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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:31 pm on 20th July 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness Vere of Norbiton Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 12:31 pm, 20th July 2018

Yes, the noble Lord is completely right. I was just about to come on to that, because I listened with great interest to the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey, about prosecutions in other countries which one might say are very similar to ours. There must be things that we can learn from those countries. I will take that back to the department—I will write to noble Lords if there is any more information on it—to ask what we are doing about it and whether we are looking at the successful prosecutions in other countries.

It was my pleasure to listen to the well-informed speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, just two days after her maiden speech, but I was distressed to learn that there is a cutting season and to hear about the steps that families now take to continue this practice by bringing third parties from overseas to inflict this on a number of girls. I thank her for her contribution. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, reminded us of the prevalence of FGM. The figure of 200 million is truly shocking. This practice is truly barbaric and far more widespread than many would believe.

I turn to the Bill, which seeks to amend a small and, we believe, unintentional gap in the law. As the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, said, there has been an oversight. He explained that the purpose of the Bill is to amend Section 8(4) of the Children Act 1989 to bring proceedings for FGMPOs within the definition of “family proceedings” for the purpose of the 1989 Act. The effect of bringing FGMPO proceedings within this definition would be that a number of powers under the Children Act 1989 would be opened up to the family courts in those proceedings, such as the power to make a care or supervision order.

The Government are pleased to be able to support the Bill at Second Reading. There are a few minor and technical amendments that we believe are appropriate and we will of course discuss them with the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, and other interested noble Lords before the Bill returns to your Lordships’ House for its next stage. First, however, I will provide a little bit of background on the introduction of FGMPOs and the ways in which such orders may currently be made, and explain the framework that applies to child protection in England and Wales.

FGMPOs were introduced in 2015 alongside a series of other legislative measures intended to strengthen the criminal law in this area and to make successful prosecutions more likely. An FGMPO is, however, a civil law measure, designed to protect those at risk of FGM from ever being subjected to this cruel practice. Applications for FGMPOs can be made to the family court or High Court. The family court and High Court can also make an FGMPO of their own volition, as can a criminal court during proceedings for an FGM offence. Between July 2015, when FGMPOs were introduced, and March 2018 the courts have made 220 FGMPOs.

FGMPOs were closely modelled on forced marriage protection orders, introduced in 2007 by means of adding a new Part 4A to the Family Law Act 1996. All proceedings under the Family Law Act 1996 are defined in Section 8 of the Children Act 1989 as “family proceedings” for the purpose of the 1989 Act. However, when FGMPOs were introduced the then Government decided to include the relevant provisions in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003, rather than in the Family Law Act, so that all the relevant law on FGM would be in one place. But, one apparently unintended consequence of that approach was that FGMPO proceedings were not included within the definition of “family proceedings” for the purpose of the Children Act 1989. A number of orders can be made to protect children in “family proceedings” under the 1989 Act and the exclusion of FGMPO proceedings from that definition means that, as the law stands, if a local authority applicant for an FGMPO wishes also to apply for, for example, a care or a supervision order, a separate application is required.

Bringing FGMPO proceedings within the definition of “family proceedings” would mean that an application by a local authority or the NSPCC for a care or supervision order relating to a child at risk of significant harm could be made during FGMPO proceedings, thus avoiding the need for a separate application and potential delay. Other powers of the family court, including powers to make, for example, a prohibited steps order, special guardianship order or family assistance order, would also be available to the FGMPO proceedings. The Government believe that this simplification of process that the Bill intends is sensible and we are pleased to support it. It adds to the measures that the Government have brought forward to tackle FGM issues.

I turn to child protection in England and Wales and the role of the courts and local authorities. One of the key principles of the legislation that underpins the child protection system in England and Wales is that children are best looked after within their families. However, where a local authority has reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering or is likely to suffer significant harm, it has a duty to make such inquiries as it considers necessary to decide whether to take any action to safeguard or to promote a child’s welfare. Ultimately, however, it is for the courts to make that decision. They may make an order to remove a child from his or her family’s care only if they are satisfied that the child is suffering or likely to suffer significant harm, attributable to the care being given to the child or the child being beyond parental control. The welfare of the child must be the paramount consideration in any decision that the courts make.

On child protection more generally, the Government have ensured that there is an ongoing responsibility for schools to safeguard the children in their care. Recently refreshed statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, includes specific information on what FGM is, what to look out for and where to go for help.

To conclude, the Bill seeks to make a small, technical amendment to close a gap in the law that will have the principal benefit in FGMPO proceedings of making available to the court a number of powers under the Children Act 1989 that would serve to increase the ability of the court to protect children at risk. Once again, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, the eagle-eyed lawyer, Mr Maddison, who was so determined to remedy this oversight and all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate. The Government are pleased to support the Bill and I commend it to the House.