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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1199—continued

10.27 am

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I will try to be brief but I want to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on introducing this Bill because it is exceptionally important. I would also like to put on record my congratulations to the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe). Fifteen years ago, this subject was really unknown and it is a testament to the work that she did that we are here today in an atmosphere of much less opposition to bringing the measures forward.

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Liberal Democrats support this Bill. I welcome especially the change in the name of the legislation from female circumcision to female genital mutilation. Some people are unhappy with the term FGM because they think that it is over-emotive—I do not think that it is. The word "circumcision" seems to give a medical respectability to the issue—although my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Dr. Tonge), who feels very strongly about the issue, would disagree with me on that point. I think that the word "mutilation" sums things up very well.

It is very important to extend the measures in the original Bill so that people who take children out of the UK for FGM are subject to that legislation. I welcome the fact that the crime is now regarded as more serious. It is a great disappointment that there have been no prosecutions but, if we can keep on raising awareness, I hope that the heavier penalty, combined with that greater awareness, will lead to a reduction in the problem. I also welcome the inclusion of UK residents as well as nationals in the legislation. I share the view of the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) that we have to find a way of including people who are in this country temporarily.

However, there are a number of problems with the Bill that will require further discussion on Second Reading. It is interesting to note that the two male Members who have spoken in this debate have hinted at something regarding older women, but not quite said it. What they may have been referring to, but could not bring themselves to talk about, was the subject of a programme that I recently saw on television called "Designer Vaginas". It was eye-opening—and eye-watering. It illustrated the fact that an increasing body of women in this country are going abroad to have cosmetic surgery to the vaginal area.

If we think back for a moment to female genital mutilation, this really is a problem of the subjugation of women by men; 'twas ever so. Men wanted to cut bits of female genitalia away so that women would not stray because they did not enjoy sex too much; it kept women in their place. How much of the move towards the designer vagina comes from women? In the media—the magazines and films that pander to the male taste—there is an image of a fairly follically challenged female with a certain style, and women think that there is something wrong with them if they do not look like something out of Playboy. That is obviously rubbish and we should get the message across that women are okay as they are, thank you very much, and do not need to mess about with themselves in that way.

That observation brings me to an important point, because my understanding of the Bill is that it will make cosmetic surgery to the vaginal area illegal. I have no problem with that, but the issue should definitely be explored in Committee. It is regarded as a choice issue. I do not think that we should make any exceptions for white women expressing a choice for fashion reasons, when we are stopping black women, who may have no choice, perhaps because they are children, from having surgery. We must ensure that no distinction is drawn between these two practices, and it should all be part of the same message. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on whether women undergoing surgery in those circumstances, where there is no medical need, would be covered by the Bill; I believe that they should be.

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FGM is a large-scale problem. The figure of 3,500 has been mentioned, but I have seen work that says that, every year, as many as 7,000 girls under the age of 16 may be at risk of undergoing FGM. We must find a way of targeting those communities at risk. Very few charities are working at the grass roots; I am only aware of four: Rainbo; Forward, which has only two members of staff; the Agency for Culture and Change Management and the London Black Women's Health and Family Support Organisation, which is also suffering from lack of funding. Their work is highly regarded. Change can be achieved only by work in the community. I think that it was the hon. Member for Broxbourne who said that we must ensure that health visitors, school nurses, even teachers, are familiar with the problem, because often a teacher may be the first to become aware of the problem when she realises that a girl is off physical education lessons for a few weeks after a holiday abroad. We must find a way of handling the issue sensitively but, more important, raising awareness so that children are not mutilated in that way in the first place.

Sarah McCulloch, National Director of the Agency for Culture and Change Management, has argued:

Much has been said about human rights today, but although those are very important, we must also stress the health benefits of not having FGM done. Relevant figures have been mentioned; I will not repeat them, but the health message must be the predominant one, because at the moment this procedure subjects women to increased morbidity in later life.

I support the Bill. There are some reservations about things that could be reviewed in Committee, but on balance, I am delighted that the legislation is before us today.

10.34 am

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley): I have been told that I have two or three minutes, so I simply want to place on record my support for my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) and her Bill. Cultural difference must never be accepted as an excuse for the denial of the human rights of vulnerable people, whether we are talking about FGM, forced marriages or honour killings.

We should also be looking in Committee towards an educational programme in schools where there are children who are perceived to be at risk of FGM. There could be problems there. When I tried to visit schools and talk about the problems of forced marriages, I was not allowed to do so because a majority of the governors were either parents or politically correct people who agreed with parents. I got into one school but was not allowed into two others.

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I am a member of the Council of Europe equal opportunities committee, and two years ago in Paris we held a hearing on this subject. It was the most squirm-making meeting that I have ever attended; it was hideous. Victims, doctors, gynaecologists and social workers were there. It was the first time that I was aware of the horror of FGM.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty) that, on some issues, perhaps we should not be put off by charges of cultural insensitivity. Sometimes I feel as though I want to rejoice in cultural insensitivity, especially when it is about FGM and forced marriages, since, as my hon. Friend says, cultural differences can only be sacrosanct when they respect human rights.

10.36 am

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I welcome the opportunity to debate this important issue in the House this morning. I offer my personal and my party's congratulations to the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) on her choice of subject for the Bill. I also recognise the sensitivity of the issue, given that we are talking about some deeply held, traditional cultural practices, which affect some of the most vulnerable groups in society, but I commend the way in which the hon. Lady has approached this subject over many years. Standing here at the Dispatch Box, I feel that I have been here before in other debates on women's issues with the women in the Chamber. I hope that the Bill makes progress today.

I take this chance to acknowledge the work of colleagues from all parties on the all-party parliamentary group on population development and reproductive health, under the formidable chairmanship of the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), who has spoken again with fluency this morning. The group has been very active over the past few years in lobbying and drawing attention to the issue of FGM. I also pay tribute to the commitment of some of our Conservative colleagues in that group: my hon. Friends the Members for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing), who make a great contribution as well.

The hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer), who spoke so briefly—I wish that she had spoken for longer—is a well-known champion against forced marriages and I join her in that campaign. I wish her more power and more access to the communities where she can convey her message.

Lastly, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) is second to none in her contribution to this debate and to stopping the abhorrent practice of FGM. She has made a unique contribution over many years and continues to spread the message at home and abroad about this utterly dreadful procedure.

I think that we are all in agreement that FGM is a serious problem, demanding an effective multi-agency response. All forms of FGM are mutilating and carry serious health risks. However, the immediate and long-term health consequences of FGM vary according to the type and severity of the procedure performed. The immediate and short-term health implications include severe pain and shock, tetanus and other infections,

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extensive damage to the external reproductive system, vaginal and pelvic infections, and even immediate fatal haemorrhaging. Last but not least, there may be psychological damage. As we have heard, FGM can also cause complications later on in pregnancy and childbirth, including an increased risk of stillbirth or haemorrhaging from internal tearing. It doubles the risk of the mother's death in childbirth and increases by three or four times the risk of the child being stillborn.

The roots of FGM are complex and numerous; indeed, it has not been possible to determine when or where the tradition originated. However, I agree with earlier speakers that it is not, as is sometimes stated, an Islamic issue. The practice of FGM crosses religious, ethnic and cultural lines. In cultures where it is an accepted norm, it is practised by followers of all religious beliefs, as well as by animists and non-believers.

FGM is carried out for sociological reasons, such as initiating girls into womanhood in their society, and sometimes for misguided religious reasons. It is carried out for dangerously misunderstood hygiene and aesthetic reasons, and to lower female sexual desire, to maintain chastity and virginity before marriage and to increase male sexual pleasure. Ironically, it may also be believed to enhance fertility and chances of child survival, which is certainly not the case. What is clear is that those varied reasons stem from traditional power inequalities and the ensuring compliance of women to the dictates of their communities.

We have all heard about the excellent work in this area of NGOs, charities and even magazines, but the issue is about the beliefs and position of women in society, and it is about the expectations, and often the role, of men. It is often about sheer ignorance, particularly of the dangers of the practice. I, too, was moved by the words of the Senegalese village leader who addressed the all-party parliamentary group. He said:

Above all, however, this issue is about children. FGM, with its serious and sometimes devastating consequences, is carried out on children from when they are only a few days old into adolescence. Girls aged between five and 10 are particularly at risk from that damaging mutilation, which is performed for cultural reasons that they cannot yet understand. Like the hon. Member for Calder Valley, I was impressed by the French advocate who said in her evidence to the all-party group:

There lies the heart of the argument, and some uncertainty.

FGM is child abuse, and as such requires carefully planned and sensitive interventions into the family situation. Health practitioners and the organisation Forward, which has been mentioned, do valuable work in campaigning against that practice among African communities in Britain. However, they believe that FGM is a significant and growing problem in the United Kingdom, and we will fail to tackle it unless we ensure that agencies are equipped to deal with it.

I was alarmed to read the evidence given to the all-party group by Dr. Faith Mwaangi-Powell of Forward, in which she said:

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the social worker—

We must ensure that our agencies are equipped to deal with the problem here in our own backyard.

In 1985, Parliament legislated to outlaw FGM. Under that Act, it is an offence to carry out FGM or to aid, abet, counsel or procure the performance of FGM by another person. The offence carries a maximum penalty of five years' imprisonment. The only exceptions are cases in which a surgical operation is necessary for the physical or mental health of the person on which it is performed, and cases in which such surgery is performed on a person who is in any stage of labour or has just given birth, and it is performed for purposes connected with that labour or birth. Those exceptions are valid only when the procedures are carried out by an appropriately registered medical practitioner.

As several Members have said, however, to date there have been no prosecutions under the 1985 Act. France has the best record, with between 20 and 25 prosecutions having been undertaken. There, notably, children at risk are checked out at school for evidence of FGM. We should consider adding such a provision to the Bill, if possible. In this country, two doctors have been struck off for serious professional misconduct in carrying out, or offering to carry out, FGM. As has been said, the lack of prosecutions here is largely because people under pressure from their family or community are reluctant to give evidence.

The first question that we must ask is whether the Bill will increase the likelihood of successful prosecutions for FGM in Britain. I am afraid that on that point I remain unconvinced. There are already great difficulties in communicating the law to immigrant communities, and there are further difficulties in taking action to protect girls from this practice. An increase in the maximum penalty is likely to be academic if knowledge of the offence is poor and prosecution remains almost impossible.

That is why any legislation on this issue must be accompanied by work with communities to explain the law and address their knowledge and beliefs. If the Government want to strengthen provisions against people who carry out FGM, they must also ensure that community-based local strategies provide education and support. Several grassroots community organisations and interest groups, such as Forward, which has often been mentioned, are best placed to deliver those strategies. I call on the Minister to pledge his support for those organisations and to reaffirm the need to address underlying cultural attitudes if the law is to have a role in promoting change.

The Bill also seeks to address the issue of UK-based families organising to send girls abroad so that FGM can be performed on them. Under the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998 it is an offence for parents to take their daughters abroad to have them mutilated if FGM is also an offence in the country to which they are travelling. However, the Act is of no use in cases where FGM is not illegal in the destination country.

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Today, we are debating measures that will introduce a new offence of assisting a non-UK person to mutilate a girl's genitalia overseas. That is intended to cover the situation where a family resident in the UK arranges for a girl to be taken overseas to have FGM performed. However, it applies only where the girl concerned is a UK national or permanent resident. Forward has pointed out that it does not cover those who are newly arrived in Britain, which includes many of those at most risk. That will give rise to a fundamental inequality in the rights and protections of African girls in Britain, with one rule for those who have gained UK nationality and another for those waiting for immigration decisions. Forward wants the Bill to be amended so that it offers protection to all girls, irrespective of nationality, as has been done in other countries, such as Norway, as I am sure that the Minister is aware.

It is important to note what is not covered by the Bill. It does not require health professionals and other relevant authorities to report incidences of FGM. It does not touch on Department of Health issues such as ensuring that all medical personnel are trained in cultural sensitivity and how to meet the needs of women who have undergone FGM. It does not cover the practicalities and difficulties in social services taking action under the Children Act 1989 or child protection procedures, which I know is a big issue. I mention all those areas because they were raised in the recommendations made by the all-party group in its report of November 2000.

I welcome the Bill. It is a valuable opportunity to improve the protection of girls and women in the UK from FGM. It is a welcome reflection of the importance of this issue and the seriousness with which it deserves to be treated. However, further reflections and concerns need to be addressed in Committee to ensure that the Bill offers the best possible way of tackling the issue. I hope that the Government will assist its passage, and not block it at any later stages. I wish the Bill well, as I believe that it will improve the condition of women and halt an abhorrent practice.

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