My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in today’s debate. The strength of support for the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, from all sides of the House is testament to the unanimous desire to stamp out this barbaric act. Female genital mutilation is an extremely painful and harmful practice that blights the lives of many girls and women. The Government roundly condemn this practice and are determined to see it eradicated in this country and elsewhere.
The practice of FGM is an age-old one, deeply steeped in the culture and tradition of practising communities. Those who practice it no doubt genuinely believe that it is in their children’s best interests to conform with the prevailing custom of their community. But that does not excuse such a gross violation of their human rights. It is wholly unacceptable to allow a practice that can have such devastating consequences for the health of a young girl. The physical and psychological effects can last throughout her life. The mutilation and impairment of young girls and women can have no place in modern society.
The Government are clear that tackling FGM is about protecting vulnerable girls and women. That is why, in 2015, the Government introduced several legislative measures to strengthen the law on FGM to help make prosecutions more likely and protect women and girls at risk. These measures included extending extraterritorial jurisdiction to cover offences of FGM committed abroad by habitual, as well as permanent, UK residents; lifelong anonymity for victims of FGM; the creation of a new offence of failing to protect a girl from the risk of FGM; a mandatory duty to report FGM in girls under the age of 18 and the introduction of female genital mutilation protection orders—FGMPOs.
However, bringing perpetrators to justice cannot happen unless victims or those at risk of FGM come forward. The highly personal and intimate nature of the offence may be one reason for a victim or a girl at risk being reluctant to report FGM. But added to this is the fact that the crime of FGM is usually committed in a family context, with most victims or those at risk, too young, scared or unwilling to report members of their own family. This makes it a more complex and sensitive issue and one where gathering sufficient evidence to prosecute is challenging. That is why the police continue to work with a broad range of agencies to raise awareness of FGM and encourage more people to report it.
FGM occurs in specific communities, with religious reasons cited as one explanation why FGM is practised. But, as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned, it is not mentioned in the Koran. Since 2014, the Government have been working with faith leaders to address the practice of FGM, with a specific focus on breaking the perception that FGM is indeed a faith requirement. It is not. Over 250 faith and community leaders have signed a declaration denouncing the practice, and the Government are using their work with faith leaders in target communities to reach further into other communities.
Education of girls and women is essential, and education from within their communities is likely to be the most effective. The noble Baroness, Lady Flather, mentioned the prevalence of FGM in Africa, and FGM is indeed unlikely to end in the UK before it ends in Africa. The Department for International Development led a £35 million flagship programme—the noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, mentioned it as part of an interesting anecdote about working as a team in coalition government—that supports the Africa-led movement to end FGM, and is supporting work in 17 countries.
The noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, gave an outstanding speech in which he set out the challenges and impacts of FGM and the steps that have been taken so far. I welcome his support for the action taken by the Government. We are keen to do more. I also welcome his focus and that of the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, on advocacy. Both are right, and it must be a priority as we take things forward.
I was very pleased—and, indeed, a little relieved—that the Bill attracted the significant support of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. He mentioned the lack of prosecutions, as did the noble Baronesses, Lady Kennedy and Lady Massey, and the noble Lord, Lord Alton. Regrettably, they are right, but, as also noted by the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, prosecutions must not be undertaken lightly. As I mentioned, FGM cases are challenging to prosecute for many reasons.