Clause 1 - Offence of female genital mutilation

Female Genital Mutilation Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 25th June 2003.

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Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Ann Clwyd Ann Clwyd Special Envoy to PM on Human Rights in Iraq

It is a long time since I served on a Committee under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and it is a pleasure to do so once more. I thank everyone who assisted me in securing an early sitting of the Committee, and I hope that the Bill will proceed rapidly through the House.

Clause 1 re-enacts and extends the provisions of the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, which by virtue of clause 7 ceases to have effect. Repealing and re-enacting the 1985 Act allows the short title of the Bill to describe more accurately the prohibited acts and removes any suggestion of acceptability that the term ''circumcision'' might imply.

Subsection (1) re-enacts section 1(1)(a) of the 1985 Act, which describes the prohibited acts. Subsections (2) and (3) re-enact, in simpler terms, section 2(1)(a) and (b) of the 1985 Act, which provides an exemption for necessary surgical operations and operations carried out in connection with childbirth in the United Kingdom by a registered medical practitioner, a registered midwife or a person training to be one.

The purpose of subsection (4) is to extend the exception that applies to legitimate surgical operations carried out in the United Kingdom to such operations carried out outside the UK, because it would not be right to criminalise outside the United Kingdom operations that are not criminal in this country. However, extending the application of the exception so that it applies to operations carried out abroad by a ''registered medical practitioner'' or ''registered midwife'' is problematic because not all foreign countries have a registration system.

It would be impossible to draw up a list of all the foreign qualifications that we would want to recognise for these purposes, and the profession and status of midwife is unique to this country. Subsection (4) therefore applies broadly to the overseas equivalents of such persons and, in the event of a prosecution, it will be for the UK courts to determine whether a person carrying out an operation overseas was qualified to do so.

Subsection (5) re-enacts section 2(2) of the 1985 Act, which provides that for the purpose of

determining whether an operation is necessary for the mental health of a person, no account should be taken of any belief that the operation is needed as a matter of custom or ritual.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

I have a few things to say about the Bill as I have some direct personal experience that will be useful to the Committee.

I remember vividly my first experience some 15 years ago of a patient who had suffered female genital mutilation. A beautiful young anglicised Somali girl who had been in this country for some time asked if I could examine her and give her some advice because she wanted to be married. When I looked at her, I found that she had the appearance of a baby doll—all the women here will know that dolls are noted for their lack of sexuality. Apart from a hole where the urine and the blood presumably came out, there was nothing there. I could not believe it, and I confess that I did not know what I was looking at; I had to refer the girl on. I hope that after some reconstructive surgery she was able to have some sort of marital relations with her husband.

That experience was extremely shocking to me. I do not want people to think that the procedure is not very terrible. It makes one faint to think that not only does the process take place without anaesthetic, antibiotics or antiseptics, but the girl is held down while it is done.

I should like to add that I am not in favour of unnecessary surgical operations on female organs—or male organs, for that matter. Sometimes we do not address that seriously enough or make sufficient provision to ensure that such procedures are carried out under proper surgical conditions and for good medical reasons.

The first question that I hope the promoter of the Bill can answer is whether the reason that we have never had any prosecutions under the 1985 Act is to do with the ignorance of medical professionals, people working in education and the police. I was totally ignorant and think that there may be a lot of ignorance on the subject, which has resulted in there being no prosecutions and people hesitating to go down that route. We must address that important issue. If there is to be any secondary legislation once the Bill is made law, will it say anything about education of medical and nursing professionals, teachers or the police? If children are going to be taken out of the country and brought back again, ostensibly for a holiday, how can we check whether they are intact before they go and are not intact when they come back? I have wrestled with that question. Sensitive handling by doctors, teachers and the police will be required.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Lady talks about secondary legislation. I am trying to follow her argument and I wonder what context she has in mind.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park

I was just asking the question, because often detailed provisions are found in secondary legislation that is drawn up by the relevant Department to back up primary legislation that we have passed. I remember from when I was a member

of the Standing Committee that considered what became the Export Control Act 2002 that the devil was in the detail. I am just asking whether we are going to ensure that professionals who may have to verify that FGM practices are being carried out have received the proper training. How are we going to introduce such a very intrusive examination? It will be difficult to police, for example, the case of a young girl who has been given indefinite leave to remain here, has become a British citizen, yet is taken off to north Africa or wherever for a ''holiday''—in fact, for that operation to be done.

Will the legislation cover asylum seekers who have perhaps been given a year in which to remain in this country, or will only residents and British citizens be covered? Non-governmental organisations have raised that issue. It is important that we protect asylum seekers who come to this country—indeed, I think that escaping FGM should be a reason to grant asylum. Any woman who has faced it and managed to get away from the country where it happened should be granted asylum without more ado. We must consider that.

The other thing that worries me slightly is the wording in respect of reasons of mental health. I know how much cosmetic breast surgery has been carried out in the private sector in this country for mental health reasons: we do not like our big boobs, or we do not like our very tiny ones, or whatever. Often the reason given for such surgery is that the mental health of the woman concerned is being affected and therefore the surgeon, at great price, will carry out the operation.

The same can be said—again, I speak from some medical experience—about vaginas that do not quite fit the bill, for example, they may not fit the requirements of someone's partner. I have seen many such cases, and it is not always a result of childbirth. Mental health reasons could be cited in such cases. I am sure that Committee members all have copies of the advert for ''designer vaginas'' sent by one of the NGOs; it makes one feel slightly sick. However, when we remember that there are now designer breasts and that women are required to be very sexual creatures and attractive to the opposite sex in many complicated ways, we have cause to be worried.

Those are the questions in my mind. I hope that the promoter of the Bill will be able to go some way to addressing them.

Several hon. Members rose—

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

Order. I understand that it is necessary to set the debate on such a subject in context, and on that basis I am perfectly prepared to allow a reasonably wide-ranging debate on clause 1. However, I do not want Committee members to believe that that gives them licence to go free range on anything at any time. We need to keep the Committee—particularly on a private Member's Bill—in order.

I propose to follow the broad traditions of Committees, even though it is a private Member's Bill and is not therefore in the charge of a Minister, and call Back Benchers first, if that is helpful to the

Minister. I will then call the Minister to make any observations that he wishes to make on behalf of the Government. It would help me to call hon. Members if, as on the Floor of the House, they could give some indication if they wish to speak in the debate.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I shall be brief and say only how much I welcome this splendid piece of legislation. If the Bill is instrumental in sparing one young woman the appalling suffering that FGM causes, it will have been worth while. I wish it a speedy passage through Parliament.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I will not detain you or the Committee for long, Mr. Gale. It is good to see you in the Chair today.

My main role as a Home Office Minister is to say how strongly the Government support the Bill. In the spirit of the debate so far, I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on introducing the Bill. It is another example of the unstinting efforts that she makes to uphold human rights in this country and elsewhere in the world. I would also like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), who introduced the private Member's Bill that became the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985. The cause was probably much less popular in those days than it is today. We heard on Second Reading about some of the difficult arguments that the hon. Lady had to make, and she deserves great credit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) chairs the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health and she organised the parliamentary hearings in 2000. Both those hearings and the previous legislation flow into the Bill that we are considering today.

Clause 1 describes the offence of female genital mutilation. It makes it clear that no one who performs a surgical operation on a girl in a way that is necessary for her health will be open to prosecution, but that, equally, cultural norms and beliefs are not justification for an act that is brutal and can have such dire consequences. First, it is worth underlining that FGM has no religious significance. Secondly, although we recognise that FGM can be deeply ingrained in the culture and traditions of those who practice it, respect for other cultures does not mean accepting the unacceptable. Abuse of children, which is what FGM is, is completely unacceptable.

The Bill also makes it clear that the power to prosecute will be available not only for offences committed in the United Kingdom, where the practice is already illegal, but those committed in other countries, too—even in countries where the practice is still legal. The hon. Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) asked why there had been no prosecutions under existing legislation. One reason is that there is a loophole that has allowed people to take children out of the country to have the procedure performed. The Bill will close that loophole, so prosecutions will be much more likely than in the past.

Photo of Dr Jenny Tonge Dr Jenny Tonge Liberal Democrat, Richmond Park 2:45 pm, 25th June 2003

I have evidence, albeit anecdotal, that the procedure has been carried out by some medical professionals in this country, but there have never been prosecutions here. As the hon. Member for Calder Valley will confirm, quite a lot of evidence that FGM happens here, too, was presented at the hearings.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I fully accept that. We are dealing with cultural pressures within quite closed communities and, often, with young and vulnerable children. It is very difficult for them to report that that type of crime has been committed. All those factors have an impact. We certainly need to close loopholes in legislation, but the hon. Lady is right to say that we need both to send a strong message in legislation and to back that up with education for the public and members of those communities, as well as education and training for the professionals involved.

Photo of Peter Luff Peter Luff Opposition Whip (Commons)

If a general practitioner is presented with a young girl who has experienced this dreadful act, will he or she have a duty of care to try to ensure that investigations are carried out into the circumstances in which the procedure was performed?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I certainly hope that a general practitioner or any health practitioner would follow up such cases urgently, not only by providing the appropriate care but by trying to find out how it happened. However, it is difficult territory because it is equally important that we do not do things that discourage people from seeking the health care that they need. If the message goes out that seeking medical attention has other consequences, it could make matters difficult. That is why not only statutory services, but voluntary services must adopt a sensitive approach.

Speaking of the voluntary sector, I pay tribute to the work of organisations such as Forward and the Agency for Culture and Change Management, which is supported by Home Office funding. Both organisations do very important work to highlight these issues. It is also important to acknowledge the work of the Department for International Development. I understand that, in recent years, it has invested £1.2 million in developing countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Ethiopia and many others, not least to help those who traditionally earned their living by carrying out these procedures to find other forms of employment. That is very important, and it is good to know that in his new role the Minister of State, Department for International Development, who replied for the Government on Second Reading, is keeping his eye on that and a lot of other important work in this field.

I have alluded to other aspects of the Bill at this stage because I do not intend to make speeches on other clauses unless hon. Members seek clarification of specific issues. Let me say simply that I have long admired the dedication of my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley and I look forward to her taking the Bill through Committee this afternoon.

Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley

Will my hon. Friend the Minister clarify whether the Bill covers asylum seekers? The Bill does not make that clear.

Many people who seek asylum in this country come from countries where FGM is commonly practised. It would be of great value if the Bill covered the children of such asylum seekers.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

As I understand it, FGM or fears in relation to FGM could, if they were proved, be grounds for making a claim for asylum. There has to be genuine and well founded fear to substantiate an asylum claim. That could well be argued and evidence would need to be adduced for it.

My hon. Friend's question relates to a slightly wider argument about how far the Bill's remit might extend. It is intended to cover UK nationals and long-term UK residents. However, there are limits to how far the UK legislative remit can run: we cannot prosecute anyone in the world committing the offence; there has to be some direct connection to this country. It could be argued that the Bill would not cover someone who has just arrived here.

Photo of Angela Watkinson Angela Watkinson Opposition Whip (Commons)

I have heard of cases in which, although the mother of the child is enlightened and against the practice, the grandmother is still deeply into her own culture and possibly non-English speaking as well. There have been instances in which, when the mother is out, the grandmother takes the opportunity to perform the operation.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I understand that such scenarios arise. The Bill covers those circumstances. It is important to emphasise that any procedure that is carried out in this country is already covered.

I hope that that has helped to clarify the position for my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley. Perhaps she will say whether she is satisfied.

Photo of Chris McCafferty Chris McCafferty Labour, Calder Valley

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply, but it does not entirely answer my question. I understand that the Bill would cover UK permanent residents—people who are ordinarily resident in this country without being subject under immigrations laws to any restrictions on the period for which they can remain. I am more concerned about people who are seeking asylum but who have not yet been granted refugee status. I appreciate that people in that category are unlikely to leave the country for whatever reason and that that is a deterrent in itself, but that is the point on which I would like clarification. In addition, does the Bill cover foreign students or visitors?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

It is clear that there must be a direct connection to this country in terms of citizenship or residency. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that it is highly unlikely that someone who was in the process of seeking asylum would leave the country to pursue an FGM procedure, because if they left the country their application for asylum would automatically fall and they would therefore no longer be an asylum seeker. The likelihood is that if the procedure were to be carried out, it would be in this country rather than another; as I have already explained, the procedure is already illegal in this country and it will continue to be illegal under the Bill, so such cases would be covered. Fear of FGM could be grounds for an asylum claim, although there is no guarantee. It is highly unlikely that an asylum seeker would leave the country to have the procedure carried out elsewhere.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.