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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1205—continued

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn): First, I join the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) not only on her success in the ballot, but, much more importantly, on choosing to give priority to this very important measure. I also congratulate her on the powerful case that she put for the Bill in her opening remarks. As she rightly says, FGM is a brutal practice that is illegal in this country, thanks to the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, which was promoted—indeed, pioneered—by the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mrs. Roe) and supported by my hon. Friend, among others, at that time.

I also join other hon. Members in paying tribute to the all-party group on population, development and reproductive health and my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), who has played such an important role in the work of that organisation. Like

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other hon. Members, I learned a great deal from reading the report published as a result of the hearings that were undertaken in 2000.

The Government condemn this practice and want to see it eradicated both here and abroad. That is why we warmly welcome the Bill. Indeed, the Home Secretary has said this morning that we would have wished to bring forward Government legislation if this private Member's Bill had not been tabled. That indicates the Government's commitment to the issue.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley has said, the extent to which FGM is practised in this country is not known. People who practice it tend to live in closed communities and offences are rarely reported to the authorities. However, in theory, all young girls in the practising communities in this country are at risk of FGM. That is why it is vital that the law should protect them.

The Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985 was an important and welcome step in the fight against FGM, as it made it clear that the practice would not be tolerated in this country. However, as we now know, particularly because of the work of the all-party group and others, the law needs to go further because evidence suggests that parents in some communities are evading the 1985 Act, by taking their daughters abroad for FGM.

Indeed, last year, the Agency for Culture and Change Management in Sheffield—one of the groups, as we have heard, that is working very hard to eliminate the practice—informed the Home Secretary that it had received increasing numbers of reports of families planning visits to their countries of origin, with the intention of having FGM carried out on their daughters. That is why the Bill is so important: it will assist in dealing with that by making it an offence for United Kingdom nationals and permanent UK residents to aid and abet FGM undertaken outside the UK by anyone, including foreign nationals, although the offence will be limited sometimes to cases where the victim is a UK national or permanent UK resident.

Hon. Members will want to recognise the fact that the Bill represents a significant extension of the present law because it will go a step beyond the current established international practice that dual criminality is normally needed—namely, the practice needs to be an offence in both countries to apply extra-territoriality—but I am very pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley has chosen to do so because of the nature of that abhorrent practice.

We all recognise—we have heard so this morning—that FGM is deeply steeped in the culture and tradition of those communities that practise it. We are not in the business of preaching and imposing our culture on others, but we must be absolutely clear in setting values that are built on justice, equality of the sexes and human rights. We regard the genital mutilation of any girl or female infant as unacceptable, regardless of her ethnic origin.

Of course, as we have touched on during the debate, a degree of sensitivity is needed in efforts to educate about the practice, but we cannot ignore the basic truth that it is unacceptable and wrong. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr.

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O'Brien), when a Home Office Minister, said in the context of forced marriage, which is another unacceptable practice, that cultural sensitivity should not be an excuse for moral blindness. That applies equally to FGM. That gives me the chance to pay tribute to the work done on this issue by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer).

The straight truth is that we would not tolerate our daughters being mutilated in that way, so we should not tolerate anyone else's daughter being forced to undergo that brutal practice. The hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) was absolutely right to talk about the importance of terminology. The Bill describes the practice for what it is, and I am sure that the House will welcome that.

The Government agree with all those hon. Members who have made the point that female genital mutilation is not associated with any particular religion or ethnic group. We recognise instead that such mutilation affects some people in certain communities. It is not called for by any religious scripture, and there is now widespread support among religious and community leaders in the campaign to prevent it from taking place.

It may be helpful if I say that, in the Government's view, the Bill is compatible with the European convention on human rights. Assuming that article 8—on private and family life—is engaged, any interference with the right would be justified by article 8.2, as it would be proportionate to the aims of protecting health and the rights and freedoms of others.

As many hon. Members have said, legislation alone cannot eradicate the practice—it sends a message, marks our abhorrence and creates a penalty—but FGM will be eradicated only if we change the way that people think about it. That needs a continuous programme of education.

The Department of Health helps to fund the voluntary organisation, Forward, of which we have heard so much. Of course, Forward provides information and advice to health, education, child protection and social services professionals. The current core grant funding for Forward is £40,000 in each of the three years to 2004–05, which is an increase on the £25,000 in previous years. It will receive £25,000 for each of the next three years for its "positive partnership with communities" project. Among other things, that project

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will seek to collect data on the extent of FGM—a point made by the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan).

The Home Office has also recently agreed to provide funding for the Agency for Culture and Change Management, of which we have also heard a great deal, as it takes forward its work to combat FGM.

The opposition to FGM also has the support of the medical community. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to the two doctors who were struck off, which shows that that concern is being taken seriously.

I want to refer to the work that we are doing internationally, because it is not enough just to act at home, and the hon. Member for Broxbourne and my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley referred to that. That is why the Department for International Development has been so involved in work to reduce the incidence and consequences of FGM. Since 1997, we have committed more than £1.2 million specifically to that work because the more that we can empower and encourage women in their own countries to change the practice and other people's attitudes towards it, the more successful we will be.

In conclusion, the Bill is a welcome and necessary part of the wider campaign to eradicate FGM in this country and abroad. The Government support it unreservedly, and I commend it to the House.

10.58 am

Ann Clwyd: With the leave of the House, I wish to say that I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister, the Home Secretary and all his officials for all the encouragement that they have given me in introducing the Bill. I thank all colleagues who have spoken so eloquently today, particularly for telling us about their own experiences in certain countries and for giving examples of people who have given testimony to several committees. I also thank all the non-governmental organisations that have given us very valuable evidence. Female genital mutilation is a barbaric practice. It cannot be supported on cultural, medical or any other grounds, and we have sent out a very strong message from the House of Commons today.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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11 am

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement about military action in Iraq.

British forces have been heavily engaged in maritime, land and air operations overnight. Those operations are continuing, and I know the House will understand why I cannot give all the details at this stage.

I regret that I have to confirm that a United States CH-46 helicopter carrying British and United States personnel crashed in Kuwait, close to the border with Iraq. There were a number of fatalities. A recovery team is at the site of the crash. Our urgent priority is to confirm the identities of those who died and notify the next of kin at the earliest opportunity. The cause of the incident is being investigated, but I can assure the House that it was not the result of enemy action. I recognise that this will be of little comfort to the families of those killed. I hope that the House will understand why we will not issue further details until next of kin have been informed.

That helicopter was engaged in an operation led by 3 Commando Brigade on the al-Faw peninsula in south-eastern Iraq. It began with an assault on the southern tip of the peninsula, using support helicopters from Kuwait and from the Amphibious Task Group in the north Arabian Gulf. The tip of the peninsula was secured as planned by 40 Commando Royal Marines, and without damage to the oil infrastructure, averting any attempt by the regime to cause an environmental disaster in the Gulf. Some resistance, including the use of mortars and artillery, has been encountered, and there was a small-scale engagement with individual Iraqi troops resulting in four known Iraqi fatalities.

Importantly, most of the oil infrastructure on the peninsula has been secured intact. I can, however, confirm reports that the Iraqi regime has set fire to a number of oil wells. Our latest information is that up to 30 oil wells are alight, among hundreds in southern Iraq. A primary aim of our current operations is to prevent further opportunities for such deliberate destruction, and to enable remedial action to be taken as soon as is practical. The security of Iraq's oil infrastructure will, of course, be a key factor in enabling the Iraqi people to rebuild their country.

At 0430 hours this morning, coalition ground forces including elements under the command of 3 Commando Brigade commenced an operation to seize the port of Umm Qasr and a nearby naval base. In addition, this morning, 42 Commando were deployed by British aircraft to a blocking position north of al-Faw. Throughout that operation, Royal Navy ships including HMS Chatham and Marlborough provided naval gunfire support to 3 Commando Brigade. Umm Qasr, which is roughly equivalent in size to Southampton, will be vital to the economic future of southern Iraq. Royal Navy mine countermeasures vessels are on stand-by to conduct mine clearance operations to provide a secure shipping route into the port and allow an inflow of humanitarian supplies. Although action is continuing, we expect Umm Qasr to be fully under coalition control shortly.

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In addition to the al-Faw operation, coalition land operations across the Kuwait-Iraq border are well under way. Preparatory action began yesterday afternoon using fixed-wing and rotary air forces and artillery. At 1715 hours yesterday, the 5th US Regimental Combat Team launched operations to secure the South Rumaila oilfield and gas and oil platforms in southern Iraq.

At 0300 hours this morning, the main land offensive began with coalition forces advancing across the Kuwait-Iraq border. Two battle groups of 7th Armoured Brigade are providing flank protection as part of that assault. We understand that stiff resistance has been encountered, and that 7th Armoured Brigade has engaged in contact with Iraqi forces.

Turning to air operations, at 1800 hours yesterday, 50 Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles were launched at regime targets in Baghdad closely associated with Saddam Hussein. A number of missiles were launched from Royal Navy submarines, and we believe that all hit their regime targets. A large number of RAF aircraft, including combat and support aircraft, have been active during the past 24 hours, including Tornado GR4s using Enhanced Paveway 2 precision munitions.

I am now able to give further details on yesterday's attacks by Iraqi forces. Between 0720 and 1510 hours yesterday, Iraq launched at least five missiles of various types into Kuwait in the vicinity of coalition forces. Three landed and two were intercepted by Patriot missiles. Fortunately, there were no injuries. Troops did, however, put on their nuclear, biological and chemical equipment as a precautionary measure.

It is less than 24 hours since these operations were launched. They are making steady progress. Our objectives remain as set out in the document placed in the Library of the House yesterday: to remove the Iraqi regime and its weapons of mass destruction. We have no quarrel with the Iraqi people and will continue to take every precaution to reduce the risk of civilian casualties. As the helicopter crash has demonstrated, however, our own people are always at risk in a military operation. I pay tribute to the courage of those who tragically lost their lives last night. Our thoughts are with their families, and we hope for the safe return of all their colleagues.

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