Is new FGM legislation really needed?

Picture of Christopher Chope, a white man in late middle age wearing glasses with thin metal rims, a white shirt, a blue tie and a dark grey jacket.Last Friday a bill sponsored by Lord Berkeley, a Labour life peer (who was formerly a hereditary peer) to extend family law protection to girls deemed at risk of FGM, was derailed by Christopher Chope, the Tory MP for Christchurch in Dorset who shouted “object” when it was read on a Friday afternoon, a method he has used to scupper a number of other private members’ bills (most famously the “upskirting” bill) on the grounds that they might have been passed onto the statute book without proper debate or scrutiny. The government supported the bill, and might well include its provisions in a future government bill if this bill fails. The reaction to Chope’s action was, as might be expected, furious and often included comparisons with the upskirting bill incident; Rachael Swindon tweeted “there is seriously something wrong with this guy” while others called for a bill to stop the use of “object”. (More: Shifting Sands.)

The issue of whether Parliamentary rules should allow a single MP to stop a bill proceeding has been raised before; we have too many of these rules but really, private members’ bills should be shown more respect and debated at a time when MPs are more likely to be in the chamber rather than on a Friday afternoon when, it seems, few of them will be there. Rather than relying on one MP to shout “object”, holding the debate another time seems more logical and more democratic. What also needs debating, however, is the complete lack of scepticism in the reaction to this incident about the prevalence of FGM in this country. It is naturally assumed that all girls whose parents or grandparents come from countries where FGM goes on are at risk, an assumption for which there is little evidence.

To give an example, David Alton, a former Liberal Democrat MP and now a cross-bench peer, gave a speech in the House of Lords supporting the bill which used a lot of the familiar emotive arguments (the text starts with a library picture of rusty and bloodied instruments) and quoted a number of the statistics commonly used to raise alarm about FGM in this country but in themselves do not prove that it is happening. For example, he quotes the familiar statistic of “5,391 newly recorded cases” in England during 2016-7 and “9,179 total attendances in the same period where FGM was identified or a medical procedure for FGM was undertaken”. He also claims that “according to the NHS”, there were 112 cases where the woman was born in the UK and in 57 cases, the procedure was ‘known’ to have taken place in the UK. Yet, he does not state how it is known, or how long ago the procedures took place, or indeed whether they were FGM at all or in fact non-traditional genital piercings.

Alton also quotes the World Health Organisation as saying that FGM’s immediate complications include “severe pain … excessive bleeding … swelling … fever … infections … urinary problems … wound healing problems … shock” and “death”, yet if it were taking place on any scale in the UK, we would not need to rely on “new cases” recorded in adult women giving birth or having smear tests or other gynaecological work years after the event; these things would have been recorded. No large community which has been in this country for 30 years or more could have kept something like this a secret, skilfully avoiding prosecution, for this long. If someone was piercing ears, let alone performing genital alterations, without observing proper hygiene, ultimately they would cause an infection that would result in someone needing medical treatment.

If you were wondering what the bill actually does, the Family Law Journal has this information, which is missing from much of the emotive commentary (including any of the mainstream media coverage):

The purpose of the proposed amendment is to enable the courts to make interim care orders under the Children Act 1989 in child cases relating to FGM, in addition to FGM protection orders. If a court was satisfied that there were reasonable grounds for believing that the child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm, an interim care order could be made. The interim care order would mean that a local authority would have shared parental responsibility for the child concerned until a final hearing.

At present, provisions under the Children Act 1989 enable interim care orders to be made only in certain ‘family proceedings’ as defined by the Act. These ‘family proceedings’ do not currently include proceedings under the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003—which Lord Berkeley’s Bill seeks to change.

However, making care orders on the basis of alleged risk of FGM raises the possibility of children being taken into foster care or even children’s homes, and if this is the case, one has to ask if any extra money is going to be made available for the care of a whole new category of looked-after children. The care system is already overstretched looking after children who are at risk of neglect or ongoing abuse as well as those whose parents are unable to care for them for one reason or another; foster homes, if available, could be miles away from their home and school and not necessarily culturally suitable. On top of this, the outcomes in terms of exam results, employment, homelessness and so on for care leavers are not great; to add a group of young people to this to prevent a single harmful thing (particularly if it is not one of the severe forms that involves removing parts of the labia, for example) when they are being well-cared for and not otherwise abused (or worse, when the suspicion is influenced by prejudice or based on rumour or hearsay) could prove worse than simply leaving them alone.

It is my belief that FGM is a minor issue in the UK which is being exaggerated for a mixture of racist reasons and the need for a coterie of professional activists to maintain their reputations and careers. If it were taking place on a significant scale, we would have more reliable indicators such as girls and young women presenting with complications of recently-performed FGM, or dying. Much of the non-academic literature includes appeals to emotion and prejudice, including the shared assumption that “of course” FGM is happening here, in the absence of serious evidence. This gives a green light to those who seek to impose intrusive surveillance on some of the minorities concerned, particularly Muslims of African origin. Before we cheer on further legislation, we must have more reliable evidence that it is needed.

Image source: Chris McAndrew, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence.

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