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House of Lords

Thursday, 25 October 2007.

The House met at eleven o'clock: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham.

Government: Collective Responsibility

Lord Trefgarne asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My Lords, yes.

Lord Trefgarne: My Lords, in that case, may we assume that the former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, now agrees with the proposed cuts in the Royal Navy, against which he argued so fervently before he took up his present appointment?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, there is nothing wrong with anyone disagreeing or wishing to discuss issues of concern in the present roles that they occupy. It is perfectly appropriate. As the noble Lord will know well, when one is operating in a particular role, one should argue from that role and perspective. The point about collective responsibility is not that Ministers should not discuss, debate and argue from their perspectives as Ministers, as individuals and as heads of their areas of responsibility. The question is whether the decision has been made and, once made, that Ministers adhere to it.

Lord Morgan: My Lords, was not David Lloyd George, that great man, correct in 1918 when he observed that a Government were like an Army: that they might have individual detachments, but the important thing was unity of command? Do this Government have such a quality?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, they certainly do.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I can speak only from experience, but my memory is that the idea of being a member of the Cabinet or of the Government is that one is supposed to sing from roughly the same hymn sheet. The noble Baroness talks about disagreement, but that is not usually the right course. Although Ministers can air their views, once they have reached a decision, there should not be any disagreement. We seem to have here instances of Ministers flatly disagreeing with each other. Is that a new exemption? Is there a new rule prevailing?

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Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, there is no suggestion that the reference made by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, to my noble friend related to when my noble friend was a Minister. The noble Lord referred to the position when my noble friend had a different role. I have said that that is completely reasonable. Noble Lords would expect governments, in reaching decisions, to have debates, disagreements and arguments when considering what is before them. Once having reached agreement, the noble Lord is right: agreements should stand.

Lord Brookman: My Lords, where did the phrase, “Not one of us”, emerge from?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I hesitate to give all the historical references that the phrase might have, but noble Lords opposite may well be able to enlighten us.

Female Genital Mutilation

11.09 am

Baroness Rendell of Babergh asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 makes it an offence for United Kingdom residents to be taken abroad for female genital mutilation, with a maximum penalty of 14 years’ imprisonment. We have commissioned research on the prevalence of FGM and instigated awareness-raising initiatives, including the training of health professionals. The Metropolitan Police has been investigating 20 to 30 reports of suspected FGM since the reward announcement in July and is raising awareness in the capital.

Baroness Rendell of Babergh: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer and I am gratified to hear about these investigations. Is he aware that successful prosecutions have been brought in other countries? In the past year and a half, one has been brought in the United States and one has been brought in Sweden, this being the second to be brought successfully in that country. Is he also aware that according to FORWARD, whose report on FGM has just been issued, 22,000 girls under the age of 15 are at risk? That is a terrible figure given that this gross child abuse leads to permanent disablement.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend raises some important points. I have to admit to not having had in-depth knowledge about this subject until last week, when I realised that I was going to have to answer the Question. Now that I have looked

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into it in some detail, I find it the most appalling barbarity. We take it extremely seriously. Prosecutions are difficult because of the cultural differences in these communities. It is often done to very young children, who are scared, frightened and cannot raise matters within their community. There is a sensitivity, but we would have no hesitation in pushing for prosecutions if we found that it was happening.

So far there have not been any prosecutions but, as I said, some cases are being investigated. Let me give a couple of examples of where we have acted. We have granted asylum to a 19 year-old girl who feared that she was going to be subject to this dreadful barbarity when she went back to her country, and another young girl was granted indefinite leave to remain last spring. My noble friend is right to raise this particularly horrible matter. We take it very seriously and a number of initiatives are under way.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, given that the education of young people is absolutely vital to the elimination of the practice of FGM, what is being done to enhance and resource school nurses in this educational programme? What is being done to promote the DVD produced by the Metropolitan Police under Project Azure?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I thank the right reverend Prelate for his question, which allows me to mention that the Metropolitan Police child abuse investigation command is specifically targeting FGM under Project Azure. This is an enforcement campaign, but it also focuses on raising awareness within communities that this is an illegal practice. It involves working with partners and communities to raise awareness of this issue and to help to protect as many children as possible. The DVD and the £20,000 reward are parts of Project Azure, and the DVD specifically aims to raise awareness among communities and practitioners. As I said, there is a cultural dimension here, but that does not mean that the practice is not still barbarous. Some communities used to practise cannibalism, but that would not be accepted today. It is a difficult issue but we are doing as much as we can to stop this dreadful practice.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, in asking my question, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell of Babergh, for her ongoing campaign on this issue. The statistical study released on 9 October showed that provision of services and education was very patchy across the UK. The Minister has referred to the metropolitan area of London, but what action plan will the Government bring in to ensure that these services are provided throughout the UK?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, since the Act came into force, the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills have provided information about FGM to doctors and midwives throughout the country. Indeed, as part of my learning experience, I spoke to my younger sister, who is a

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midwife; it was quite a horrible phone call to find what they have to go through because of what has happened to these poor women. Local authorities, social services departments and the education sector have been spoken to, and information about FGM is contained in Working Together to Safeguard Children, the main multi-agency guidance on safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. In 2006, the Department of Health produced a separate DVD on healthcare for professionals, as this involves some specialist and difficult procedures, which I do not want to go into. We are working extremely hard on this very important issue. As the noble Baroness mentioned, the numbers involved are quite staggering. Tens of thousands of women may have had this done to them.

Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, my noble friend the Minister has rightly referred to the barbaric mutilation of children. If, later in life when those children have grown up, they are prepared to bring evidence forward, does he feel that the services are such that prosecutions can successfully be brought about at that time in retrospect?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend makes a good point. I would have to take advice on how retrospective that action could be. I imagine that action could be taken, but I will have to get back to my noble friend in writing.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, the Minister mentioned the 2003 Act, but that Act is comparatively recent and the offence in this country goes back long before that. I think that he has said that there have been no successful prosecutions. Some cases must result in a post-treatment infection. Those people would then present either to their doctor or to their local NHS treatment centre, which surely should be able to detect things at an early stage. What can be done to improve that process?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that such situations are where these cases are spotted. I mentioned that 20 to 30 cases are being investigated. It is extremely difficult to get people to make statements. There is a cultural issue here; indeed, when I was talking about this issue I found that some of the women involved fear that they will have no chance of marriage unless they go through the procedure because of what happens in their society. That is part of the difficulty. But noble Lords should have no illusions about this; we are intent on doing something about it. The police absolutely have to investigate every case; they are not allowed simply to say, “Oh, this is all a bit difficult”. But to end up with someone being prosecuted is very hard. This is a sensitive area, as I have said.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the majority of the tens of thousands of victims of FGM have already been subjected to the procedure in their countries of origin and that therefore the long-term answer, in addition to the measures being taken by the police in this country, is to build up the

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capacity of NGOs in countries of origin so that they can persuade those Governments not only to sign up to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women but to report promptly on this and take practical measures to stop the practice?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Lord is right. Part of our package of measures is to go out to these countries in conjunction with the NGOs and try to educate and get this message across. We need to educate people and show that this practice is barbaric and an appalling thing to do to women. We hope that by education we can achieve a lot more. The numbers are quite staggering; the World Health Organisation estimates that globally around 100 million to 140 million women and girls have been subjected to this. It is a worldwide issue and that is how we are addressing it.

Lord McColl of Dulwich: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in Ethiopia the incidence of FGM is decreasing and that the degree of it there is minor in comparison to other countries? However, there are places in Africa where the mutilation is appalling. I operated successfully on a little girl of three who had had five of these operations, which had left her completely obstructed and unable to pass urine. The amount of mutilation varies, and in some places the situation is improving.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, that is good news. I hope that our education will help to improve matters. It is a barbaric and appalling practice. There are many cases like the one mentioned by the noble Lord that make one go quite cold with anger and revulsion. It is wonderful to hear that in some countries the situation is getting better. I do not know the statistics for each country.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, the Minister will probably not be aware that many years ago I took the first female circumcision Bill through your Lordships’ House. Is he aware that, if a woman who has had this horrible procedure becomes pregnant, she has to be unstitched? Are all such procedures notifiable? If not, would it not be useful to make them so in order that data can be collected?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, the noble Baroness is to be congratulated on first raising this issue. It is something that I had not focused on until I found that I had to talk about it. She is absolutely right. I mentioned talking to my younger sister, who told me about having to cut women open to do these things. I did not want to go into too much detail, as I found it quite hard to listen to and it is difficult to talk about on the Floor of the House. I asked her whether there was a statutory obligation to report this to people and she told me that, although it was not a statutory obligation, it was normally reported. It is an area that we shall have to look at to make it a statutory-type obligation.

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Viscount Simon: My Lords, my noble friend has given detailed answers to all the questions, especially on support given in various parts of the country. The Metropolitan Police has been offering a reward of £20,000 for information, but does he know of other constabularies that are giving similar rewards?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I am afraid that I do not know the answer to that one. I shall get back to my noble friend in writing.

Lord Acton: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that, in all the years that I have listened to questions and debates on FGM, his statement today is the most welcome? I congratulate him on it.

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much indeed.

Health: Working Hours

11.21 am

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, weekly hours of work, full time and part time, have fallen from 33.2 in the second quarter of 1997 to 32.2 in the second quarter of 2007. In the past 10 years, the number of full-time employees working more than 48 hours a week has fallen by more than 20 per cent. That followed a period in the mid-1990s when working hours were increasing. While there is evidence that suggests giving people choice and control over their working time can enhance occupational health, research has not shown a clear and unequivocal link between the length of time that people work and ill-health.

The Lord Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham: My Lords, while thanking the Minister for his encouraging reply, does he agree that the nation would be healthier, marriage and family life more sustainable and the costs to the NHS less if we all stopped work for one day a week for rest, relationships and relaxation?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the concept of one day’s rest a week has a long historical antecedent. The right reverend Prelate is right that in order to enhance family life and improve the upbringing of children it is helpful if parents are at home as often as they can be. But it is for parents to make that judgment—and it may be decided that in order that one partner can stay at home for a very lengthy period the other works slightly longer than 48 hours a week. It is really for families to make that decision.

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Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, with regard to family life, does the Minister believe in the saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder”?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, not in my own case.

Lord Rosser: My Lords, could my noble friend confirm that the most recent survey in 2006 showed that despite the fall that he has referred to, 3.3 million still work more than an average of 48 hours a week over a 13-week period? In pursuit of their programme for family-friendly policies, what measures do the Government intend to take to reduce that figure of some 3.3 million, and will they consider making it possible for complaints over excessive working hours to be pursued through employment tribunals?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, workers cannot be compelled to work more than 48 hours a week because they have this protection. They can exercise their own choice and opt out—and, as my noble friend indicated, very many do. We recognise that the pressures on some workers to opt out may not be wholly healthy but a reflection of their very low earning power per hour. The Government emphasise that we need to strike a work/life balance that guarantees that sufficient leisure and time at home are available to bring up children. We are concerned that excessive hours can interfere with that. However, workers who are unfairly treated have recourse to tribunals, as my noble friend indicated.

The Lord Bishop of Coventry: My Lords, does the Minister agree that one of the problems inherent in this Question is that there is no definition of the term “work”? Does he also agree that those of us who find that our paid occupation gives us great pleasure would consider that any move to legislate too fiercely in this area would make the Government appear to be killjoys?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I recognise the right reverend Prelate’s point. I have met one or two noble Lords who share his enthusiasm for work. However, there is a difference between work and hours at the workplace that are entered into voluntarily and contract work. As regards a limitation on hours, we are talking about the worker’s contract with the employee. It is important that we recognise that we need to reinforce that position.

Baroness Butler-Sloss: My Lords, does the Minister accept that there may be a different perspective from that of the right reverend Prelate; namely, that employers are very often the reason why many people in all sorts of jobs work very much longer hours? Do the Government think it appropriate to encourage employers to recognise that employees—particularly fathers—may also be parents?

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