Children Act 1989 (Amendment) (Female Genital Mutilation) Bill [HL] - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:20 pm on 20th July 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 12:20 pm, 20th July 2018

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Gale is unwell, so I have the pleasure and the honour of making a guest appearance in your Lordships’ House. I am delighted to be speaking in this debate and in such distinguished company. The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has set out extremely well the amendment, and the legal and other brains around the House have also explained the amendment in some detail. I shall not repeat those explanations.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, for introducing this Bill and this debate. It is another wake-up call to us to be vigilant about this abhorrent practice performed on women and girls, and which is of course illegal in this country. I am also delighted to hear that the noble Lord is committed to fighting on in this manner. This is a form of child abuse—and “child” means up to the age of 18. The noble Lord has cleverly intertwined two Acts: the Children Act 1989 and the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. FGM has been a scourge in our and other societies for many years. There has never been a prosecution, although we have come near to it in this country. It is an act frequently performed on girls from some communities—not necessarily religious—against their consent, often arranged by parents or a relative, and which is potentially dangerous. It is very often performed by a person with no surgical experience, and is likely to have severe psychological consequences for women and cause severe physical difficulties in sexual intercourse and childbirth. Repair is possible but I am not aware of how common this is. I have spoken to doctors and midwives who are horrified by the damage done to women and girls. Most victims are young, and have no say in the proceedings. Statistics probably underestimate the size of this problem.

The Private Member’s Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, is part of a process to tackle violence against children and it may be useful to give some indicators of that process today. The Children Act 1989 is central to the amendment. There have, of course, been many Children Acts in the UK, all responding to the current needs of children. They have evolved over the years. There is no single piece of legislation that covers child protection or safeguarding in the UK, but a number of laws provide a comprehensive framework. The child protection systems across the UK—in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland—are different, but all based on similar principles. The basis of all systems is that the welfare of the child is paramount, as expressed in the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child of 1989, which the UK has of course ratified. I am glad to say that the UK has also recently ratified another important convention: the Council of Europe Lanzarote Convention on Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse.

We are fortunate in the UK to have a vigorous and vigilant voluntary sector for children. I know that, because I work with it. We have campaigns supporting children against abuse, such as the Together We Can Tackle Child Abuse campaign. We have had seminal reports, such as the one produced by our colleague the noble Lord, Lord Laming, in 2009 following the horrific Victoria Climbié case. This report called for an overhaul of children’s social work, including a safeguarding delivery unit. As I said, things have evolved and we in the UK have been active on child welfare. There are criticisms, including a lack of integration of strategies for children and interaction between the various frameworks and definitions, lack of data and not enough consultation with children, including child victims. I support strongly the participation of children in developing strategies which involve them. As one young woman said to me at a recent seminar on mental health and youth justice, “We are experts by experience”. How true. I shall return to this later.

I am a member of the British delegation to the Council of Europe, and I chair the Sub-Committee on Children. I am impressed by the commitment of the Council of Europe in advocating for children. Its Istanbul Convention of 2011 speaks specifically about FGM, and the Council of Ministers has called for multiagency co-operation and integrated strategies to combat this practice—something we should perhaps look at more closely in our own efforts.

This amendment is an example of, and contribution to, joining the dots. FGM is a problematic issue, as has been explored today. It is well summed up in the response to a parliamentary Written Question in February 2017:

“There has been one prosecution brought under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, which was unsuccessful. The police and Crown Prosecution Service … have highlighted that one reason for the lack of investigations and prosecutions is a lack of referrals. In addition, cultural taboo and the age and vulnerability of the victims may prevent them coming forward”.

This is something we need to crack: any attempt to integrate aspects of our laws, as this amendment does, will help. As I said earlier, there is no single piece of legislation that covers child protection. The Children Act 2004, which supplemented the 1989 Act, identified the components of child protection, including: the principle of paramountcy, with the welfare of the child being most important—the welfare of the child must come first; the provision of services for children in need; the duty to investigate; co-operative arrangements for care and care orders; parental responsibility; the protocol for inquiries and case conferences; police powers; and emergency protection powers. All these aspects have other aspects in other Acts. As I said before, integration is something we should look at. We should work together; perhaps the Minister can say something about this and talk to others afterwards about how we might integrate better.

Yesterday, we had an important Statement on the need for personal, social and health education in schools. Many of us have fought for this for years, believing that a key element of education is encouraging young people to develop confidence, social and emotional skills and self-esteem. By having such skills, health and relationships can improve. Through such programmes in schools, maybe we can encourage girls who are likely to be or who have been victims of FGM to speak out—and not just them, but their friends and others in their communities. Of course, it is unthinkable for girls to denounce their parents, but they can surely talk, or learn to talk, to someone who is sympathetic to their case and their cause. There is no substitute for “experts by experience”.

When speaking of FGM, I am always reminded of the debt we owe to the late and much loved Ruth Rendell, who has been mentioned by others. She was of course a celebrated crime novelist. In a lesser light, she was also my mentor when I came here. She vigorously supported the fight against FGM by speaking at conferences, by giving interviews and indeed by funding a film to be used in the training of midwives and nurses.

She also, as my noble friend Lady Kennedy said, wrote a novel which introduced the subject of FGM. It was called Live Flesh and described a plot to subject a girl to FGM and how the girl narrowly escaped. In what I believe was her last speech in your Lordships’ House, in December 2014, a week after mandatory reporting of FGM was instituted as part of the Government’s reducing and preventing crime strategy, she said:

“those of us who have worked against FGM have long been convinced that the best way of stopping it would be to prosecute the perpetrators”.—[Official Report, 11/12/14; col. 523.]

In France, there have been more than 100 successful prosecutions; also in Italy, Sweden and parts of Africa. Parents have been prosecuted for employing a so-called circumciser to cut the girl. The parents were sent to prison for three years. In France, girls are regularly examined by their doctors to check whether they have had FGM or are in danger of having it.

As I said, there have been no prosecutions in the UK. The reason given is that a girl will not go to court and give evidence against her parents about abuse carried out on her. I repeat that the girl should be given the self-empowerment to talk to someone about it.

FGM is an appalling crime. I think we hear less now about cultural values overriding cruelty to children, but FGM still goes on. The welfare of the child is paramount. By combining an FGM Bill with a children’s Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has done a service to child protection. I support the amendment and hope that the Government will continue to strive mightily to fight the crime of FGM.