New Clause 1 - Prohibition of virginity testing

Health and Care Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 27th October 2021.

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“(1) A person is guilty of an offence if they attempt to establish that another person is a virgin by making physical contact with their genitalia.

(2) A person is guilty of an offence if they provide another person with a product intended for the purpose, or purported purpose, of establishing whether another person is a virgin.

(3) A person is guilty of an offence if they aid, abet, counsel or procure a person to establish that another person is a virgin by making physical contact with their genitalia.

(4) No offence is committed by an approved person who performs—

(a) a surgical operation on a person which is necessary for their physical or mental health; or

(b) a surgical operation on a female who is in any stage of labour, or has just given birth, for purposes connected with the labour or birth.

(5) The following are approved persons—

(a) in relation to an operation falling within subsection (4)(a), a registered medical practitioner; and

(b) in relation to an operation falling within subsection (5)(b), a registered medical practitioner, a registered midwife or a person undergoing a course of training with a view to becoming such a practitioner or midwife.

(6) There is also no offence committed by a person who—

(a) performs a surgical operation falling within subsection (4)(a) or (b) outside the United Kingdom; and

(b) in relation to such an operation exercises functions corresponding to those of an approved person.

(7) For the purpose of determining whether an operation is necessary for the mental health of a girl it is immaterial whether she or any other person believes that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual.

(8) This section applies to any act done outside the United Kingdom by a United Kingdom national or resident.

(9) A person who is guilty of an offence under this section is liable, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months, to a fine, or to both.

(10) The court must refer the case of any person guilty of an offence under this section who is subject to statutory professional regulation for investigation by the relevant regulator.”.—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Photo of Sheryll Murray Sheryll Murray Conservative, South East Cornwall

With this it will be convenient to discuss new clause 2—Prohibition of hymenoplasty—

“(1) A person is guilty of an offence if they undertake a surgical procedure for the purpose of re-attaching membrane tissue, creating scar tissue or otherwise attempting to re-create the hymen in the vagina of a patient.

(2) A person is guilty of an offence if they advertise the service of hymenoplasty or any service that purports to ‘re-virginise’ or otherwise re-create or re-attach the hymen of a patient by way of surgical procedure.

(3) A person is guilty of an offence if they aid, abet, counsel or procure a person to undertake a surgical procedure for the purpose of re-attaching membrane tissue, creating scar tissue or otherwise attempting to or re-creating the hymen in the vagina of a patient.

(4) This section applies to any act done outside the United Kingdom by a United Kingdom national or resident.

(5) A person who is guilty of an offence under this section is liable, on conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 5 years.

(6) The court must refer the case of any person guilty of an offence under this section who is subject to statutory professional regulation for investigation by the relevant regulator.”.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

I want to speak to new clause 1 in my name and seemingly in the name of half the House. With pleasure, we have reached the new clauses. A central theme runs through the new clauses that my colleagues and I have tabled. If the Government are adamant that now is the time for this Bill, and we have well-established issues with that, then given the significant and growing challenges facing health and social care in this country we really ought to put things in the Bill that will make a difference. Too much of what we have discussed over the previous 18 sessions—give or take—has been about structures and moving things around; this is fundamentally likely to make little to no difference on the frontlines to practitioners or the people that we work for. These new clauses, and the new clauses in general, seek to try and redress that balance and put things in the Bill that will make an impact in this country.

If we look at the amendment paper, new clauses 1 and 2 have very broad support across parties—all parties are represented there. It would be safe to say that all schools of thought politically, and certainly within women’s issues, are represented on the order paper as well. I will not make a judgement about who is the most left-wing or right-wing Member in this place, but we span the breadth. That is an interesting sign of the strength of feeling here; I hope that the Minister has taken this clear signal as to how strongly hon. Members feel about this issue, and how urgent the need is to act now, whether through these new clauses or an alternative—if the Minister has one up his sleeve. It is time for action on this.

These clauses deal with what I hesitate to call practices: I would not want to give them the legitimacy of saying that they are medical practices—they are practices of abuse. First, they deal with virginity testing: so-called examinations to establish if a woman has ever had sex before. Secondly, they deal with hymenoplasty: a so-called procedure to reattach tissue to recreate the hymen in a woman’s body. If those sound like grim processes, that is because they are exceptionally grim processes. They are practices of abuse.

Starting with new clause 1, in relation to so-called virginity testing; the Royal College of Midwives says,

“We are clear that virginity testing is a violation of women’s and girls’ human rights. In addition to being wholly indefensible and offensive, there is no medical benefit to virginity testing, and it is in any event not possible to conclude through an examination of the hymen whether or not a woman or girl is a virgin (even if such an examination was justifiable).”

Of course, I am sure we are all united in thinking that such examinations are not justifiable. This is also a global issue; the World Health Organisation is one of many who call the practice a violation of human rights, which can cause incredible harm to its victims, physically, psychologically and socially. I hope that we take the opportunity today to add it to the Bill so that it will be outlawed when this Bill has finished its journey. Perhaps we can make further commitments for it to be considered as what it actually is when the victim is under 18—child abuse.

There are other issues, of course, relating to this practice. Making it an offence alone is unlikely to eliminate it entirely; if someone is the type of person who is willing to find ways to inflict this sort of harm on another, they will likely seek other ways to do so. However, this will help us to build a more comprehensive response, and it would be a very strong first step in sending a clear message that this is unacceptable behaviour.

Turning to new clause 2 on hymenoplasty: according to the Royal College Obstetricians and Gynaecologists,

“There is no reason why either virginity testing or hymenoplasty, or any other procedure under a different name that seeks to reconstruct or repair the hymen, would need to be carried out for medical purposes. Both are harmful practices that create and exacerbate social, cultural and political beliefs that a women’s value is based on whether or not she is a virgin before marriage.”

Again, these are serious practices with no medical benefits; nor do they work in service of the goal that they are supposedly pursuing. I am conscious that, particularly with hymenoplasty, the scale of the issue is unclear, so once again, a wider response will be needed. However, I strongly share the views of the many groups who believe the Government are overcomplicating this issue. I know that the Government’s preferred course of action on hymenoplasty is to convene an expert panel. However, I have struggled to find—the Minister may have views on this—a likely participant in that panel; whether it is the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, or any third sector organisation that works in this space. Any of those bodies that are likely to be on that expert panel are already strongly of one voice—there is absolutely no disagreement between those experts. They all agree that such practices should be outlawed, particularly hymenoplasty, because there is no good reason for them. There is no medical benefit—hymenoplasty does not even fit its perceived purpose—but even if it did, it is an abusive practice against women, and that is all that matters. Women must have ownership of their own sexual and reproductive health and these amendments are an important part of ensuring that.

No doubt there will be, as an important part of the legislative process, questions about whether the Bill is the best way to do that. I think that all members of the Committee are only in service of a goal here, rather than in service of a particular clause in the Bill, so if there is a better way, we are all ears. However, I do not think that the substantive point—that it is time for action on this issue—is in dispute now. So I hope to hear from the Minister that the Government are ready to move on this issue-

Photo of Philippa Whitford Philippa Whitford Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Health and Social Care), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe) 10:00 am, 27th October 2021

I rise to support new clauses 1 and 2. Although this issue would be within the devolved space, as a doctor, I think that any practice that is in essence being called a medical practice but is not for the benefit of the patient is unjustifiable. I have to say, I think that extends to X-raying child refugees’ teeth or exposing their limbs to radiation for no clinical reason; I find that unjustifiable. The difference with what these two new clauses deal with is that both involve absolute violation of women and girls, and therefore they are way beyond what we would discuss in other spheres. Although these measures would not apply in Scotland, they are about things that are indefensible, as are other practices that we have heard about, such as female genital mutilation, and so on, which some have tried to disguise as cultural, religious or other practices. Therefore, I totally support the principle and the idea behind these new clauses.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

While, on occasion, there has not been unanimity in this House, I share the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North.

I am grateful, first to my hon. Friend Mr Holden for his private Member’s Bill on this issue, which originally raised it, and I am also grateful to the shadow Minister. I do not always say that about some of his amendments, but I am grateful to him and his colleagues for tabling this new clause, which gives us the opportunity to debate this issue in Committee. I am aware of the work that my hon. Friend has done to raise the issue and I know how strongly the shadow Minister feels about it as well.

First, I want to reassure the Committee that safeguarding vulnerable women and girls is a key priority for the Government, which is why on 21 July we announced our commitment to ban virginity testing in the Home Office-led tackling violence against women and girls strategy, so I think we are of one mind on the principle. I will talk a little bit about the mechanism, the drafting and similar, but it is fair to say that we are of one mind on the principle here. Such tests are, as the shadow Minister said, a violation of human rights and are clearly known to have an adverse and long-term impact on women and girls’ physical, psychological and social wellbeing.

New clause 1, which the shadow Minister tabled and spoke to, gets to the very heart of what we intend to do with regard to virginity testing: ban it. I wholly agree with the spirit of new clause 1; however, I fear that we cannot accept it as drafted. There are several reasons for that, which I will outline. Nevertheless, I hope that in my opening remarks I have reassured him that we are of one mind on this issue, and I will set out the next steps.

By way of further reassurance, may I also say to the Committee that the Government have clear plans to introduce our own legislation, at the appropriate moment and at the nearest opportunity, to criminalise virginity testing? There is work to be done on the drafting and, as the shadow Minister would expect, through discussions within Government. However, I can put on the record in this Committee that it is absolutely our intention to legislate in this space.

While the wording of that legislation will differ slightly from the wording of the new clause, I want to reassure the shadow Minister and other Members that the policy intent and policy outcome will be exactly aligned. Parliamentary drafting is not only an art but a significant skill, and a very technical one. Therefore, we are utilising the best drafting we have available to see how we might achieve the outcome in the appropriate way, subject to cross-Government approvals.

I will also say that the Government absolutely share the shadow Minister’s concerns about how virginity testing is essentially driven by a repressive approach to female sexuality and is a form of violence against women and girls that must be eradicated.

Our concerns about the drafting of the new clause include that it does not specify where in the United Kingdom the offence would apply. It is unclear whether the offence would apply in each of the four nations of the United Kingdom or in England only. That is a drafting technicality, but we think that clarity is important. We are in the process of seeking four-nation-wide agreement on virginity testing in each of the nations, and we are working through options on what that might look like, reflecting our shared view that virginity testing has no place in any part of our United Kingdom, and that the safety of women and girls is paramount wherever they are in the four nations.

Another concern about the drafting is the inclusion of defences. The new clause would provide that in certain circumstances, such as in the course of a surgical procedure undertaken by an appropriate medical professional, an offence would not be committed. The Department’s internal review of virginity testing and hymenoplasty found that virginity tests have no clinical or scientific merit, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North said. There is no reliable way to establish virginity, nor is there any clinical reason to know if a woman or girl is a virgin. As such, we are clear that there is no clinical reason for such an examination or operation to be carried out, and we therefore question the legitimacy of including such a defence in the new clause.

I have set out some of the key drafting challenges in the new clauses and I hope that I have given a flavour of the Government’s thinking. The drafting detail of our policy approach is being carefully considered, with the safety of vulnerable women and girls as our guiding principle. The hon. Gentleman may be reassured that the spirit and policy intention of the new clause will be reflected in future legislation as swiftly as we can draft it and secure agreement to bring it forward.

New clause 2, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham and supported by the hon. Member for Nottingham North, seeks to ban hymenoplasty in the United Kingdom. While the Government share the concerns underpinning the new clause—that hymenoplasty is driven by a repressive approach to female sexuality and closely associated with virginity testing, so it is right that we debate the new clauses together—we also have concerns about timing and process.

After the Department of Health and Social Care conducted an internal review of virginity testing and hymenoplasty, the Government announced in the tackling violence against women and girls strategy that they would convene an expert panel to explore the clinical and ethical aspects of the procedure in more detail. The Government’s primary concern after the initial review was that there was no clearly defined consensus on whether hymenoplasty should be banned. As a Minister, I will not go as far as the hon. Member for Nottingham North while a review has been commissioned, or comment on what that review might say in detail. Arguments have been made on both sides. The hon. Gentleman has a clear view, and he may suspect he knows what my view is, but it is right to allow the expert panel to do its work swiftly and clearly and to use it as our evidence base.

It is fair to say that the overwhelming majority of stakeholders are clear that hymenoplasty perpetuates harmful myths about virginity and could constitute a form of violence against women and girls. Concerns have been expressed about whether banning the procedure could push the practice underground. It is important that the expert panel bottoms out those arguments and gives us a clear basis for proceeding. My challenge with the new clause is simply a matter of timing: it is important that we have the report from the expert panel.

To ensure balance and impartiality, the expert panel is co-chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery and Dr Pallavi Latthe, both of whom are well respected in their areas of expertise. Both have extensive experience in this area of health ethics, and it is important that we let them do their work and then consider what they say. We will consider their recommendations as soon as they are brought forward, and I hope that will happen swiftly.

The recommendations will need to be fair, objective and based on evidence, so I hesitate to go beyond that in expressing a view on the substance of the new clause until I have that expert panel report before me. It will be presented for Ministers’ consideration, and I assure the hon. Gentleman—I can see where he might go with this—that the intention is to publish it before the Christmas recess. It is a swift piece of work. We will consider the report and, depending on its contents, bring forward legislation if or as appropriate, considering everything it contains in the context of vulnerable women and girls’ safety.

I hope that I have given the Committee a clear rationale for why, although we are entirely aligned on the new clause’s policy objectives and intent, there are a number of drafting and other factors that we need to work on a little. However, I am hopeful that in short order we will be able to bring forward legislation and clauses that will be satisfactory to both sides of the House.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care) 10:15 am, 27th October 2021

Let me come back briefly on a couple of issues. First, I am grateful for the contribution of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire and, in particular, her point about non-medical practices dressed up as medical practices. That is a particularly insidious way to inflict abuse on another person, and I completely agree with her that that is an absolute violation—it is as totemic as that.

We will all have taken great encouragement from the Minister’s response. I am grateful for that. I associate myself with the comments he made about the hon. Member for North West Durham—I should have said that in opening. Between us, we will ensure that he sees a copy of the proceedings, and he can take great encouragement from what the Minister said.

It was particularly welcome to hear that the Government intend to legislate in this space, with the intent for that to be at the earliest opportunity. That is good news, and the Opposition will support them in that process. I gently say—I know he enjoys these exchanges—that we are currently considering primary legislation, so this is definitely the earliest opportunity. If there are moments for the Government to revisit this issue on Report or in the other place, he will find colleagues very welcoming of that.

I do not want to shatter the consensus that has grown by dividing the Committee, so I do not intend to press either new clause to a Division. However, on new clause 2, we will look at what the expert panel says. I will be interested to see the divisions in opinion—I have not been able to find them. We look at these things on their merit, but the commitment to see the report before Christmas was welcome and will give great heart to campaigners in this space. The Opposition look forward to seeing the proposals and will be keen to support them if they can achieve the goals that we seek. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.