Why has there never been a successful prosecution for female genital mutilation in the UK?

There haven't been any convictions for FGM in the UK since it was criminalised 28 years ago, a remarkable fact that has led to the formation of a new Home Affairs Committee chaired by Keith Vaz MP.

As long ago as 1952 the UN Commission on Human Rights condemned the practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), and in 1985 the Prohibition of Female Circumcision Act criminalised it in England and Wales. These little-reported matters should hardly come as a surprise. FGM is a barbaric act, borne out of historic customs developed in male-dominated societies obsessed with female virginity. It is cruel and brutal by almost any standards.

Yet, according to last month’s report by the Royal College of Midwives, there are over 66,000 victims in England and Wales. So, one stunning question must be asked: why has not a single person in England or Wales been successfully prosecuted since FGM was criminalised 28 years ago?

That is the key question behind the major inquiry to be chaired by Keith Vaz MP, announced by the Home Affairs Committee on 18th December. The common perception is that FGM and Islam go hand-in-hand, but many Muslims and academics argue that the practice is a cultural rather than religious one. This contention has traction. The practice is condemned even in Saudi Arabia, and outside the UK FGM shows a clearer link with poverty than with Islam. For instance, it is practised in pockets of Africa far outside the reaches of Sharia.

Then again, the practice is widespread in the Muslim-dominated Middle East, and most religions, and perhaps especially Islam, are not only a matter of theology but also of culture. Indeed, the best that some Muslim clerics will do is to condemn only some types of FGM while refusing to apologise for what they consider to be Islamic approval of one particular method, sunna circumcision.

But while there is debate about the link between Islamic communities and FGM abroad, the relationship in Britain appears much clearer. And perhaps it is the significance of that fact that must be recognised by any investigation into the reasons behind the lack of criminal prosecutions. 

I am not the first person to observe that many liberal intellectuals seem incapable of viewing Islam as anything other than as victim. What it is about the world’s most totalitarian religion that has liberals scurrying to defend it is hardly within the scope of this article. Suffice it to say, there is a ready-made army with an arsenal of laptops and access to highbrow media, ready to condemn any policy of criminal prosecutions that can be accused of failing to take into account the sensibilities of Muslim communities.

And how many times have we encountered those shouting for the rights of women, but who fail to raise their voices when the oppressed happen to be Muslim? Is female subservience really to be tolerated so long as it is perpetuated in the name of a rabidly male-dominated religion? As a result, the police, the CPS and even government must tread carefully, knowing that any ingress in this arena is ripe for frenzied accusations of racism and Islamophobia. 

But what on earth would right-minded people say if it was little white English girls that were being mutilated? Howls of protest would rightly echo through society and prosecutions would undoubtedly follow. Surely if the ethnicity of the victims is a factor behind the failure to prosecute in the face of mounting awareness of FGM, such inaction would be a more worthy target of allegations of racism than would a robust policy of investigation and prosecution.

Perhaps the real difficulty lies in detection. Of course, the physical signature left on victims means that detection should be straightforward, but only at the cost of a gross invasion of the privacy of the girls in question. 

One can imagine how a programme of investigations could be carried out as a matter of routine in primary schools when girls reach a particular age, perhaps five or six. But how can one devise a screening system that avoids taunts of racism but that would not see entire schools needlessly checked merely to avoid those accusations in the first place?

As a practising barrister, I am frustrated when I see a lacuna in the law that facilitates unconscionable conduct. But that is nothing compared with the anger we should feel as parents and as UK citizens when we see vital laws rendered wholly ineffective and child abuse go unpunished as a result. 

Those who live in our country have the right to be protected from FGM just as much as from the likes of forced marriage and honour killings. And young victims unaware that they are victims, and who don’t cry for help because they don’t realise they need it, are the ones most in need of the state’s protection. 

So here’s hoping that Keith Vaz’s inquiry helps to put matters right before the damning statistics unveiled by the Royal College of Midwives are weighed down by a further 66,000 victims.

The Royal Courts of Justice in London, UK. (Photo: Getty)
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.