Bishop of St Albans calls for stronger enforcement and culture change to tackle lack of FGM prosecutions

“…as well as hoping to get prosecutions, we need to work really hard on changing culture. Law is a blunt instrument. We have loads of laws on drugs and substance abuse and we try to enforce them, but, in that and other areas, we need to keep trying to get behind the issue which is causing the problem in the first place.”

Bishop of St AlbansOn 11th December 2014, Labour Peer Baroness Rendell of Babergh led a debate in the House of Lords to ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage prosecutions of offenders under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003. The Bishop of St Albans, the Rt Revd Alan Smith, spoke in the debate. He welcomed the Government’s Action Plan on FGM and the cross-party consensus on dealing with the issue. He noted that efforts had been made to strengthen the law on FGM through the Serious Crime Bill, but cautioned that existing legislation needed to be better enforced, if prosecution rates were to rise. He also called for a renewed effort to understand and challenge the cultural underpinnings of the practice, in order to see lasting change.

The Lord Bishop of St Albans: I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Rendell, for highlighting this important area and giving us yet another opportunity to air some of these complex but vitally important matters. I pay tribute to her determination in trying to keep this issue in the public domain. I also thank Her Majesty’s Government for the splendid, recently published action plan. It is encouraging that many people want to make an impact on this problem, across all the parties. That is the secret. We need to get cross-party support and expand it much more widely.

Yesterday marked the end of a 16-day campaign, the origins of which lie with the Women’s Global Leadership Institute. The 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence campaign began on 25 November—the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women—and ended yesterday, 10 December, which was Human Rights Day. A specific part of this campaign is to target the ending of FGM.

Within my own sphere of operation within the Anglican Communion, the Mothers’ Union, which has more than 4 million members worldwide, has participated in this campaign. Indeed, in my own diocese of St Albans we have recently had a debate on gender-based violence, including the horror of FGM. In response to that, we have committed ourselves as a diocese to campaign on this issue and to try to raise it across all sorts of different bodies and groups. As a direct result of that and other initiatives, in the last few days I have tabled a number of Questions to Her Majesty’s Government on the subject of FGM.

This debate is specifically about encouraging prosecutions under the 2003 Act—something which, as we have already heard, has not so far been accomplished, although I understand that that may change shortly. I also note that under the Serious Crime Bill, which is now having its Second Reading in the other place, we have been beefing up the legislation in several areas relating to this. For example, the scope for prosecuting someone for assisting an offence of FGM overseas is being extended to all residents of the UK, not just permanent residents. There will be a guarantee of lifelong anonymity for anyone who is alleged to have been the victim of FGM, which is more likely to make victims feel willing to come forward. There will be a new offence of failing to protect a girl from risk of FGM on the part of someone with parental responsibility for her, and female genital mutilation protection orders will be introduced. Those are all things which I warmly welcome. It is intended that they will help to prevent vacation cutting, while allowing the child to stay with her family and not be taken into care.

I know that a number of your Lordships will share my regret that one amendment was lost earlier in the passage of that legislation. It sought to add to FGM protection orders the words:

“For the purpose of determining whether an operation is necessary for the mental health of a girl or woman, it is immaterial whether she or any other person believes that the operation is required as a matter of custom or ritual”.

I did not take part in the debate at that stage but I understand that the amendment was rejected because some people believe that it is already covered in the 2003 Act. However, in my mind it highlights that, while we are busy trying to pass more legislation, somehow we are not getting convictions under the existing legislation. We have already heard that there have been a number of prosecutions in France, and I think that just last month there was a successful prosecution in Uganda. I found myself wondering whether what we need is not more legislation but to work out where the blocks are. In particular, for example, do we need to get people from the CPS to go to France to discover what the problems have been in working through this? Are there other blockages? If Uganda is achieving prosecution, surely it cannot be beyond our wit to do the same. If this is going on, it is clearly established, because the evidence is there in some cases. I hope that we can take a close look at why we do not seem to make more progress.

However, I want to underline that, as well as hoping to get prosecutions, we need to work really hard on changing culture. Law is a blunt instrument. We have loads of laws on drugs and substance abuse and we try to enforce them, but, in that and other areas, we need to keep trying to get behind the issue which is causing the problem in the first place. We need to look at how we can help those very often traditional societies. I hear the point being made by my noble friends about sending out signals, but in some of these communities very few people are able to speak English, some of them do not listen to any radio stations that we listen to, and some of them are not able to read what we would call a usual English newspaper. The question is whether some of these signals are being heard. I spent some years working in Walsall in the West Midlands in an area with a large number of people of other cultures. In many ways, they were quite separate from what we accepted as the norm. As well as making a push on convictions, which will send out a strong signal, I hope that we can find ways of engaging much more with the leaders of these communities.

It is very often, I am told—I have no direct experience of this—the older women in the communities who push for this as the norm; it is not just men who see this as an issue. In particular, we need community leaders who are willing to say publicly that they not only do not agree with it, but that they would be willing to marry someone who has not had FGM. There have been one or two such statements and these will dig right into the culture and help us move forward. So, as well as making a push on the legal opportunities, the prosecutions, I hope that we will not lose sight of some very useful material in the national action plan about dealing with cultural issues at the same time.


Lord Faulks (Government Response): …The CPS has appointed lead FGM prosecutors for each CPS area in England and Wales and local police/CPS FGM investigation protocols have been agreed with the 42 police force areas. That deals to some extent with the point made by the right reverend Prelate about the need to skill up prosecutors and the police to make sure that there is not just legislation but some practical understanding of the problems that are to be confronted here…

The Home Office has launched an e-learning tool so that all practitioners are able to undertake an introduction to FGM. There are reforms to social work, education and practice to protect children from FGM and other forms of abuse. There is also work to tackle FGM internationally, and DfID has announced a £35 million programme. The right reverend Prelate referred to our response to the Select Committee’s report and the action plan. I think that all noble Lords will agree that we have done all we can to grapple with this issue, although progress is frustratingly slow…