educate them on what this involves, and getting them to put pressure on their own parents and peers and others within their own communities. In dealing with many ugly practices, getting young people to organise and mobilise in this way is generally very effective.

Fourthly, we must find some way of de-legitimising this practice in the eyes of those who engage in it. They engage in it not because they want to harm their children; they know it is bad. They do it not just under social pressure—they do it because they think they are doing what is right. They think it is right because they think that it disciplines them in sexuality and so on. We need to involve religious leaders and cultural leaders, and get them to convince the people involved that this is not the way that the practice can ever be justified. Here it is important to talk in idioms that people can understand, rather than talk about human rights and why women are being deprived of sexual pleasure. That is not the language in which you can communicate with people who do not place much value either on human rights or on sexual pleasure. One has to talk in terms of idioms and arguments which make sense to these people.

Finally, it is quite important to bear in mind that we are not objecting to female genital mutilation per se. Whenever I have talked to these women, they have said that they know that some nuns undergo the practice voluntarily. They know that some adult African women have undergone the practice voluntarily after the birth of their first child in order to convince themselves that they are mothers and not children. They also know that, for all kinds of reasons, every year 200 to 300 adult women undergo it in our own society for all kinds of reasons. It is therefore important to bear in mind that we are objecting to this practice because it involves small children, and we ought not to lose sight of that particular focus.

Photo of Lord Loomba Lord Loomba Liberal Democrat 8:00 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on securing this important debate on issues relating to FGM, and I commend her for the important work that she does with the Humanitarian Aid Relief Trust in supporting communities affected by oppression, exploitation and persecution.

I have spoken many times in this House on issues affecting women and children from developing countries, and relish the opportunity to add to this debate on FGM.

Women’s health and empowerment rightly feature in the UN’s flagship millennium development goals, launched in 2000. However, it is widely thought that not enough progress has been made in these important areas. I am therefore encouraged that our Government are taking steps to improve this. As we have heard from many speakers today, FGM has a devastating effect on women, even on our own doorstep in the UK. The facts and figures on how many women and girls are still subjected to this barbaric act are staggering.

Over the past couple of years there has been a steep rise in awareness of FGM, and I am encouraged that it is the ambition of the Government, led by my right honourable friend Lynne Featherstone in the Department for International Development, to eradicate FGM within a generation. Lynne has led the way in our Government on breaking the taboo on this topic. At the UN Status of Women meeting in March 2013, as we have heard from my noble friend Lady Barker, our Government pledged up to £35 million to help reduce FGM by 30% in at least 10 countries within the next five years. I hope that the Minister can assure us that that money is being put to good use. I am glad that this UK funding will be targeted directly within local communities in many countries across the world, as that is where real change can begin.

On 20 December 2012, almost a year ago, the UN passed its resolution on,

“Intensifying global efforts for the elimination of female genital mutilations”.

We must build on this momentum by ensuring that the post-2015 MDG framework contains a strong emphasis on eliminating violence against women, including FGM.

Photo of Baroness Tonge Baroness Tonge Independent Liberal Democrat 8:03 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, I thank noble Lords, particularly of course the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for introducing the debate and for giving us so many statistics and graphic details, which noble Lords will be glad to hear I do not intend to repeat. FGM is a terrible practice and a very ancient one, as is male circumcision. No one really knows why these things started—perhaps we shall never know—but we know that FGM is still prevalent in the world today, and for women it is the most horrible and dangerous practice.

I want to say what in my experience has gone on in Parliament. I came into Parliament in 1997 with a lot of women parliamentarians, and I quickly joined the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Population Development and Reproductive Health. Of course there was the 1985 Act that prohibited FGM—everyone knows about that—but by the year 2000 that all-party group had produced a report on female genital mutilation, which is still up on the group’s website. Following that report, Christine McCafferty MP, the chair of the group at the time, took a 10-minute rule Bill through Parliament to prevent FGM from being perpetrated on girls taken out of the country. It was illegal within the country but we wanted to ensure that girls could not be taken out in the school holidays. This was followed by Ann Clwyd—supported in the House of

Commons, I may say, by me—introducing an amendment to the 1985 Act, and in 2003 Royal Assent was given to making FGM illegal if girls were taken out of the country to have it done.

Nevertheless, it has taken 10 years to get the broader media and parliamentarians interested and, as we have heard, no prosecutions of individuals have taken place in that time, the main reason being that although, for example, 63 cases were reported between November 2009 and November 2011, no individual would give evidence. Girls stay loyal to their families. The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, has to be congratulated; throughout this time she has campaigned on this issue and constantly drawn attention to this dreadful abuse.

Some 18 months ago, my all-party group suggested that we had a meeting with the Director of Public ProsecutionsKeir Starmer, at the time—to discuss why no prosecutions were taking place. He organised a round-table meeting; Jane Ellison, the chair of the all-party group on FGM, came to it, as did many social workers, doctors, teachers and NGOs. He got together a huge collegiate group of people who were concerned about this practice. After several meetings, there is now a countrywide alert for teachers, doctors, social workers and so on to report any suspicions that they may have.

I understand too that the Home Affairs Select Committee is to investigate the matter, but I contend that we have had enough reports, investigations and round-table meetings. What we need is a prosecution, and Keir Starmer assured us a few months ago that there was one in the pipeline. That is what we need. We do not want the victim to be harmed, but we need a prosecution that is well publicised in order to alert everyone in the country to this awful practice.

Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour 8:07 pm, 4th December 2013

I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, on her comprehensive and passionate introduction to this debate, which I suppose was the catalyst for so many other outstanding contributions. I associate myself particularly with the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Hodgson, on the need to change culture, not just to legislate, and those of the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, about the importance of changing attitudes to child protection.

In the time available, I want to add two things. First, to my eternal shame, I was shocked to discover, early in my time as First Minister of Scotland, that female genital mutilation was happening in a country that I thought I knew very well but clearly did not know as a whole. It was drawn to my attention by Khadija Coll of the African and Caribbean Network in Glasgow, who has been a relentless campaigner in Scotland on this issue since.

We in Scotland legislated eventually, passing new legislation in 2005. I make a plea again today that we ensure that the approach taken to this issue in the United Kingdom is indeed taken across the United Kingdom. There is a danger that the United Kingdom is seen as a soft touch in Europe on this issue, but there also now a danger within the UK that Scotland is seen as a soft touch. It is vital that we have a cohesive approach to this among the different jurisdictions and secure a prosecution wherever it is possible in the UK as a start towards further prosecutions in the future.

The second point I want to make arises from a very interesting meeting that took place in the House last Monday evening when a representative of the Crown Prosecution Service said that one of the reasons that there is a problem with prosecutions in the UK is that the legislation covers only British nationals. I want to make two points about that. First, if it is the case, we need to address it quickly. There would be widespread support in this House and in the other place for any amendments that were required. Secondly, even if that is the case, it is not a reason not to prosecute. If I had taken my daughter at the age of eight or nine to a neighbour’s house to have her tongue and fingers cut off, I would have been prosecuted. Even if there are problems with the existing FGM legislation, there is no justification for allowing it to continue without prosecutions, given the raft of other legislation available to prosecuting authorities on violence, child abuse, child protection and so on. I make a plea to the Government to take up the suggestions made by other speakers, particularly the noble Baronesses who spoke earlier in the debate, and to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service sees this for what it is. It is violence; it is child abuse; and it needs to be tackled in our country and tackled quickly.

Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench 8:11 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, I thank and congratulate my noble friend Lady Cox on again airing this important subject. It is outrageous that such a practice should be happening in what we like to think of as a civilised society. Having said that, I do not doubt for one minute that the Government and the various departments involved find this as shocking as the rest of us. However, it is not resulting in prosecutions, so I shall look at why that might be.

When the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, asked a Question about this a few weeks ago, the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, replied very sensitively about why France has had some success. He said that there is compulsory examination. I took his point that that would not necessarily go down very well in this country. Looking at children’s private parts is a very tricky subject, but in France, they expect people who come there to behave like the French. The noble Lord, Lord McConnell, made a very good point that even if we do not go as far as examination—and I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Howe, about that—there might be some aspects of French law that we should take and make it clear that anybody committing this act is committing a crime.

We cannot overstate that there are no medical reasons for FGM. There are no religious reasons in the Bible, the Koran or any holy scripture that justify it. It is about cultural tradition. I completely accept the Government’s point that this is a very tricky area to deal with. However, we have to deal with it. There have to be prosecutions. Reading all the papers that have been assembled, mainly by government agencies, I am struck by the fact that they feel there is a lack of leadership and joined-up thinking. For example, even those cases that come to the attention of the professionals are not being reported as well as they might be. There are initiatives that, with the greatest respect, the

Government could take to improve this situation. Let us not wait another 10 years for a prosecution. Let us not wait another five years. Let us not wait another year. We need to see some effective action.

My final point is that I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, about the success of Orchid. It is an example we should look at because it has had real success in various African—mainly sub-Saharan—countries in persuading people that this practice should change.

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues) 8:14 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, who initiated this important debate and asked some important and pertinent questions, as did my noble friend Lady Rendell in her characteristically forthright speech.

Every day, 8,000 girls in the world are subjected to the practice of female genital mutilation. This intimate act of controlling women’s and girls’ bodies is not only a human rights violation, it is also, in the UK, child abuse. It has been illegal in the UK since 1985, and since 2003 Britons have been able to be prosecuted for acts of FGM abroad, but it is still practised. The report, Tackling FGM in the UK, produced by the Royal College of Nursing, asserts that 66,000 women in England and Wales have undergone female genital mutilation and that more than 24,000 girls under 15 are at risk. In Europe, it is estimated that 500,000 girls and women have been subjected to FGM and that an additional 180,000 are at risk each year.

Despite FGM being classed as a serious criminal offence in the UK, there have been no prosecutions. In the recent Channel 4 programme “The Cruel Cut”, you must weep with the girl who at seven returned from being taken overseas during school holidays to be cut. When she returned, she confided in her teacher, who ignored her cry for help. That child was doubly betrayed by the adults who should have been protecting her, and no action was taken against her parents. We should be ashamed in the UK that thousands of girls in danger of genital mutilation are being failed by our education, health and justice systems.

While I can only welcome the fact that an interministerial group is addressing this issue, along with other forms of violence against women, and that FGM is high on its agenda, there are two questions that I would like to ask Minister. First, is it really necessary for the Health Minister, Jane Ellison, to conduct yet another inquiry into FGM? I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge: we know what the problem is. What new information is there to be found after the reports that have been done, including that by the Royal College of Nursing? If it is to happen, when will it happen? How long will it take, and how long will we need to wait for further action to be taken?

Secondly, since the Channel 4 programme, the 7 year-old girl has met Jeremy Hunt, and to his credit and that of the Home Secretary, Theresa May, they have committed themselves to action. Indeed, on 7 November, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in responding to a question from the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor, said:

“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”.—[Hansard, 7/11/13; col. 326.]

We all agree. Despite this, it would seem from the press reports I have read that Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, refuses to make FGM mandatory in child protection. Can the Minister tell us whether that is true and explain how we can expect teachers to take this issue seriously and make FGM part of their duty of care to children when it is not part of the guidelines? FGM is not recognised as child abuse. It needs to be treated in UK law as such.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Lords Spokesperson (Women & Equalities), Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development) 8:17 pm, 4th December 2013

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, for securing this very important debate and for introducing it so effectively. She rightly magnified what she described as the cries of those who are demanding that this terrible practice is brought to an end. Like other noble Lords, I am struck by the level of concern in this House and across Parliament. The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, used to be something of a lone voice in this area in the House of Lords. I hope she is pleased that the voices are now multiplying, not least in the media, including, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, mentioned, in “Casualty”.

In order to tackle FGM, it is critical that we raise awareness. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Patel, that we need to start today, not tomorrow. We cannot leave it until tomorrow. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that the Government are absolutely clear that FGM is a barbaric violation of human rights. We are entirely committed to tackling FGM, both here in the UK and overseas. That is why, as my noble friends Lady Barker and Lord Loomba said, the Department for International Development is investing £35 million to tackle FGM in at least 15 of the most affected countries with the objective of reducing the incidence of FGM by 30% in at least 10 countries over the next five years. As my noble friend Lord Loomba said, my honourable friend Lynne Featherstone, both as Parliamentary Under-Secretary at DfID and as the Government’s champion to combat violence against women and girls, has seized this issue with enormous determination.

My noble friend Lady Hodgson showed how deeply rooted these practices are but how there is hope of change within those communities. I point out to my noble friend that DfID’s approach is indeed to support an African-led movement towards ending FGM. We recognise the importance of this. We are taking an approach that combines community-based work with legislation and we are working with the UN joint programme on exactly this approach. My noble friend is right to highlight that.

My noble friend Lady Barker asked about linking FGM with work on the prevention of forced marriage. She is right to say that there are parallels between these two harmful practices. In DfID’s international work, where FGM and child marriage co-exist, they are addressed simultaneously at the community level. My noble friend also asked about work identifying men within the regions where FGM takes place, and, of course, this is relevant within the United Kingdom, too, to encourage others to oppose FGM. We fully recognise that and our experience in Africa shows that men’s involvement is very important. In most countries where cutting occurs, the majority of boys and men, when we are engaged with them, think that FGM should end. That is a key to moving this forward.

Significant progress is being made, which my noble friend Lady Hodgson referred to and which may reassure my noble friend Lady Barker. There have been declines in the practice in certain areas. The noble Lord, Lord Parekh, was quite right to highlight the countries where there is a high incidence and those where it is much lower, and to say that we need to concentrate on those high-incidence countries.

The international investment will also reap dividends in tackling FGM in the United Kingdom by supporting the diaspora communities in advocating for change in their countries of origin and developing a global social change communications programme. This will complement a raft of action that we are taking in the United Kingdom to end FGM. Most noble Lords concentrated particularly on the United Kingdom, although often setting it in the context of what is happening in other countries. I wish to make it absolutely clear to the noble Baronesses, Lady Cox and Lady Thornton, that we identify FGM as child abuse, and political sensitivities must not get in the way of eradicating this illegal practice. I can assure the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, that culture can never be allowed to trump the law.

To further improve our understanding in the United Kingdom, the Home Office is part-funding a new study into the prevalence rates of FGM in England and Wales, to be published in March. The noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, asked whether we really need it. The last study of this kind dates back to 2007 and estimated that some 20,000 girls could be at risk of FGM every year. We can take forward all sorts of measures that we know we need, but it also helps to get a better sense of what the evidence is now.

The Department of Health is working with the Health & Social Care Information Centre to look at how best the NHS can collect and share data to build a better picture on prevalence from across the NHS. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, asked about the meeting that my honourable friend Jane Ellison at the Department of Health chaired on Monday with experts from FGM clinics, police and key charity organisations. She set out a feasibility study on collecting data and asked the group to help take that forward. That will all feed in to the action that we are taking.

Internationally, UNICEF has published a report casting additional light on how the practice is changing in the 29 countries where it is concentrated and on the progress made since its first report in 2005. It is important that these new insights inform the design of policies and programmes, both in countries where it has been practised for generations and in areas where it is relatively new and associated with immigration. I hope that helps to reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, that the evidence is there for a useful purpose and not at all to delay action. The Government recognise that, in order to tackle FGM here in the UK, we need to put prevention at the heart of our work. We need all parts of the system—criminal justice, education, health, housing and benefits—to work together to identify, protect and support victims and to bring perpetrators to justice. Indeed, noble Lords around the House were making that case.

The noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, and the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, raised the issue of routine examinations of girls to check for FGM. From birth until they leave school, children and young people are routinely investigated by healthcare staff in the Healthy Child programme, which covers England. Prevention and safeguarding underpin this programme. Noble Lords will have noted what my noble friend Lord Howe said. I am sure also that, as discussions occur within the Department of Health about how best to take this forward, the points that noble Lords have made will be pursued.

We have distributed more than 40,000 leaflets and posters and have completed a pilot on A Statement Opposing Female Genital Mutilation, a pocket-sized leaflet designed to be used when travelling abroad. We sent out more than 37,000 of these leaflets during the pilot, and evaluation responses have told us that it has been widely accepted by communities affected by FGM and that it is a valuable resource to help practitioners start conversations about FGM. I have seen a copy of the leaflet and am very happy to supply a copy to noble Lords who wish to see it.

In addition, a dedicated FGM helpline hosted by the NSPCC was launched in the summer. A specially trained team is on hand to receive calls from professionals and members of the public, either victims or potential victims of FGM, and from friends or relatives concerned about somebody who might be at risk. Noble Lords may be interested to know that, as of last week, there have been 132 calls to the helpline, 55 of which were referred to the relevant police force. The European Commission is also stepping up on this. It has announced funding of €3.7 million to spread a clear message about zero tolerance of all forms of violence against women and girls, including FGM. We have bid for €300,000 from this fund.

We have published FGM multi-agency guidelines for front-line professionals to raise awareness and help safeguard girls and women from abuse. We will shortly be providing local areas with a resource pack to emphasise what works in tackling FGM and to encourage commissioners of services to consider measures that they could put in place to prevent and tackle FGM.

I fully understand the frustration that there has still not been a prosecution for FGM in this country. However, I am greatly encouraged by the renewed commitment of the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to overcome these barriers and the DPP’s assessment that it is only a matter of time before a perpetrator is brought to justice. I hear what the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and others have said. It is extremely useful that this debate is taking place tonight because I can inform the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and other noble Lords that my honourable friend Norman Baker at the Home Office is meeting the DPP tomorrow about this issue, and I will feed back to him the issues that we have discussed tonight.

This has been a passionate debate. It is very clear that we can and must eradicate this terrible practice. I assure noble Lords that we understand that. We are working on this internationally in an unprecedented way and we are pushing aside all the boulders in the way in the United Kingdom. I am sure that the cogency of this case will not be lost on the DPP and others working in this field.

Sitting suspended.