Westminster needs to hold the ring. Westminster needs to consider the risks. Westminster needs to be the place where this debate is thought about, in conjunction with the discrete and—from the perspective of the local jurisdictions—eminently reasonably changes that may

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be wished for. This place also needs to be where the broader economic context is considered, because, bluntly, some of the peripheral changes to taxation that we are talking about and that Holtham talks about—indeed, perhaps even the larger changes too—will not lead to the growth, jobs, wealth and opportunity that would be created by measures that the Government could be implementing right now, such as those in Labour’s five-point plan.

Nick Smith: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his support for subsidiarity and decisions being made at the right level. The success of the Welsh Assembly, particularly in the last few months, has been based on its good ideas, such as the Welsh job fund and introducing local police support officers, all because people in Wales are fed up with the horrible attacks that we have seen from the Government.

Owen Smith: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Welsh Assembly has understood that in order to stimulate our economy we need a stimulus. We cannot sit on our hands and assume, as the Government do, that laissez-faire economics will drive economic progress in our country.

Mrs Laing rose—

Owen Smith: I will not give way; I am going to finish in a moment.

We need a stimulus, which is why the five-point plan that Labour has produced is absolutely what we should consider implementing. It is also why we should be celebrating what Carwyn Jones and the Welsh Assembly Government have done along the same, as it were, Keynesian lines.

I will conclude with the broader economic picture. It is for this place to bring the global and European context to bear in this debate. However, it is ironic that at a time when Members in all parts of the House are advocating greater collaboration and greater cohesion and integration of states’ fiscal powers on the continent—it is particularly ironic that Conservative Members should be doing that at all—we in the UK are contemplating disaggregating those fiscal powers. That is a profound irony—one perhaps born out of the peculiarity of how our constitutional thinking has developed. It is for us—and, in particular, the Secretary of State for Wales and her Northern Ireland and Scotland colleagues—to ensure that those thoughts are brought to bear round the Cabinet table and to subjugate any party political interest beneath the national interest, for all our citizens right across the UK.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. There are three speakers to go, and we have 25 minutes left for them. If they can divide that time equally, that would be very helpful.

5.5 pm

Mrs Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) for his kind words in welcoming me to the debate as the only Back Bencher not representing a Welsh constituency. I am here quite deliberately because I agree with the hon.

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Gentleman, as well as the right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and, of course, all my hon. Friends on this side of the House, that it is this Parliament, the Parliament of the United Kingdom, that ought to debate matters concerning the Union. I am very much a Unionist, and I will never be anything else. If we start to draw lines and say that people who are elected to seats in Essex should not speak on Welsh matters, or that those who represent Cornwall should not speak on Scottish matters, we are negating the very concept of the Union, which most of us wish to defend.

I am sorry to see that the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain), is no longer here, because I have saved up all my political arguments to put to him across the Floor. He made some appalling remarks in his speech, but it is his right to do so. I can tell the House that, just as he has Scottish roots, my maiden name is Pritchard, and you cannot get much more Welsh than that. I do not think that my father ever set foot in Wales in his life, however, and I do not think that his father, or his father before him, did either. I must have some Welsh blood somewhere, but that is not the point.

The point is that we are the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and the devolution settlement that we have put together for certain parts of the United Kingdom affects all of the United Kingdom. It is like a tube of toothpaste; you cannot press one part of it without making an impression on the other parts. Anything to do with devolution, and anything that affects our constitution in any way, affects the whole of our country. There ought to be more Members from other parts of the United Kingdom here today, so that they might understand that we, as a whole, have responsibility for what happens in any part of the United Kingdom.

I also agree with the hon. Member for Pontypridd—this is getting disturbing—that the distribution of taxpayers’ money to Wales, Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom is fair because it is based on deciding which part needs the most input from taxpayers’ investment in our country as a whole.

Owen Smith: On a point of fact, the distribution to Wales is not based on need—that is why we have long argued for a needs-based formula—but it is reflective of need.

Mrs Laing: I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I do not believe that we should have a needs-based formula. I would always argue that the Barnett formula distributes taxpayers’ money in a reasonable manner, even though it obviously needs to be reformed and brought up to date. Just as Newcastle does not require the same sort of taxpayer subsidy as Surrey, and just as the centre of Birmingham does not require the same amount as the leafy lanes of Kent, so it is important that we get the balance right in Scotland and Wales.

Jonathan Edwards: Does the hon. Lady recognise that London gets a higher percentage of public expenditure per head than any other part of the British state, including Wales?

Mrs Laing: Of course, because some areas of London are desperately in need of help from taxpayers’ money.

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There are enormous areas of poverty, deprivation and need in London; that is why it happens. Of course it does. If the hon. Gentleman is not willing to be fair to people who live in London, why should the rest of the country be fair to his constituents?

That brings me to the other points made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd and the right hon. Member for Torfaen. Although I would argue that the distribution of taxpayers’ money is currently done fairly, the democratic balance between different parts of our United Kingdom has not, until now, been fair. It is totally outrageous that the hon. Member for Pontypridd should describe as “shameless gerrymandering” the equalisation of constituencies. In what way is it democratically fair that Pontypridd has 58,000 electors, Torfaen 61,000 and Neath 57,000, while the Secretary of State’s constituency has 70,000 and mine has 72,000?

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. We are debating devolution, not constituency size. We are in danger of dragging the debate somewhere we should not be going to at this time of the evening.

Mrs Laing: Of course, Mr Deputy Speaker. I was merely illustrating the balance of fairness, and saying that if we are to distribute funds fairly, we should distribute democracy fairly, too. Many Opposition Members have made that point this afternoon, and it was time for it to be corrected. I am glad you allowed me to do so, Mr Deputy Speaker. I appreciate that we have had a long debate and that Opposition Members still wish to speak, so I shall be brief.

The constitutional development of our country is ongoing and continuous. Like other Members, I was not in favour of devolution to begin with, but I have come to realise the benefits from having devolved government, so I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s setting up the Silk commission. This is a genuine commission. The Secretary of State has made it clear that she has no “pre-conclusions” about what the Silk commission should do or where it should go. Just as the Calman commission did an excellent job for Scotland, resulting in the Scotland Bill, I am sure that the Silk commission will do the same for Wales.

It is important for the commission to look seriously, as I am sure it will, at the issue of accountability as its first duty. Democratic accountability obviously comes through accountability for spending money and therefore for raising money. At present, the settlement in Wales gives the power to spend without the responsibility to raise taxpayers’ money. I argue that accountability is possible only if there is a link between the casting of the vote, the paying of the taxes and the outcome of the election.

Owen Smith: Is not the logic of that argument that all spending should be devolved to Wales in order for it to be fully accountable, or is it enough for just a tiny fraction of spending to be devolved? Does that take the trick?

Mrs Laing: No, that is not the logic at all. If the hon. Gentleman argues in that way, he is arguing against himself. He agrees with me and with many of his hon. Friends that it is this Parliament that represents the whole of the United Kingdom, so this Parliament must

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have the responsibility not only for raising most taxes but for spending them. He has argued, as have others, that devolved Assemblies and Parliaments must bear responsibility as well as wielding power. As I say, if that is his argument, he is arguing against himself.

Mrs Gillan: My hon. Friend is making a valuable contribution to the debate. It is interesting to note that regional-level Governments in other countries raise a percentage of their own expenditure. For instance, in Germany regional Governments raise 56% of the 63% that is spent, and in Spain they raise 23% of the 49% that is spent.

Mrs Laing: As ever, I thank my right hon. Friend. Those examples illustrate my argument extremely well.

There is no doubt that there cannot be proper accountability without a well-constructed democratic system involving fiscal responsibility as well as democracy. At present Wales benefits enormously from public spending. The public expenditure cuts in Wales are considerably smaller than cuts in the rest of the United Kingdom, and public spending is currently 12% higher. As I have said, I entirely support that position. No one is trying to do Wales any harm; quite the opposite.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has given the Silk commission the duty of examining the future scope of devolution. Wales can learn much from what has happened in Scotland. There is a significant difference between the situation in Scotland and the situation in Wales because Scotland has, historically, its own legal system and other institutions that Wales does not have—I say that as a Scots lawyer who is perpetually confused by English law when we discuss it in the House—but the commission is nevertheless likely to bring Wales great benefits for the future.

5.17 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I had intended to speak for about an hour, but I probably intervened for about an hour instead, all told, and I apologise to my colleagues for that. I shall therefore make my speech as short as possible.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) opened her speech by saying that she was she was a proud Unionist. I would describe myself as a proud Unionist as well, but also as a proud devolutionist. I am a Unionist not on the basis of any ideology or fixed arbitrary principle, but in recognition that—as in the old trade union cry, “Unity is strength”—the constituent parts of the United Kingdom together add not only to social cohesion but to economic activity, and to our political clout on the world stage. That should be recognised in today’s debate.

The theme that I want to adopt in my brief speech, and to convey to members of the Silk commission if they hear today’s debate, is that we should not be talking about loosening ties. Instead, we should engage in a mature debate, recognising that there is a positive, welcome tension between our Government and the Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—although I must add, perhaps to the disappointment of my colleagues in the Plaid Cymru camp, that that is not necessarily a recipe for independence. I think that we carry much more clout if we work together. If devolution

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constituted a settlement, I think that on the basis of today’s debate we can all agree that it is still settling. If it is a process, I think what we have learnt from the debate is that we need to know where it is processing to.

Let me begin by paying tribute, as others have done, to the calibre and quality of the members of the commission—not least the political appointees, but in particular Paul Silk. He will be known to my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) and other Members not just because of his extensive experience, but because he was a House of Commons Clerk for nearly 25 years during three different periods. He is also a former Clerk of the Welsh Grand Committee. He has lectured and written extensively on Parliament and the constitution; he co-authored the seminal book, “How Parliament Works”. I think we can all agree, therefore, that no one better appreciates the very sensitive balance of our constitutional settlement.

Professor Nick Bourne was a colleague of mine—not political, but academic—at Swansea Institute in my lecturing days. He was also shadow Minister for Finance and Public Service Delivery, in addition to his role as Leader of the Opposition. I am sure he will also make a good contribution to the Silk commission.

Sue Essex is very well known, and there is a huge amount of cross-party support for her on a number of issues. She is a former Minister for Finance, Local Government and Public Services. She is clearly of high calibre, therefore. Dr Eurfyl ap Gwilym is an economics expert and a long-standing adviser to Plaid Cymru. He has for many years advocated revisiting the Barnett formula. Rob Humphreys has been a strong advocate of devolution for many years, and was also a member of the all Wales convention. The Silk commission is in good hands with them and its other members.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen gave a warning about a possible Trojan horse. I welcome the fact that we are debating this subject today and that the Silk commission will undertake the work assigned to it, but I suggest to my right hon. Friend that the danger is not so much of a Trojan horse, but of a horse and trap, in that this could lead us into a trap.

The Secretary of State must understand that concern; these are not idle worries. Although there is significant merit in addressing the two matters that the Silk commission will examine—power and fiscal responsibilities—there is a worry that Wales will be done down. To her credit, the Secretary of State has made it clear today that she does not want that to happen, but there is a great deal of concern among Opposition Members that we might end up in that situation, particularly given the coalition’s approach to constitutional affairs since it was formed. The concern is that this process will not be about looking after the best interests of the people of Wales, or even the best interests of the institutions of Wales—that is, in fact, a decidedly secondary consideration—but that instead it will be a way to look as if we are giving with one hand, while in reality taking away with the other. That is a concern, and we must monitor what happens.

Although I welcome today’s debate, it must not be the only one on this topic. We must find opportunities to address it in the Welsh Grand Committee or a different forum, because we need to discuss the burning issues of the day facing Wales, such as the state of the

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economy and of society and, as I see in my constituency, the attacks on our communities.

My family has not consistently been on the same side in the devolution debate. My late uncle, the Member for Gower for many years, was a strong defender of the status quo back in 1979, along with many other notable people at that time. Times move on, however, and it is right for us to address this issue again as things progress, and we must also acknowledge that it involves not only the Wales question but the England question too. That also needs to be addressed. I should add that I welcome the involvement of England MPs in today’s debate, and that engagement must continue and deepen.

The England question becomes more important the more Scotland considers its powers in respect of fiscal autonomy and other areas, and the more Wales considers such matters too. If we do not address the England question, there will not only be political asymmetry in the old Celtic and Pictish nations; there will also be asymmetry here in England.

Through the years, numerous suggestions have been made as to how to address the England question, and many of them have been rejected out of hand. The idea of having an England-only Parliament has been proposed, as has the idea of restricting the ability of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland MPs to “interfere”, as some would say, in England-only matters. As we have learned in today’s debate however, there appears to be a general consensus that it is pretty hard to identify England-only matters, and it is also hard to identify Wales-only matters. We need to speak loudly in defence of the ability of this place to continue putting its opinions forward strongly on all matters.

Alun Cairns: The hon. Gentleman is making an important point, which I think is recognised on both sides of the House. Does he think that that principle also needs to apply to his colleagues in the Welsh Assembly, and that they should recognise that the decisions that they take affect policy making here? There therefore needs to be dialogue between the Welsh Affairs Committee and Ministers in Wales, between Back Benchers and Ministers, and between Ministers here and Ministers in Wales.

Huw Irranca-Davies: Indeed. People who, like me, are very positive about devolution welcome such maturity and two-way engagement. We should look for ways to enhance that. That is to do with respect and, as I said earlier, that respect goes both ways.

Mrs Laing rose—

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am sorry, but I will not give way because I need to leave enough time for another person to speak.

I will try to fit in another couple of key points in one minute. We are looking at the reverse of the Boston tea party—the “No representation without taxation” principle. Perhaps that could be called the Bangor tea party, or the Barry tea party. It has been asked what proportion of the fiscal arrangements is needed for financial accountability. Is it a tiny element and just tinkering around the edges, or is it more substantial? I ask the Secretary of State to expand on the timetable. She said

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something about it in her opening remarks, but it seems to be in the medium grass, if not the long grass. Perhaps she can say something a little more concrete about when the commission will report and when we might see something in Parliament.

A critical factor that has been mentioned several times is the Holtham commission. It has been praised repeatedly by Conservative Members. In that case I say to them, and to the Secretary of State, let us get on with implementing it, regardless of waiting for the Silk commission. We would do a great service to the people of Wales by implementing it right now. The point has been made that Wales is not over-subsidised compared with other parts of the UK. That has long been a myth, but we are not, we are not, we are not. All we are calling for is fair treatment. Implementing the Holtham report would help us to copper-bottom that.

To add an element of caution, what we do not of course want at the end of this commission is what we might refer to as “Silk cuts”. We want an enhancement for Wales, not a diminution of our financial power or democratic clout.

Finally, the Assembly is only just over 10 years old. It is still, by the standards of democratic institutions, something of a stripling. Let us take these decisions wisely, cautiously and with careful consideration. Just as devolution had many fathers, some of whom were in this House, we need to be engaged as this process goes forward.

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), I suggest that he can speak until 28 minutes to 6, because of everything that has gone on.

5.28 pm

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): I am very grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have curtailed my speech a fair bit because of the time constraints, but I am not too upset because most of it was trailed in The Western Mailthis morning. I have no idea how it got there, but perhaps it was lucky that it did.

This is a timely debate and I congratulate the Secretary of State on securing this time on the Floor of the House, because the nature of the British state is clearly changing. The strength of the yes vote in March has given huge momentum to the growth of the political autonomy of our country. Events in Scotland, with the historic victory of the Scottish National party in May, mean that there will be a referendum in the next three or four years on independence for Scotland. I am not a betting man, but I know where I would put my money if I was. There will be serious repercussions for the British state. We know that it will be a multi-option referendum. Even if the SNP does not win the referendum, and I am increasingly convinced that it will, there will be a devolution-max settlement.

There is currently a dual process on the funding of Wales with the Silk commission and the bilateral negotiations on the reform of the funding formula. It is important that we have progress on the latter as we discuss the former, and that the debate is as open as possible. Three parties are included in the debate on the important issue of Barnett reform: the Labour party,

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which leads the Welsh Government, and the Lib Dems and the Conservatives, who lead the UK Government. We have been excluded. The information on that debate needs to be open and we need to hear about its progress before we start talking about the fiscal measures that the Silk commission will address.

My party fully agrees with the points made by the Secretary of State and Tory Back Benchers about accountability. Before I came to this place, I served as a town councillor in Carmarthen. We were responsible only for very local matters, but we had taxation powers. For the life of me I cannot understand why anybody would oppose giving the Government of Wales similar powers, as this would, not least, focus the minds of Assembly Members on wealth generation, which is very important. If we are serious about creating a more prosperous and just society, we have to focus on wealth generation, as do the Welsh Government. Giving them tax-raising powers would make them focus more on such issues and on some of the give-away processes that we are seeing at the moment.

Taxation powers and borrowing go hand in hand, and I am grateful that the Silk commission will be able to look at borrowing powers. In a situation where we will have a varying income stream as a result of having taxation powers, borrowing is the best measure for smoothing out those differences, and it is right and proper that the Welsh Government will be able to have those powers if the commission so recommends.

We know that there are two phases to the commission, the first of which will examine taxation powers. We have been scouring the world for best practice in federal states, and I do not think that there is anything new about what is on the agenda. There are many examples from across the world that we could use to best effect in Wales. Any submission that my party gives will be a compromise, because clearly our policy is for the devolution of all taxation matters ultimately. However, we will be trying to engage with this process constructively and we hope that parties from across the spectrum will engage in the same manner.

The second phase of the commission will examine further areas of power. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 has given added momentum to this, because we know that we will lose a quarter of our Members of Parliament. Unless further areas of power are devolved to the Assembly there will be a democratic deficit, because there will be fewer Members scrutinising decisions made on Wales. We argued during consideration of that Bill, with those on the Labour Benches, that it was not proper to cut the number of Welsh seats based on the referendum result. All the referendum did was enshrine sovereignty over current devolved matters. I still hope that Lib Dem colleagues might rebel when the matter comes back to the House and I might be able to keep the constituency of Carmarthen East and Dinefwr. If not, and if my fantastic constituency and the fantastic constituency of Arfon disappear into the annals of history, further fields of power need to be devolved to the Assembly to avoid that democratic deficit.

My last point relates back to my intervention on the Secretary of State. I was grateful to receive a very detailed response, as I did not think I would. If there is a consensus on the commission between the political

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parties and among civil society, there needs to be a clear process map to make the recommendations become law.

5.32 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): We have had a long and full debate, and we have wandered over many subjects. We heard the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) ensure that we heard a plurality of views. In his own completely inimitable style he told us that the Silk commission should have a remit to consider clawing back powers from the devolved Administration. That view must be unique to him.

Mrs Gillan: The Silk commission can look at the boundaries, and that means adjustments in either direction.

Nia Griffith: I thank the Secretary of State for that clarification.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy), a former Secretary of State for Wales, spoke with passion and conviction, standing up firmly for Wales and pointing out the deep mistrust of the current Government’s attitude to Wales, which is exemplified by the roughshod way in which Ministers are cutting the number of Welsh constituencies from 40 to 30. That fuels deep suspicions about what the Government’s motives are for setting up the Silk commission.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) stressed the need for a pragmatic approach that brings power nearer to the people but which does the best for the people of Wales. The hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) referred the Silk commission to his private Member’s Bills, the Bilingual Juries (Wales) Bill and the Jobcentre Plus (Wales) Bill. The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), who had very little time, unfortunately, urged the Lib Dems to rebel on the constituency boundary issue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) stressed the importance of this Parliament in taking decisions for the whole UK and urged that we move forward wisely, cautiously and with careful consideration of the issues. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) pointed out the importance of the Calman commission and stressed the excellent credentials of its members, and his words have been echoed by many hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb)—I am not sure whether he is listening—stressed the importance of accountability and talked about practicalities. He spoke of the importance of treating businesses across the whole UK equally, but he then talked about different national insurance rates, so I am not sure quite where he was coming from.

The hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) talked about the need for stability and there being no further changes for a generation. He stressed the need for the Silk commission to consult effectively and to reach out to those who have not been effectively engaged before, pointing out concerns about the volatility of some taxes. The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) reaffirmed her strong Unionist credentials and welcomed the commission, which she sees as an important step towards accountability.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) referred to the difficulties of having continual

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change and to the need to take a long-term view. He also stressed the need for economic stimulus, as set out in Labour’s five-point plan, and pointed out the measures that the Assembly Government are taking to implement elements of that in the areas for which they have responsibility, such as with the successor to the future jobs fund—the jobs growth fund—and with some investment in infrastructure, where they are able to do so.

The Opposition very much welcome the establishment of the Silk commission and the important tasks it has to do. Its first task is to review the case for the devolution of fiscal powers and to recommend ways in which the financial accountability of the Welsh Assembly could be improved. It will no doubt refer to the work done by the Holtham commission in its analysis of some of the possible ways of transferring revenue-raising mechanisms to Wales. It can examine the practicalities and the likely consequences of implementing any such measures. We should not underestimate the complexity of this issue or the dangers of people being, quite naturally, tempted to play the system by switching from one side of the border to the other. That issue has been mentioned by several hon. Members, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson). Most importantly of all, the Silk commission will need to consult and take account of public opinion. It is vital that a move towards any change has the support and backing of the people of Wales.

We are disappointed that the Secretary of State has decided to make setting up the Silk commission a priority over tackling the challenge of delivering a fairer funding system for Wales—an issue that is specifically excluded from the commission’s remit. If her Government were really interested in delivering the best for the people of Wales, they would have made it a priority to introduce the so-called Barnett floor—a concept that was explored in the Holtham reports and adopted by Labour in our 2010 manifesto as the most practical and immediate step to protect funding to Wales.

Roger Williams: Does the hon. Lady agree that the floor has less applicability in these straitened economic times than it would if there were an expanding economy?

Nia Griffith: As the hon. Gentleman will have heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr Hain) explain, we are at a tipping point. Until now, the Barnett formula has served the people of Wales well, but from this year onwards the balance will tip slightly in the other direction. Putting a floor in would offer additional protection and would be a straightforward measure. It could be implemented with the agreement of the Treasury and without having to go into the difficulties of trying to work out a needs-based analysis, which is much more complex but is something that we might wish to see in the long term. So, as Holtham identified, the Barnett formula has served Wales well up to now, but if nothing is done it will begin to disadvantage Wales. The whole point of putting in the Barnett floor is to prevent that from happening and to protect funding. The Holtham commission recommended moving to a needs-based analysis, and it produced evidence of how a needs-based funding system could be made to work in a way that is

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fair to all parts of the United Kingdom. In its second report, it demonstrated that a needs-based funding formula that is fair to Wales would deliver £117 to Wales for every £100 that is spent in England on devolved activities. It recognised, too, that moving to a needs-based formula would take time but, in the meantime, the Barnett floor could protect Welsh funding. Instead of making that a priority, as it could be implemented quite easily, the Secretary of State has set up a commission that specifically will not consider the issue of funding reform.

Mrs Gillan: It is being done bilaterally.

Nia Griffith: I hope very much indeed that that bilateral work is progressing quickly and effectively.

It is small wonder, given the Conservatives’ track record on devolution, that many Opposition Members have expressed suspicions about the Government’s motives for setting up the Silk commission. There are suspicions that the Government might be trying to sell Wales short and push through measures that would seriously disadvantage Wales. The concentration of wealth creation in London and south-east England means not only in Wales but in Scotland, Northern Ireland and the other regions of England that public expenditure is greater than the income from those areas, which are all net beneficiaries of the UK tax regime, while London and parts of the south-east and East Anglia are net contributors.

That is for historical reasons, including the early emergence of London as the commercial capital and its importance as a world financial centre, and it is in contrast to other European countries, where the importance of the city state and, much later, unification has produced different patterns of wealth distribution. The disparities have existed in the UK for many years: they are deeply embedded and cannot simply be eliminated by a few years of regional policy or European funding, helpful as that is to compensate for the differences. Nor can they simply be eliminated by substantial growth in the private sector, vital as that is to Wales and across the UK.

With such deep-seated historical differences in wealth distribution, complete financial independence for Wales, as advocated by Plaid Cymru, is an absolute non-starter. With a gap of £14.6 billion between public spending and the revenue raised in Wales, it would mean every man, woman and child in Wales contributing an extra £4,800—nearly £5,000 each a year just to maintain current levels of spending.

Jonathan Evans: The Labour party has been using those figures quite heavily today, and it has based them on the Holtham report, but that is misleading. The report indicates a gap of £6 billion. Will the hon. Lady correct that statement and the statements of the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain)?

Nia Griffith: Those figures were recently provided by the House of Commons Library, on 2 November, and I am sure that it has checked them thoroughly.

We are suspicious about the Government’s motives in setting up the Silk commission, whose remit excludes fair funding. It looks as if the Government might be using it as a back door to cutting funding to Wales, or seeking to adopt measures that could leave Wales subject

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to fluctuations in funding that would be impossible to cope with. The Labour party will strongly resist any moves that would disadvantage Wales.

Many people have been puzzled by the timing of the debate, as the remit for the Silk commission has already been set, so it did not offer an opportunity to influence its terms of reference. Perhaps, when the commission has had a chance to study the issues, it may wish to seek views or raise questions in an interim report, and that would be a more appropriate time for a debate. Having the debate now, before the commission has even begun its work, but after the terms of reference have been decided, is somewhat bizarre. [ Interruption. ] I think that the Secretary of State is trying to intervene, but the point was well made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen that that does make us question the reason for the debate.

Mrs Gillan: I should like to inform the hon. Lady and the House that the terms of reference were agreed with the Labour party in the Assembly.

Nia Griffith: The irony being that today we have discussed the importance of Parliament; many Government Members have referred to the importance of the commission being set up by Parliament.

Alun Cairns: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Nia Griffith: No, I think that I have made my point. Opposition Members felt that they would have had more chance to influence things if the timing of the debate were different.

Up and down Wales, as far as the person in the street is concerned, the Silk commission is set up and can get on with its work. What those people are worrying about today is the empty order book in their company, the shops that are closing in their high street, the cuts in their council services, losing their job or their home, their children not being able to find work, and the daily struggle to make ends meet as prices for essentials such as food, vehicle fuel and energy bills spiral upwards. They understand something that the Government seem to have forgotten—that before the Government can raise any revenue or talk about any formula to distribute it, they need wealth creation. Indeed, what is the point of talking about taxation without wealth creation?

This week the Government have sent completely the wrong message to potential investors in Wales. Only days after the head of Tata Europe told MPs that he has been having serious doubts about future investment in Wales because of this Government’s lack of a long-term manufacturing strategy, the Government confirm his doubts by trying to sneak out in a written statement yet further cuts to the feed-in tariff scheme, with devastating effects on the industry. This is not about feed-in tariffs. This is not just about manufacturing industry. This is about raising the proper revenue and then being able to do something with it. It is about wealth creation, setting the right long-term strategies that will encourage manufacturing to come to Wales, attracting the investment that we need and providing the wealth so that we can talk about what we do with it. [Interruption.] I still have two minutes to go, I believe.

Why do we remain wary of the Government’s motives and suspect that they might be setting up the Silk

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commission to try to reduce funding to Wales? Because daily we see funding being sucked out of Wales, whether in higher VAT, the change from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index for the calculation of pensions and benefits, or the winter fuel allowance being cruelly cut for the over-80-year-olds from £400 to £300 this month, leaving many worrying about whether they can afford to put the heating on. It is this sucking money out of Wales that worries us considerably.

Although we welcome the Silk commission, wish it well with its work and look forward to debating its findings, in the meantime I again ask the Secretary of State to make it a priority to establish the so-called Barnett floor to protect funding for Wales, and I urge her Government to adopt fiscal policies that will stimulate the economy in Wales.

5.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr David Jones): This has been an important debate and, as it turns out, one that is particularly well timed because the Silk commission will hold its first meeting tomorrow. I am sure right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House will wish it well, and that the members of the commission will be grateful for the opportunity to take into account the numerous points that have been made by Members on both sides of the House this afternoon, not only on the commission’s work but on the matters that it should take into consideration when arriving at its conclusions. I am pleased that so many hon. Members were able to contribute to the debate today and make a variety of important points that I am sure the commission will find extremely valuable.

As the Secretary of State pointed out, this is a Government who have delivered for Wales. Despite the doubters and the nay-sayers, we delivered the referendum on primary legislative powers for the Assembly in March and now we are taking that further by delivering on our coalition commitment to establish a commission to consider, first, the question of the financial accountability of the Welsh Government and of the Welsh Assembly, and secondly, the powers of the Assembly, and to recommend modifications to the present constitutional settlement that may enable Welsh devolution to work more effectively within the context of the United Kingdom.

It is timely that the commission should start this work now. The Welsh Government spend some £15 billion of public money each year. They and the Assembly now have considerable powers, which extend to primary law making in the devolved areas. It is widely accepted not only in the Chamber but outside that that level of power should be matched by accountability to the people of Wales for the money that those institutions spend on their behalf. The issue of financial accountability is a hugely important part of the Silk Commission’s remit. Seeking to build consensus around the extent and form of accountability is a challenging aspect of that remit.

The second part of the commission’s task, which will commence towards the end of next year, is also important. By then, Wales will have experienced more than 13 years of devolution. People will have had considerable time to assess whether the suite of powers vested in the Assembly and in the Welsh Government are working as well as they could be in the interests of Wales and, importantly, in the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole. It

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will be an appropriate time to assess whether modifications to the devolution settlement should at least be considered, so the work of the commission is extremely important. As my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns) pointed out, we will need to listen carefully to the views of people across Wales and the United Kingdom and seek to establish a consensus on the way forward. I am sure that Members’ interesting and varied points will be extremely valuable to the commission as it starts its important work.

Huw Irranca-Davies: I am trying to get my head around the idea of the level of financial devolution that will give accountability to the Welsh electorate. In local authorities it is typically up to 20%. Do Ministers envisage such a figure, or 2% or 3%?

Mr Jones: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has already indicated the levels of fiscal accountability that are devolved in other parts of Europe. Ultimately, these will be matters for the Silk commission, which, as the hon. Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) pointed out, will no doubt take into account what prevails in other parts of Europe in arriving at its conclusion, as it should.

In the brief time remaining, I will respond to the various points made. The shadow Secretary of State has explained to me the reasons for his absence, which we fully understand. He was less than enthusiastic about the commission, giving it a “cautious welcome”, which was as cautious as it gets and gave a whole new meaning to “welcome”. Resorting to the oldest rhetorical trick in the book, he set up the straw man of “devo-max”, under which Wales would be responsible for raising all its own revenue. He seemed to suggest that the commission’s recommendations might result in Wales having to raise all its own revenue, as a consequence of which public spending would be halved. I hope that it is unnecessary to point out, but I shall anyway, that the people of Wales should ignore these scare tactics.

Alun Cairns: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr Jones: I shall not, as I have very little time left. I am sure my hon. Friend understands.

Fiscal devolution will work only where there is consensus on the powers to be devolved and in circumstances where the transfer of powers does not put unsustainable burdens on either the devolved Administration or the UK as a whole.

The shadow Secretary of State and other hon. Members mentioned Holtham and inquired why it was not being brought within the remit of the Silk commission. Separate bilateral discussions continue between the Government and the Welsh Government on all the Holtham commission’s proposals, including the idea of a funding floor and its wider proposals for reforms—an approach supported by the Welsh Government. The Government and the Welsh Government have started discussions, which will include work to gain a shared understanding of trends in Welsh spending, of previous studies on Welsh needs and of the operation of existing borrowing powers. Once consideration of spending trends and previous needs studies has been completed, and subject to Government and Welsh Government Ministers agreeing

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that a problem exists, the next step will be to look at options for reform. I put that on the record because of the concerns that right hon. and hon. Members expressed.

I believe that we must rely on the good sense of the commission, which will seek to find consensus—I make no apology for repeating the word because it is crucial to the commission’s work—on the extent to which the Welsh Assembly and Government should become more financially accountable.

I found the shadow Secretary of State’s negativity and tribalism most disappointing, and it was not typical of the debate. He appeared to have little or no faith in the capacity of the people of Wales to run to any extent their own financial affairs and, perhaps more importantly, to decide whether at an election a politician is making an unsustainable promise, which of course is crucial to what it falls to us to consider.

I found the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) disappointingly and uncharacteristically cynical. [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] I have to say, I found it quite hurtful. He said, almost in terms, that the conclusions of the commission were a fait accompli that would lead inevitably to more powers for the Assembly, but the commission has been asked to consider the boundaries of the devolution settlement and modifications that could work well for the benefit of Wales within the United Kingdom.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) is not here, but he made the important point that significant cross-border issues fall to be considered, and it is well within the commission’s remit to decide that in certain cases powers should be repatriated from the Assembly. That is what the Calman commission found in its consideration of the Scottish devolution settlement, and it is quite open to the Silk commission, which has a wide-ranging remit, to do so, too, so I hope that that offers some reassurance to my hon. Friend—who looks very reassured, I am bound to say.

The right hon. Member for Torfaen (Paul Murphy) praised the excellence of the commission members, and I feel it appropriate to echo that praise: we have a very well constituted commission. He raised the spectre of a Trojan horse, however, and doubted whether there was any real consensus on the commission, so I think it fair to point out once again that all the party leaders in the Assembly, including the Labour First Minister, co-operated in agreeing the commission’s terms of reference, and each party has a political appointee on it. I hope that gives the right hon. Gentleman some reassurance that it is not by any means an evil Tory Trojan horse; it is a genuine attempt to see whether it is possible to arrive at a settlement that will benefit the people of Wales in the long run.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of whether there will be a referendum on additional tax-raising powers, but that very much depends on what the Silk commission itself recommends. I for one find it hard to see how, for example, if there were recommendations on any significant changes to income tax, it would be possible to go forward without consulting the people of Wales as to whether that was what they wanted; after all, that is what happened in Scotland, and I have no doubt that it should happen in Wales.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) took considerable credit on behalf of our

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Liberal coalition partners for the establishment of the commission, but I have to point out that it was a joint coalition commitment and one to which the Conservative party is very much wedded. He, too, praised the excellence of the commission members, and he paid tribute to Nick Bourne, the Conservative nominee. I can only echo the hon. Gentleman’s view that Professor Bourne will be an excellent member of the commission.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) did give a welcome, which I believe was genuine, to the commission, and I was very pleased to hear it, but he referred to the terms of reference and queried the reference to the United Kingdom’s wider fiscal objectives, pointing out that we live in a time of stringency that has resulted in spending reductions. Well, of course, it has, and I will not intrude into his private grief by pointing out the reason why we have to cut our public spending, but nevertheless it is quite right that whatever the commission decides should operate within the wider fiscal objectives of the United Kingdom as a whole.

There were excellent contributions also from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb), the hon. Member for Arfon, my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who came up with a memorable toothpaste tube metaphor, which I shall use regularly when talking about the effect of devolution on the United Kingdom. There was also a supportive contribution from the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards).

This has, as I say, been—

6 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

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Female Genital Mutilation

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

6 pm

Jane Ellison (Battersea) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important issue again in the House. Female genital mutilation—FGM—affects millions of girls and women around the world, including here in the UK. My remarks this evening are focused on FGM in the UK, and what we can do to prevent it.

FGM is a gross violation of girls’ human rights, and is nearly always carried out on minors. In the UK, the girls most at risk are usually aged between eight and 12, but are often much younger. We should therefore be clear from the outset that FGM is a form of child abuse. FGM is defined by the World Health Organisation as the full or partial removal of, or injury to, the external female genitalia for non-medical reasons. Although it occurs in countries across the world, it is particularly prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa. There are no benefits to FGM. Indeed, quite the opposite is true. The girl’s health is damaged for ever.

There are various types of FGM, but the most extreme, which is the most common in larger FGM-practising communities settled in this country, is type 3. That is total removal of the victim’s external genitalia. The girl is then infibulated—effectively sewn up. I am sure that hon. Members can imagine the dreadful impact of that on the quality of life and the health of those girls in childhood, and the long-term damage to their sexual and mental well-being.

It is a source of great frustration to those who campaigned against FGM for many years that the UK has in place everything that might reasonably be expected to be needed to end FGM in this country, yet it continues and is apparently a growing problem. The necessary legislation is already on the statute book. FGM has been illegal in the UK for more than a quarter of a century under the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act 1985, which was strengthened in the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 by making it illegal to take a girl abroad for cutting, as FGM is often referred to colloquially. Indeed, new guidelines for prosecuting the perpetrators of FGM were published here only this autumn.

As well as having the right legislation, the UK has a solid child protection framework in place which, on the whole, does a good job of protecting vulnerable children from other forms of abuse. The Government have recently published fresh multi-agency guidelines to aid professionals —for example, teachers, social workers and health workers—to identify children at risk and what steps must be taken to assist them. Despite that, all the anecdotal and medical evidence suggests that FGM is a growing, not a diminishing problem here. Why is it proving so difficult to right this wrong?

First, to meet the challenge, we need to know its scale. As part of the Mayor of London’s strategy to tackle all forms of violence against girls and women, the Greater London authority will shortly publish a policy document on addressing harmful practices in London. It will focus on, among other things, FGM. That report and others identify the fact that the lack of up-to-date figures is a significant stumbling block in efforts to tackle the problem.

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Most of the FGM data for the UK that inform most parliamentary speeches, media articles and reports, including that from the Greater London authority, comes from a respected 2007 study by the charity FORWARD—the Foundation for Women’s Health, Research and Development. This report extrapolated data from the 2001 UK census, and its finding were startling, even then. Over 174,000 women residents in the UK had been born in an FGM-practising country. The estimated number of maternities in England and Wales in women with FGM stood at just over 6,000 in 2001 and had increased by 44% to just over 9,000 in 2004. FORWARD estimated that by 2009, that figure would be around 7,000 in London alone. Those are astonishing figures. That study is sound, but it is based on decade-old data.

As the Minister will know, with the trends in migration to this country over the last decade, especially from countries with a high prevalence of FGM, such as Somalia and Ethiopia, one can only conclude that those figures dramatically understate the extent of female genital mutilation in the UK today. We urgently need to update the evidence base.

Another reason the evidence base needs to be updated is that FGM is adding to existing health inequalities for these girls and women. How many women are not attending routine cervical smear testing because they do not want to alert the authorities to what has happened to them? How many parents do not take their children to the local GP when they are unwell because they fear that an examination will reveal that the girls have been cut? If, as the evidence suggests, FGM is a growing problem in the UK, the burden that it puts on the NHS in the long run will grow to match it.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this debate to the Chamber. It is an extremely important subject, and she should be congratulated on the stance she has taken nationally and internationally. She is right when she points to the effects on the NHS. A midwife has shown me a video of the effects that FGM will have and what she needs to do when the women and young girls who have, in effect, been abused have to be cut again in order for them to give birth. It is having a huge effect, not only physically but on their mental state.

Jane Ellison: I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She is doing marvellous work to highlight this problem as well, and I know that she has seen recent evidence that was quite shocking and brought the problem into stark relief. I ask the Minister to consider, perhaps on a cross-departmental basis, supporting research to update the evidence base better to inform public policy in health, which the hon. Lady mentions, and in other areas. I understand that the FORWARD study cost about £30,000 to put together and that a more in-depth and qualitative report would cost in the region of £120,000.

Another area of major concern is that some professionals, especially teachers, are not confident enough of their role in protecting and supporting girls who are at risk. Although the multi-agency guidelines are excellent and we have a robust child protection framework in place, FGM remains under-reported. Recent feedback from a focus group with young women who had been affected suggested that not all professionals who deal with at-risk

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girls are clear about what they should do. Perhaps they do not feel that they can rely on the support of senior colleagues or that they have the political cover to step into what they perceive to be a cultural minefield. I very much welcome the current inquiry by the Select Committee on Education into how the child protection framework might be improved. I am pleased that the Committee identified FGM as a particular problem, and I have submitted evidence to its inquiry.

Since I have been speaking about this subject in the media over the past year—including on Radio 4’s “Woman’s Hour” in August—I have received a steady stream of letters and e-mails from around the country, many of them from retired teachers, telling me of their frustrations in reporting their suspicions about a girl who was at risk or had already suffered this abuse, but then finding that their information was not taken any further. This is child abuse, as the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) says, and our professionals must feel that they can, and indeed must, speak up when they see the signs, and that once reported this information will be followed up swiftly by the relevant authorities.

Members will perhaps be astonished, as I was, to learn that one child who asked her teacher for help, saying that she was frightened that she was to be taken on holiday to be cut, was advised by her teacher to write a letter to an FGM charity. Perhaps some professionals feel that they cannot speak out because they fear that an accusation of racism would damage their career; I think that we, as politicians, can understand that fear. However, my argument is that by not protecting girls at risk of FGM, we are treating these girls less equally. If this abhorrent practice were happening routinely to little white, middle-class girls from long-settled parts of the community, would there not be a greater outcry among professionals, politicians and the media? There would be headlines every week.

While reflecting on the leadership role that we as politicians have, it is incumbent on all of us, as Members, to ask the difficult questions of our contacts in all communities and not to allow issues to be swept under the carpet, because some community leaders have issues that they do not want to talk about. I hope that when the Minister responds she will comment on whether information from front-line workers is being gathered and reviewed centrally to build up a clearer picture of patterns of behaviour—for example, recording school absences of at-risk girls.

On the subject of gathering evidence, I understand that the Crown Prosecution Service is in the process of collecting data on the FGM cases considered for charge. Everyone campaigning on this issue recognises the deterrent impact that just one successful prosecution would have. It remains a source of astonishment that there has not been one prosecution in the UK in the past 25 years, even though, throughout that time, a growing number of African and other European countries have secured convictions.

If we accept that FGM is child abuse, why do we not treat it as such? In other cases of child abuse, arrests are made, people are charged and convictions are secured. It is very difficult territory, but elsewhere, even when witnesses are very young or unwilling to testify, convictions have been secured and vulnerable siblings have been identified and registered as being at risk. Are we really doing enough to protect girls from abuse? Does it make

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a difference to the police that those girls are overwhelmingly from immigrant communities? In France, compulsory physical checks make the job of the prosecutors easier. That is not part of our tradition here in the UK, but is that hampering the police? Should we at least be challenging and discussing that received wisdom?

Will the Minister tell us more about the work that the Crown Prosecution Service is doing, and whether she feels that a prosecution under FGM legislation is becoming more likely? What does she feel are the main sticking points for the police when it comes to pursuing cases?

Of course, for the girls involved prevention is much better than prosecution, so as well as considering the action that we can take in this country, we have to take more effective action to prevent families from taking girls overseas to be cut. I have learned a lot about FGM over the past year or so from one of the world’s leading experts, Efua Dorkenoo, who is advocacy director on FGM for the charity Equality Now. She has been looking around the world for ideas that work. The Dutch and French Governments use what they call a “health passport” for girls who are at risk. That simple document, carried with them overseas, states clearly that FGM is a criminal offence in the country of residence and a form of child abuse. It details the appropriate criminal penalties, and in the case of Dutch residents, explains that if convicted of having their daughters cut, parents could lose the right to remain in the country if they are not citizens. The parents are then asked to sign the document before they travel to show that they have understood, and accept, their responsibilities.

I believe that such a document could be a powerful tool here. It would send a strong message to families that FGM is not to be tolerated and would empower girls to assert their own human rights. It may also empower parents who have their doubts about FGM. There is some evidence that some parents, perhaps those who have grown up in this country, are having doubts about whether they want it to happen to their daughters. They could show such a document to relatives from the extended family who were putting pressure on them to have a girl cut, and say, “Look, we can’t do it, we’ll be prosecuted.”

Valerie Vaz: Another problem is that the cutters abroad see such things as a loss of their income, so one solution could be that any aid sent out to relevant countries could be linked to retraining the cutters for a somewhat more useful job.

Jane Ellison: That is a very powerful intervention. That is a Department for International Development responsibility, as the hon. Lady knows, and DFID is being urged to do more on the matter. It is doing things, and astonishing grass-roots movements are growing up all over sub-Saharan Africa, with women in the lead. They are going from village to village urging people to stop the practice, and re-educating the cutters to do something else. She is absolutely right to highlight that as one way in which we can help. There is an extraordinary link on this issue between communities in the UK and the diaspora communities around the world.

Does the Minister think the health passport could help prevent FGM from happening to British girls when they are taken overseas? Should we consider whether it could work here?

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I do not believe there is any argument about the fact that female genital mutilation is a terrible thing, yet for too long the issue has been talked about at the margins of public life, if at all. If we are to send a clear signal to the girls affected by this abhorrent practice that they are not at the margins of our national life, we in this Parliament must take every opportunity to address the issue. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so this evening, and I thank colleagues for their support and pay tribute to those campaigning outside the House. I very much look forward to hearing from the Minister, who I know has been very supportive of us and feels very strongly about the issue. We must aim to stop FGM in this generation and break the cycle of abuse that blights the lives of so many girls and women in the UK.

6.14 pm

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) and congratulate her on securing this debate on an incredibly important topic for women and girls both in the United Kingdom and internationally. We have to protect girls from this abuse, and we have to ensure that all those living with the consequences of female genital mutilation are given the care and support they deserve.

I want to answer my hon. Friend’s specific points first, so that if time runs out I do not miss answering them. On updating the statistical and quantitative evidence base, she made a powerful point about the fact that the records are outdated. We shall certainly look at what the Greater London authority comes up with. Although £120,000 is small in governmental terms, it is not easy to come by, but we can commit to considering it. I am happy to give her that commitment.

My hon. Friend also mentioned health inequalities, the tackling of which is a Government priority, as part of our wider focus on fairness and social justice. In the Health and Social Care Bill we are proposing the first ever duties, on the Secretary of State, the NHS commissioning board and clinical commissioning groups, to have regard to the need to reduce health inequalities—and of course, victims and survivors of female genital mutilation would fall into that category. We expect there to be action, therefore, under that banner.

My hon. Friend raised the important point that everyone works with the best of intentions, but that perhaps teachers are uncomfortable or do not use the multi-agency guidelines that the Government have published, and she asked what feedback the Government are receiving centrally. Currently, we are not receiving or collating feedback resulting from those guidelines, but there will be a review of the use and effectiveness of the guidelines in February 2012, and we will evaluate their success by examining how extensively they have been used. Depending on the review’s findings, we will consider how we might improve or adapt the guidelines. If front-line workers are not using them properly, there must be another barrier that we have not recognised in dealing with victims of FGM.

My hon. Friend raised the possibility of health passports for at-risk girls. I can undertake to explore and investigate the feasibility of such a measure. I do not know enough about the Dutch system to make a commitment, but I can commit to considering the idea.

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The Government have recognised the need for a joined-up approach, co-ordinated by several Departments, to tackle FGM. We are trying to raise awareness of that barbaric practice. We have made progress, but I want to make it clear that the long-term and systemic eradication of FGM in the UK also requires communities affected by the practice to abandon it themselves. I cannot emphasise that point too strongly. We all work hard and are committed, but the pace is slow.

Our key focus is on prevention, and we have undertaken considerable work in the past year, across nine Departments, to take forward our efforts to prevent and tackle FGM. In February, I was pleased to launch the multi-agency practice guidelines for front-line professionals at the Manor Gardens centre, with which my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz), who has also contributed to the debate, will be familiar. Both are committed to that agenda. I spoke there to committed and dedicated community practitioners, and I want to commend and thank them publicly for their work.

As I said, the guidelines aim to raise awareness of FGM, highlight the risks of the practice and set out clearly the steps that should be taken to safeguard women and children from this abuse. I remember reading the guidelines myself. We talk about guidelines, and I sometimes wonder whether people know what they are like. I shall give an example for a teacher: if a girl spends half an hour going to the toilet, which is an inordinately long time, the teacher, if it happens more than once, should be alert, because it might be a signal that the girl has been cut, and so signpost and refer it on. The guidance focuses in particular on ensuring a co-ordinated response from all agencies, which is key to ensuring that professionals are able and confident to intervene to protect girls at risk. That is the objective. In addition, we continue to distribute leaflets and posters about FGM, which are key to bringing the issue to more people’s attention. More than 40,000 leaflets and posters have been circulated to schools, health services, charities and community groups around the country. In July, the Metropolitan Police Service’s Project Azure worked alongside Kids Taskforce to produce a film for secondary schools to raise awareness of FGM, which is now available for download on the Kids Taskforce website. Last summer the project also worked at Heathrow airport, talking to families with young girls going to countries where FGM is practised.

Jane Ellison: I watched the film, and I was astonished to see the young teenagers who made it say towards the end, “We want girls to have an informed choice about this.” No one can have an informed choice about a crime that is committed against them. However, those involved in campaigning on the issue are often forced to make such compromises in their language, essentially because of concerns about how they will be dealt with in their communities, which goes exactly to what the Minister said about changing attitudes in communities.

Lynne Featherstone: My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Some of the attitudes and sensitivities—or perhaps over-sensitivities—associated with this issue have sometimes meant that what needs to be said is not said as directly as it should be.

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The Government are frustrated by the lack of prosecutions in the 25 years since the practice became a criminal offence. Indeed, as a Minister, I am intensely frustrated by that, as I stand at the Dispatch Box at Question Time and am asked why there have been no prosecutions under Labour, Conservative or coalition Governments. We have worked to strengthen the current legislation and we keep trying to encourage prosecutions. As my hon. Friend said, in September the Crown Prosecution Service launched FGM legal guidance so that prosecutors can better understand the background of FGM-affected communities and identify evidential challenges, so that they do not work in a vacuum, but understand the issue.

Research suggests that the most likely barrier to prosecution is pressure from the family or wider community, which makes it difficult for girls and women to come forward and notify police about what has happened to them. Victims may be too young, vulnerable or afraid at the time of mutilation to report offences to the police or give evidence in court. There could be other evidential difficulties if cases are reported many years after the event. I had not heard about the compulsory examinations that take place in France, which my hon. Friend mentioned. That is not the way we do things here, but one does sometimes think, “What other way is there to know whether a girl has been cut?”

The aim of the legal guidance is to provide prosecutors with advice on building stronger cases to bring to court. Prosecutors will now work closely with the police to investigate cases and consider evidence from social services, schools or local authorities, which may have crucial information to help build a case. The guidance has not been launched in isolation, but is part of a concerted approach to building prosecutions. The CPS will be monitoring and reviewing every case referred to it by the police for 12 months. That will allow the CPS to identify why cases are failing to proceed to court and what issues need to be addressed in building a successful case. That reflects the CPS’s commitment to taking positive action to address the problem.

I want to talk about abandonment. I recently met representatives from the Orchid project, who introduced me to Tostan, a non-governmental organisation whose mission is to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights. It takes a respectful approach that allows villagers to make their own conclusions about FGM and to lead their own movements for change. By helping to foster collective abandonment, Tostan’s programme allows community members to share the knowledge. Through this process, entire villages and communities—men and women—have decided together to end FGM. This is incredible work, and I am looking into it. I do not know whether it is directly transferrable, because, geographically, such villages are quite different from the communities here, in the midlands or wherever. There must, however, be something to be said for a community making a decision about the value being put on women being cut. If the whole community accedes to that decision, it will be something that has been done collectively.

A couple of months ago, at the conference on FGM at Manor Gardens, religious leaders met for a forum on female cutting. They represented all the religions, although the Jewish representatives could not come, but did send

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a message of support. What was so amazing was that all the speakers made it clear that religion played no part in FGM. Afterwards, 80% of the people who had attended said that that was beginning to break the link. Somewhere in all this, there is something that we need to look at that is more than all the things that we have been trying to do for so long.

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): I apologise for joining the debate after the start; I was selling poppies in Westminster tube station. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Jane Ellison) for bringing this important topic to the Floor of the House. I hear what the Minister is saying about getting the whole community involved, but I am concerned that this practice, which is illegal in the UK, is an underground practice. We need to give the young women in our communities a safe way to come forward, to understand the problems with the practice and to report it. I fear, however, that those groups of vulnerable young women are not yet being given a voice to raise the issue and express their concerns.

Lynne Featherstone: We are working hard to provide those avenues, and to provide the people to listen to those voices, so that such young women will have the freedom to come forward. We have been trying for a long while to make those things come true. As a Minister, I have to say that we continue to pursue avenues such as the new guidelines and the CPS approach, but it would be wrong of me not to look further and wider when people

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bring me ideas that might have some value. I am not saying that they do have value or that they do not; I am simply saying that I am open to new ideas as to how we can tackle this intransigent issue. There has been a great deal of work and genuine commitment on both sides of the House, and we are moving forward with that, but we have not really succeeded. In fact, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said that the incidence of FGM was growing. In addition, perhaps the diaspora is at a different stage from what is happening in the countries of origin, where people are making moves that are not happening in the diaspora.

Our efforts to prevent the practice continue, and in October we launched the FGM fund, a £25,000 fund for front-line organisations that work to prevent FGM. They have been able to bid for grants of £2,000 to £5,000 to further support their commendable work in strengthening the voice of women to speak about FGM and work to abandon the practice. I thank my hon. Friend for raising the issue and I congratulate her on securing the debate. I hope that my comments have gone some way towards reassuring her that this crucial issue remains on the political agenda in order to ensure that girls and women are protected, and that we are working, united, to eliminate this unacceptable form of abuse.

Question put and agreed to.

6.29 pm

House adjourned.