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Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament on 19th March 2020.

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Photo of Linda Fabiani Linda Fabiani Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-21279, in the name of Christina McKelvie, on the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill at stage 3.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

I am delighted to open this stage 3 debate on the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) bill. It is an important bill that will make a real difference to women and girls who are at risk of, or who have experienced, the abhorrent practice of FGM.

Although we have had some debate today on the provisions of the bill, there is broad consensus across the chamber that it is the right thing to do.

Like other forms of gender-based violence, FGM is a manifestation of power and a means of controlling the sexuality of women and girls. It is a form of violence against women and girls. As the minister with responsibility for the Scottish Government’s work in this area, I am committed to preventing FGM in Scotland and to ensuring that girls and women who are at risk of FGM are protected from harm. FGM has been illegal since 1985. The Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill seeks to add to existing protections and to improve the system response to women and girls who are at risk of harm.

It is estimated that around 200 million girls and women across 30 countries have been subject to FGM. The prevalence of FGM in Scotland is difficult to estimate because of the hidden nature of the crime. A Scottish Refugee Council report in 2014 found that there are communities that may be affected by FGM in every local authority area in Scotland, with the largest affected communities being in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Edinburgh and Dundee.

So, FGM is not a new issue and this Government has been taking action. In 2016 we published “Scotland’s National Action Plan to Prevent and Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)”. I pay tribute to my colleague Angela Constance, who started this journey. I am merely finishing her first steps. The purpose of the national action plan is to foster an environment of prevention in Scotland and to improve the welfare and quality of life of FGM survivors. We are taking steps to engage with communities, to raise awareness and to improve the response of front-line services.

The bill meets our commitment to strengthen legal protections for those who are at risk of FGM. The new protection order that it will make available means that our public services and our courts will be able to focus on the need to protect those persons at risk or those who have already suffered from FGM being carried out on them. Building on experience in other jurisdictions in the UK, and reflecting on the support in our consultation, this is an effective and proven approach to reducing risk to potential victims.

To support those new protection orders, the bill places a duty on ministers to issue statutory guidance on the protection orders, and also provides a power to issue guidance on FGM more generally. We intend to focus our efforts on ensuring that that guidance is developed with community input at every step, and that we are guided by what women and girls need from their public services. That is critical for me: the approach is “nothing about us without us.” I often use that term, and I mean it.

On that note, I thank those both within and outwith the chamber who have worked closely with the Government over the past 18 months to help get us to this point.

I thank the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, under the leadership of Ruth Maguire, which undertook significant detailed and thoughtful scrutiny. That included working closely with community members with lived experience to allow them to tell their stories. I know that every member of that committee was touched by the stories that they heard. They visited front-line services to understand how protecting women and girls from FGM happens on the ground and they took evidence from a range of experts and organisations. It was expert, detailed and valuable scrutiny. I commend the convener and members of the committee for their thoughtful and considered work, which has undoubtedly helped to ensure that we have the strongest possible legislation.

Above all, I thank those organisations and experts who have taken the time to share their deep expertise with me and with this Parliament. They included JustRight Scotland, Multi-Cultural Family Base, Shakti Women’s Aid, Saheliya, Community InfoSource, Amina Muslim Women’s Resource Centre, Kenyan Women in Scotland and Dundee International Women’s Centre, as well as Dr Ima Jackson, and Judy Wasige of Glasgow Caledonian University who work hard to ensure that the voices of women and girls are better heard in policy making.

I would especially like to thank Neneh Bojang, a courageous survivor of FGM and community activist, who stood with me outside Parliament less than a year ago as we launched the bill. She said at the time that if just one person did not have to experience what she had had to, the bill would be worth it.

I am confident that, if the Parliament votes to pass the bill today, we will be protecting more women and girls than we were yesterday and that we will be one step further towards our goal of ultimately preventing and eradicating female genital mutilation.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill be passed.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I remind those who are down to speak to press their request-to-speak buttons, please. We have a few minutes in hand, so if anyone wants to intervene, I can allow that.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

I am pleased to speak on behalf of the Scottish Conservatives as we bring proceedings on the bill to a close and, I hope, push it through Parliament at the end of the day.

I have spoken previously in this chamber about my experience as a nurse of having to hand over a baby who was being taken out of the country for the purposes of FGM. That has preyed on me for most of my life and, for that reason alone, I welcome the bill. I hope that it will prevent that from ever happening to anybody again.

The bill’s intentions are admirable, and it is a symbol of the things that this Parliament can achieve when all parties come together. However, the bill on its own will not be enough. It is important that awareness of the bill is raised, to ensure that it has effect. As Police Scotland remarked in its submission, for the

“broad spectrum of individuals or organisations ... it is imperative that clear guidance and processes must be put in place ... in order that any potential breach of the conditions is effectively policed.”

The same point applies to ensuring a strong level of communication with communities in which there have previously been cases of FGM. If people are to report the crime of FGM, it is vital that they understand the implications of the protection orders and where the law now stands on this issue. Without that key effort, all the legislation in the world will not have any effect in bringing more cases to court or ensuring that prosecutions are successful, or, perhaps more important, in preventing things from even getting to that stage in the first place. I know that the Scottish Government has been active on this issue through the group implementing the national action plan, but it is worth repeating that that is the only way in which we will succeed in eradicating this vile practice.

I want to mention the Scottish Conservatives’ amendments to the bill. The Conservatives have always been highly supportive of the bill, although, as my colleague Ruth Davidson just outlined, we had some concerns about the practical and technical considerations involved.

I pay tribute to my colleague Oliver Mundell, who sadly was not able to be here to speak to his amendments. He put in a lot of work in trying to represent the views and experiences of those who gave evidence, which of course they did very bravely, on a subject that is very difficult to talk about. He was very keen that those views should inform the bill and be incorporated into it, so that it would provide the kind of support that those people had asked for.

We accept, as Ruth Davidson said during discussion of the amendments, that the Government has implemented in principle the changes that we sought to make. Although the amended bill is not perfect, I am glad that it will provide for greater support than was originally planned.

At the end of the day, support and communication are key to the bill, if it is to be successful. I hope that the Government will expand its activities in this area so that it keeps pace with the requirements of the legislation. Not only do women who go through FGM need a vast amount of personal support, in terms of managing their lives, but, if we are going to take people to court and prosecute them as a result of the bill, those women will need an inordinate amount of support and protection so that they can continue to live in their communities.

I want to raise the subject of preventative offences. In its evidence to the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, Police Scotland said that there is

“a potential gap in the legislation” regarding

“additional ‘preventative offences’ ... where persons have in their possessions items indicative of intending to carry out FGM.”

Although I recognise that in some cases it may be hard to discern whether such items might be used to carry out FGM, particularly in ceremonies of a more ritualistic kind, that will probably make it clear that the potential offender intends to commit a crime, much as the carrying of drug paraphernalia suggests another type of behaviour.

It would be worth exploring those issues in the FGM guidance that will issued to the police, other organisations and the public, so that people can recognise equipment indicative of FGM whenever they see it, and understand that there are reporting mechanisms available. Whether a full provision was needed in the bill was, perhaps, a different question. However, until we have stronger data on the way in which FGM is conducted, it would probably have been unwise to include a potentially far-reaching amendment that could be liable to abuse.

In its briefing for today, the Law Society of Scotland asked how the bill’s success and effectiveness will be measured once it has been implemented, particularly given how low conviction rates have been in the past. A robust way of collecting that information will be useful not only to improve reporting procedures, but to demonstrate the bill’s efficacy. That will be an important consideration, and I urge the minister to look at that and report back to Parliament on it in due course.

The Scottish Conservatives are fully supportive of the bill, and we support the direction that has been taken by the Scottish Government. As my colleagues and I have said, this needs to be a strong, comprehensive piece of legislation that is supported by the right training and guidance, and it needs to have the resources to back that up. Ultimately, we must support the victims and those who are under threat from this terrible crime. Many of us have never experienced it ourselves or within our families, but it is absolutely life destroying for those who do.

I thank the Scottish Government for bringing the bill forward. I presume and hope that the bill will be passed tonight, and I hope that it will make a big difference to those women out there.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Before I call Pauline McNeill, I want to let Parliament know that we have fewer members wishing to speak than expected. Therefore, it is likely that decision time will be a bit earlier. I call Pauline McNeill.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I am delighted to speak for Scottish Labour.

I thank Oliver Mundell, Ruth Maguire, Mary Fee and the members of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee for being excellent parliamentarians, and for doing work that—although expected—is of high quality. I also want to record my thanks to Angela Constance for the work that she did in her previous ministerial role, and to Christina McKelvie, who has taken the bill through so ably.

Protection of women and girls is of universal concern. I have not been involved in the debate previously, but I have followed it from its outset. An estimated one in 20 girls and women in the world has undergone some form of FGM, according to figures from the United Nations. In 2020 alone, 4.1 million girls around the world are at risk of undergoing FGM. The UN is, rightly, calling for a complete ban on FGM and wants the practice to be ended worldwide by 2030. However, it strikes me that that is another 10 years of this brutal crime. I hope that the UN might be able to bring that date forward.

FGM is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of girls. FGM has absolutely no health benefits: rather, it harms girls and women, because it interferes with the natural functions of their bodies. There is a ban on it in Scotland, and it is also illegal to help someone to commit FGM or to take someone out of the country to undergo it. The legislation will be vital, because it will provide increased protections for girls who are at increased risk of being put under pressure to undergo the abhorrent and dangerous practice.

I have carefully followed the amendments this afternoon, as they were dealt with by the minister. The question of anonymity is an absolutely vital aspect of the legislation, because it protects women and girls from future harm. The bill will allow a court to make a protection order to protect a person who is at risk of being subjected to FGM. Labour is delighted to support the principles of the bill and will vote for it at stage 3.

Doctors in Scotland treated victims of FGM on more than 230 occasions during 2017 and 2018. NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde said that it had identified women with FGM on at least 138 occasions over that period. NHS Lothian, which covers Edinburgh, said that there were 93 occasions on which it was notified. It is quite shocking that we still face that in Scotland. Dr Duncan McCormick, who is a consultant in public health medicine at NHS Lothian, pointed out that

“It is a form of abuse and gender-based violence that has serious short and long term physical and psychological consequences”.

All FGM survivors have appalling stories and members have shared those horrible stories in Parliament. I will finish with one such story. Lesha said:

“I was sent to Guinea for the summer. I was mutilated along with my baby sister. She was 9, and I was 11. After the circumcision, I don't know what happened exactly, but she died. She was my best friend.

After the ritual, I was placed in a room with other girls, and men were not allowed to see us. I remember not seeing my family for days—I can't remember exactly how long.

When I finally returned home and saw my family, they were happy and proud. I was finally a woman.

Sex is painful, and I hate it. I hate being touched. It feels like rape every time. I cry inside, I cry out loud, and my husband does not care. It does not hurt him.

I had Type-3 FGM, and I was reopened after we were married.”

That kind of pain is typical for a survivor of FGM, and her story shows that some girls even die from the procedure.

I am delighted that the Scottish Government has accepted the recommendation of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee that

“statutory guidance should be supported by appropriate professional training”,

so that FGM protection orders are used appropriately and implemented effectively.

Michelle Ballantyne made an important point about the education that is required to accompany the protection order and the crime that we will now have in Scots law.

The enhanced protection will be vital in helping to protect vulnerable girls from the life-changing and life-threatening practice of FGM. I am delighted that Scottish Labour will vote for the bill at decision time.

FGM is a global issue; it is an issue all around the world. Scotland has done the right thing and we can say that we have done everything in our power to protect girls here. However, we know that we need to champion the issue around the globe.

Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

As deputy convener of the Equalities and Human Rights Committee, I offer my sincere thanks to the clerks, witnesses and organisations that took us through this sensitive and important bill.

The bill is a monument to the strength of our democracy. It comes in the teeth of the worst of international crises, but the business of public policy and Government must continue. It is an example of a bill that might affect only an extremely small number of our fellow citizens, but by their nature, they are a vulnerable few.

It is an indictment of our efforts to realise gender equality and the rights of women that we have to pass an act such as this in Scotland in 2020. The cultural practice of female genital mutilation typifies men’s attempts to exert power and control over women. It has occurred for aeons and it is time that we finally stamped it out. With the bill, we extend a layer of protection to many existing layers of protection, but it is a vital layer.

In the minister’s opening remarks, she was quite right to say that FGM is a hidden practice. However, that does not mean that it does not exist. We should not look at the culture in our country and think that we have got it right. Such acts of savagery or barbarism—I would like to withdraw that word; it is a terrible word to use—happen in our country, which is in no way appropriate. We have statistics on that. Globally, in any given year, 3 million girls are affected, and in Scotland each year, 350 baby girls are born to mothers from countries where female genital mutilation takes place and is the cultural norm.

The FGM protection order will provide the teeth of the legislation. In the words of Leethen Bartholomew from the National FGM Centre, it will give a woman

“the agency and the power not only to take a stance and protect herself but to also protect her child.” —[Official Report, Equalities and Human Rights Committee, 7 November 2019; c 7.]

Those words struck home with me as we heard them in evidence. We have heard several times in debates on the bill that the order will give agency and power to women. It will reverse what the practice of FGM has sought to do in the millennia in which it has been practiced, by giving women the power to defend themselves against the brutality of men.

Until this point in our history, there has been no real legal impediment to the practice of FGM. We have not been able to prevent babies or children from being taken overseas, or to prevent the practice from happening to them at home. It is such a hidden and sensitive practice that people go to great lengths to cover it up.

I welcome the distance that the Government has gone on anonymity, as I said during the debate on stage 3 amendments. It is vital that girls and young women in affected cultures are allowed anonymity when they come forward. By their nature, they are vulnerable. They might have a great sense of shame about putting their hands up and saying that they do not want FGM to happen to them, and they might fear being ostracised if their names become known in their wider communities. I think that we have reached the point at which the bill will protect such women.

Implementation of the bill will be critical, if we are to get the approach right; a bill is only as good as its implementation phase. I very much welcome the efforts that the Government is making to plan focus groups in affected communities in order to shape pathways and structures around the legislation.

I again thank everyone who participated in development of the bill—not least, Saheliya, for example, which is becoming more and more involved with Parliament’s work in helping us to help marginalised groups.

I commend the bill to Parliament.

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

I am pleased to close the stage 3 debate on the bill.

Alex Cole-Hamilton said that FGM is a hidden practice. However, we know that it happens and we should not think that it does not; we heard the stories from Michelle Ballantyne and Pauline McNeill. Michelle Ballantyne talked about having to hand back a baby girl who she knew was at risk. The bill will protect babies such as that, and it will protect professionals such as Michelle in their roles.

Pauline McNeill talked about that wee girl’s story. Some wee girls are taken to a birthday party or on an outing by an auntie or a granny, and they do not know what is coming. The practice might be hidden, but we know the stories and they are the reason why we are doing what we are doing.

In key parts of their speeches, members asked for more information. Michelle Ballantyne asked about data collection. We are taking the issue on board and I have committed to develop a data collection strand of work through the FGM national action plan work, in partnership with health and other relevant organisations.

Michelle Ballantyne also asked about FGM equipment. The issue was raised with me at the beginning of this process and we did some work with Police Scotland on the matter. We do not need a new offence, because the matter is already caught by the law: it will be an offence to attempt to break an FGM protection order, including by carrying equipment for FGM. Police Scotland has powers.

Photo of Michelle Ballantyne Michelle Ballantyne Conservative

May I ask for clarification on that? My understanding is that if someone is stopped and found to be in possession of equipment, they cannot be prosecuted for that. They have to have done something—may I just check that?

Photo of Christina McKelvie Christina McKelvie Scottish National Party

If the bill is passed today, given the purpose of an FGM protection order, if we know that a person is using the equipment to carry out or attempt to carry out FGM, they may be subject to a criminal conviction. We have that covered off. I hope that that reassures the member; we can talk more about it if she wants to do so.

Many members asked about guidance, and I want to reassure members about what we want to do in that regard. I draw members’ attention to “Scotland’s National Action Plan to Prevent and Eradicate Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)—Year Three Progress Report”. On page 12, we say:

“Both sets of guidance will set out the policy and legal context for work on FGM. The Guidance on Protection Orders will describe the order, set out roles and responsibilities and cover relevant matters such as application process, costs and access to legal aid”.

I want to say something about legal aid. At stage 2, the issue was raised and we considered how a person who is accessing an FGM protection order might be able to access legal aid. I inform members that I implemented the regulatory change to the legal aid list to ensure that FGM protection orders are covered, which means that people have access to legal aid.

The year 3 report goes on to say:

“The guidance on FGM generally will provide a comprehensive summary of the issues around FGM and set out actions for Chief Executives, Directors and senior managers to whom the guidance will apply. Both sets of guidance will be shaped through close community engagement and work with key stakeholders, utilising the expertise of members of the FGM National Implementation Group.”

That work will commence immediately following royal assent.

All today’s speakers have raised incredibly important issues about implementation. Following royal assent, the work will be complemented later in 2020 by the formal consultation on the draft guidance that will cover the FGM protection orders and FGM generally, should we have the space to do that, given the current climate that we are all facing right now.

It is our intention to do that formal consultation and to give stakeholders and parliamentarians another chance to voice their opinions, to ensure that the implementation of the orders and the guidance matches what we want to be done.

To assist with the effective operation of future statutory guidance on FGM, we will work with stakeholders to ensure that the core training adequately reflects the position on FGM, including the updated legislation. In progressing that work, we will engage with communities at the outset, to ensure that the guidance in particular reflects the needs of women and girls.

A question was asked about legal aid and whether that would usually be subject to the income of the parents. That would be the case only where it would not be unjust and inequitable to do so. Given that FGM protection orders would often—but not always—involve the consideration of restrictions on parents, we think it highly likely that such means testing would always be unjust and inequitable. In those circumstances, legal aid would be granted.

At stage 2, I indicated that I had instructed the preparation of the regulations because of the urgency of the matter. The regulations will proceed as part of the bill’s implementation process.

It is vital to emphasise that the bill is one part of our overall holistic approach to preventing and eradicating FGM. I know that everyone who spoke wanted to make sure that we take that approach. Michelle Ballantyne in particular said that legislation is not enough. We know that. We can use the legislation to prevent FGM and to protect women and girls, but culture change, understanding, support and working with stakeholders and communities are the main ways by which we want to protect women and girls. We have been doing that through our national implementation and action plan, and we want to make sure that we continue that work.

Last month, we published our year three progress report on our action plan to prevent and eradicate FGM. I am pleased to highlight that we are making good progress. I hope that people will take a look at the report—it makes for good reading and shows us all the direction that we want to go in.

I pay tribute to and recognise the hard work and dedication of our third sector partners in helping to drive that progress. Those organisations are doing vital work to raise awareness, challenge attitudes and support women and girls, and, alongside the legislative measures that we will take, will make the change that we all want.

I commend front-line workers—in the police and the health and social work sectors—who are all supporting women and girls. We will continue to work together with stakeholders and communities in making every effort to build a Scotland where women and girls at risk of harm can be equally safe. That means that wee girl who Pauline McNeill spoke about; it means that baby who Michelle Ballantyne spoke about. That is who all this is about.

As I have said, abhorrent gender-based violence has impacted on nearly 200 million women and girls worldwide. We know that there are those in Scotland who have been subject to it and that there are those who are at risk of it.

One of the things that I want to do in issuing statutory guidance to bodies is to make sure that a person-centred approach is at the heart of everything that we do. As a Government and as a Parliament we must send a very strong message that FGM in Scotland will not be tolerated; that women and girls will be believed; that they will be supported; that they will be listened to; and that we will look after and protect them.

We need to take practical action to build on existing protections, so that the risk of FGM taking place at all is reduced. The Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill does that. In future, girls and women can be better protected from harm and, importantly, FGM protection orders can be used to stop potential perpetrators of FGM in their tracks.

I launched the bill outside the Parliament, just short of a year ago, with a woman called Neneh Bojang. If you have not heard her story—actually, you do not want to hear it, because it is absolutely horrifying. At every step of the way in my work on the bill, I have had her front and foremost in my mind—like Michelle Ballantyne with that baby, like Pauline McNeill with that wee girl, and like the conversation that I had with John Finnie about the parties that wee girls sometimes think they are going to, and how abhorrent that is. Those are the people at the front of our minds; they are our Scottish citizens; they are our wee girls. The bill that we have passed into law today will protect them all.

Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

That concludes our stage 3 debate on the Female Genital Mutilation (Protection and Guidance) (Scotland) Bill.