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House of Commons

Friday 21 March 2003

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Sir Michael Lord in the Chair]

The House being met, and the Speaker having leave of absence pursuant to paragraph (3) of Standing Order No. 3 (Deputy Speaker), Sir Michael Lord, The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, proceeded to the Table.


St. Bartholomew's Hospital

9.34 am

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): I should like to present a petition on behalf of more than 21,600 residents and members of the work force in the City of London. It states:

To lie upon the Table.


Fire Services

Mr. Secretary Prescott, supported by the Prime Minister, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Mr. Secretary Blunkett, Mr. Secretary Darling, Mr. Secretary Murphy, Mr. Secretary Hoon, Ms Secretary Hewitt, Secretary Peter Hain, Mr. Nick Raynsford and Mr. Christopher Leslie, presented a Bill to confer power on the Secretary of State to set or modify the conditions of service of members of fire brigades and to give directions to fire authorities: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Monday 24 March, and to be printed. Explanatory notes to be printed. [Bill 81].

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Orders of the Day

Female Genital Mutilation Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

9.35 am

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this important Bill. Its main purpose is to extend the scope of the law prohibiting female genital mutilation—FGM. It will prevent parents from taking their daughters abroad to have the procedure performed. It is about protecting the human rights of women, which is a strong reason for my choice of this Bill over the many hundreds of others that were suggested to me. I am pleased that the Bill is being strongly backed by the Home Secretary.

Female genital mutilation has been explicitly illegal in this country since 1985, when the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was passed. However, in some communities in the UK, as well as abroad, the practice is still accepted and even condoned. Its victims are often young and vulnerable. They suffer enormous physical and psychological harm throughout their lives, yet they suffer in silence. Offences are rarely reported to, or acted on, by the authorities.

FGM is not reported for many reasons, including ignorance, fear or community or cultural pressure to remain silent. Although we understand that and we sympathise, we cannot condone it. We cannot allow the situation to continue. We should be failing our children, our young women and our communities if we did so.

We need to send a strong message that the practice of FGM is wholly unacceptable. We cannot leave the matter to be decided by personal preference, culture or custom. FGM is harmful. I hope that the Bill will send that message very powerfully indeed. The Bill is just a starting point. There is much to be done to educate communities and to provide women with the support that they need to oppose this barbaric practice openly. All that is beyond the scope of the Bill.

The Bill makes it clear that we will not condone those who want to take their daughters abroad so as to evade UK law. To reflect the harm that we think results from the procedure, the Bill will increase the maximum penalty from five to 14 years.

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I agree with almost everything that the hon. Lady has said, but can she explain how increased prison terms will have any effect if people are not prosecuted, as is currently the case?

Ann Clwyd: I should have liked the hon. Gentleman to hear more of my speech. He will see what we have in mind as it develops. There have been no prosecutions in this country and that is deplorable, but we need to send a strong message about the penalties that can be imposed if there is a successful prosecution.

FGM is the collective term for a range of procedures involving partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs, for cultural or other non-therapeutic reasons. It can

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have devastating and harmful consequences for a woman throughout her life. The health problems experienced vary depending on circumstances. Sometimes, the procedure is performed in unsanitary conditions, which lead to infection and other complications. Sometimes the girl resists, which, unfortunately, increases the likelihood that she will be harmed.

In those parts of the world where FGM is the norm, it is usually performed by traditional "circumcisers" in unsanitary conditions, and with non-sterile equipment. It might be carried out with crude instruments such as kitchen knives, razor blades or broken glass. In some areas, it is carried out by professionals in hospitals, but most international organisations—including the World Health Organisation and the British Medical Association—agree that health professionals should not carry out FGM. It is slightly safer for the procedure to be carried out in that way, but that does not prevent the harmful consequences that can ensue. Some time ago, the Select Committee on International Development produced a report on women and development. The report considered this issue closely, and we took evidence from a number of people.

Longer-term consequences can be particularly severe, and there can be associated difficulties in pregnancy and in childbirth. Women who have been mutilated are twice as likely to die in childbirth, and three or four times as likely to have a stillborn child. This is a frightening statistic. Estimates suggest that between 130 million and 150 million women and girls have undergone FGM worldwide. It is reportedly practised in 28 African countries, as well as by some ethnic groups in the Arabian peninsula, the Persian gulf and south-west Asia. It has also been reported in immigrant populations in Europe, Australia, New Zealand and north America.

However, FGM is no longer confined to Africa, parts of Arabia and south-east Asia, where it is practised as the norm. The general movement of people and ease of travel have led to people from these areas moving to western countries. Ongoing wars and civil unrest, especially in the horn of Africa, where the practice is endemic, mean that there will be a continuing exodus of people to other parts of the world, especially Europe, the USA and Australia. These people bring their customs and practices with them—including FGM.

Accurate information about the extent to which FGM is practised in this country is difficult to come by. The most accurate view is probably that of the Foundation for Women's Health, Research and Development—Forward—which estimates that there are 74,000 first-generation African immigrant women in the UK who have undergone FGM, and as many as 7,000 girls under 16 within the practising communities who are at risk from FGM. This estimate is based on the number of immigrants and refugees settled in the UK from countries, mainly in the horn of Africa, where FGM is endemic. There are substantial populations from these countries in London, Liverpool, Birmingham Sheffield and Cardiff. In the familiar pattern of first-generation immigrants, they tend to settle together in these inner cities.

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The origins of FGM are not known. It is an age-old practice that is deeply steeped in the culture of the practising communities. Reasons for maintaining it include purification, family honour, hygiene, aesthetic reasons, protection of virginity and prevention of promiscuity, enhancing fertility, decreasing the sexual desire of women, acceptance by the community, and increasing matrimonial opportunities. However, although it is performed by many different religious groups, including Muslims, Christians and Jews—and by non-believers—FGM is not a religious practice, as some claim. Leaders of all the main faiths, I am glad to say, have spoken out against it.

The age at which FGM is undertaken varies. It is usually performed on girls between the age of four and 10, but in some cultures it is practised as early as a few days after birth, or as late as immediately before marriage, during pregnancy or after the first birth. Support for the eradication of FGM is international, and is being pursued at all levels by organisations such as the World Health Organisation. The practice is now widely perceived as a form of child abuse, although the members of those communities that practise it genuinely believe that it is in their child's best interest, and do not intend it as a deliberate act of abuse.

Concern is occasionally expressed that in acting against FGM we are seeking to impose liberal western values on FGM-practising communities, and that we should be more culturally sensitive. Indeed, I remember that, when the Select Committee on International Development took evidence, my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge) took issue with Germaine Greer, who thought that we should leave the culture alone. My hon. Friend had some very strong things to say about that.

FGM is in no way like male circumcision. It is much more harmful, and there is no medical justification for it. Respect for other cultures does not mean that we should ignore practices that are so harmful, and that violate the most basic human rights: the right of women not to be discriminated against because of their gender, under the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women; and, in particular, the right of the child to enjoy their childhood, and to the

as laid down in article 24 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child.

FGM was probably never legal in this country, because it almost certainly constitutes an offence against the person. However, in order to remove any ambiguity that may have existed in law, it was decided to make the practice explicitly illegal. The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act was the result of a private Member's Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe), and I congratulate her on that. It was supported by the Government of the day, and the Bill before us follows in this tradition. It will strengthen and extend the protections then put in place.

Legal protection against FGM is also provided by the Children Act 1989. If a local authority has reason to believe that a child is likely to suffer significant harm, it is obliged to make such inquiries as it considers necessary to enable it to decide whether it should take action to safeguard or to promote the child's welfare. Under the 1989 Act, a prohibited steps order can also be

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made to prevent parents from carrying out a particular act without the consent of the court. So the court could, even now, take steps to prevent the removal of a child from the UK so that mutilation might be carried out abroad.

As I have said, to date, there have been no prosecutions under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act. That could be, at least in part, because people who practise FGM tend to live in closed communities, and because many of the victims are so young and vulnerable that offences are not reported to the police. I hope that the strong message sent out by this Bill and the unanimity of community leaders on this issue will, in themselves, help to encourage communities to stamp out this hidden abuse. However, the lack of prosecutions may also be because our current law can be evaded. The fact that people can—indeed, evidence suggests that they do—circumvent the 1985 Act by taking young girls abroad for FGM, has been seen for some time as a loophole in law.

In November 2000, the all-party parliamentary group on population, development and reproductive health issued a report on its survey of, and hearings on, FGM, which were carried out earlier that year. The purpose of the hearings was to raise awareness of FGM, and to generate support for prevention and eradication programmes. The group was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), who has a long-standing interest in this subject, and who has put a great deal of effort into trying to get the law changed. She was supported by a very distinguished panel of people.

The all-party group made several recommendations for changes to existing legislation. Those included substituting the term "genital mutilation" for "circumcision" in the legislation; ensuring that UK residents who take girls abroad for FGM, even to countries where the practice is lawful, can be prosecuted on their return to the UK; and increasing the maximum penalty for FGM. I am pleased to say that the Bill will give effect to all those recommendations.

First, the Bill will repeal and re-enact the 1985 Act. The short title of the Bill describes more accurately the prohibited acts and removes any suggestion of acceptability that the word "circumcision" might imply. Secondly, and more importantly, the Bill gives extra-territorial effect to the existing provisions. That means that any of the prohibited acts done outside the UK by a UK national or permanent UK resident will be an offence under domestic law and triable in the courts of England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Permanent UK residents are people who ordinarily live in this country without being subject under the immigration laws to any restriction on the period for which they may remain. The Bill will therefore catch those with a substantial connection to the UK, but not those who are here temporarily, for example, foreign students or visitors.

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