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

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 19th March 2020.

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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.