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
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
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.”