§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, I rise to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The House sat until a quarter to two last night, and it has already had this Bill before it and passed it through all its stages during the last Parliament. The election supervened before it could get beyond First Reading in the other place. The Bill therefore fell and it has to be reintroduced into this Parliament if it is to become law. Because of the late sitting last night, and because the House already knows all about it—it is all on the file in Hansard— I shall be extremely brief in reintroducing it and I would appeal to my noble friends from all quarters of the House who are supporting the, Bill to be as brief as I know they want to be.
The Bill prohibits an atrocious practice which is customary in certain parts of Africa and West Asia and which has now appeared in this country. I will not harrow the House again by describing it. It is without any religious justification anywhere in the world, including the countries where it is endemic. It is a customary practice and no more.
The practice itself is clearly discouraged and disallowed by the World Health Organisation, so far as it is able to go, and there are programmes financed and helped by the WHO throughout the world to exterpate it by persuasion and education. This particular Bill, which of course applies only to the United Kingdom, has the backing of the following bodies: the British Medical Association; the Royal College of Nursing; the Royal College of Midwives; the National Council of Women; the National Federation of Women's Institutes; the Association of Mental Health Visitors; the Medical Women's Federation; the Anti-Slavery Society; the Roman Catholic Feminists; the Josephine Butler Society; the Minority Rights Group; and the Fawcett Society. The unreserved backing of the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives is striking, and has been throughout.
It remains for me to say a word about the attitude of the other two relevant Royal colleges, the Royal College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The Royal College of Surgeons say, "This is not really our affair and we will take a back seat to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the matter". The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists 991 have made a statement to the effect that the college gives its full support to any measures which will help to eradicate what it regards as a repugnant and unnecessary procedure.
The last time the Bill was going through the House the Royal College made known to me, as its sponsor, and to the Government—to the Ministry of Health, as their sponsoring department—certain reservations about the reporting procedures which were written into the Bill at that time. The Bill, as it was presented last time, required that all operations, as defined in the text of the Bill, would have to be the subject of a report by two medical practitioners. That would in fact have caught 8,000 or 10,000 perfectly legitimate operations, mainly for cancer and pre-cancerous conditions, and in view of the representations from the Government, and on the basis of what the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have said, I have reduced that in the Bill as it is now presented to a report by one general practitioner. So the operation would now be okay simply on the say-so of one general practitioner.
It may be that what follows in the rest of the Bill is capable of improvement: indeed it would be very strange if it were not. I will just remind the House extremely briefly of what is in it. Clause 1(1) says, "You must not perform this operation". Clause 1(2) lays down the penalties you will incur if you do. Clause 2(1) says that you may do it provided that it is for the physical health of the patient. Clause 2(2) says that it must also be done in a hospital or nursing home. Clause 3 says that the Secretary of State shall make regulations to provide for the opinion of the GP to be notified and recorded, and that he shall make penalties for failure to do that.
That is really all I have to say. I know, because the Minister of Health has been courteous enough to discuss his intentions with me, that the Government intend to promote amendments on the Committee stage of the Bill; and I will leave it to the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, to tell the House whatever he thinks fit about what those amendments are likely to be. I will simply say, as I have told him, that I am more than willing to co-operate in putting these amendment to the House. It may be that I shall be able to recommend them all, but perhaps there are one or two where I would prefer to stand back and leave it to the judgment of the House as such as to what ought to be done. I beg to move that the Bill he now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Kennet.)
§ 5.28 p.m.
§ Lord Hatch of Lusby
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for being late but I missed the cue on the monitor until it was rather late. I have not much to add to what was said on Second Reading on 21st April. I do not believe that there is anybody in either House of Parliament who does anything but detest the practice that is the subject of this Bill. However, there is one matter which I believe should be raised on our second time round, in discussing the principles of the Bill and the application of those principles. I should like to refer your Lordships to the 992 most forceful and very important speech made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor at the beginning of our Second Reading on 21st April. The noble and learned Lord had this to say at col. 676 of the Official Report, and I believe it is worthwhile repeating as a quotation. He said:Under Section 18 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously by any means whatsoever wound or cause any grievous bodily harm to any person with intent to do some grievous bodily harm to any person or with intent to resist or prevent the lawful apprehension or detainer of any person shall he liable to imprisonment for life.".He went on:Under Section 20 of the same Act, whosoever shall unlawfully and maliciously wound or inflict any grievous bodily harm upon any other person, either with or without any weapon or instrument, shall be liable to imprisonment for not more than five years".That was a very serious statement made by the head of our judiciary. He made it quite clear that he was speaking in his own capacity and that any such act would naturally go before the courts, which would have final judgment on it.
But he went on in the next paragraph to say with even greater force:I really must make it plain to the House and to the public that it is my solemn opinion that anybody who participates in this country in the excision of a clitoris is guilty of one or both of the offences which I have just read out, and will render himself, and anyone participating in such a procedure will render himself, liable to prosecution for an offence for which a private prosecution is available.".I should like to extract those words "private prosecution". Why a private prosecution? If the noble and learned Lord's judgment is correct on this act, why should it be confined to a private prosecution? That is the first point that I should like the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, to answer.
Then the noble and learned Lord went on to point out that, in the case of a minor under the age of 16, there is no possibility that consent is any defence at all. He continued to point out that it is not just the consent of the minor, but also that it would not be accepted as a defence to use the excuse that the parents had given consent. He concluded by saying:I must also add that I very much doubt whether the consent even of an adult is possible. There is a long, long history of English law, whereby the consent of an adult to a maim is not admissible as a defence, if a person inflicting the maim—which this certainly is—is charged with an offence against the person." [col. 677.]The very simple question that I should like to ask the Government is: how does it come about that our leading judicial authority in Parliament and in the country can make those quite specific judgments—again, with the reservation that it is his own judgment—and yet, despite the fact that there has been public evidence that this offence has been committed, no police action has been taken, so far as I know, and no prosecution has either been made or is pending. In other words, despite the very strong and welcome words of the noble and learned Lord, it appears that the evidence that this practice has taken place within this country is not regarded by the authorities as sufficient for a prosecution. That is the only additional point that I have to make since we last discussed this Bill before the election. The other arguments do not need to be rehearsed.
I hope—the Government having now overcome the panic which they endured in the week-end before we 993 last discussed the Bill and having to use that as an excuse for not co-operating with the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, in the drafting of the Bill—that they are now able to come forward with the propositions which they promised they would do, in order to still the fears of, in particular, the medical profession. I trust that the Government can say to us tonight that they have now had an opportunity of giving their full support and authority to this Bill, so that we may pass it speedily through this House with unanimous consent, as an important social measure laying down the standards which must be achieved by anyone who is living in this country.
§ 5.36 p.m.
§ Baroness Masham of Ilton
My Lords, this is a subject which I do not think your Lordships find attractive. In fact, when a film was shown in your Lordships' House before the Second Reading of the previous Bill, some of your Lordships could not stomach the sight of seeing young girls being mutilated in such a way. The cries of these young girls' anguish were heartrending. We discussed this subject fully in the last Session of Parliament and I think that the Bill was improved, but we now have in Parliament many new Members. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has again brought the matter of prohibiting female circumcision in Britain before your Lordships.
This matter must not be brushed under the carpet. All sorts of practices can and do take place when there is monetary profit to be made. Anyone without medical qualifications can perform an operation. Many surgeons who have worked in the parts of Africa where female circumcision is practised can relate stories of infections and long-lasting problems. The World Health Organisation has given full support to the campaign for the abolition of female circumcision, as has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet.
During the passage of the last Bill, I brought before your Lordships an amendment to include in the penalties for performing an illegal operation when the law is in force the choice of a prison sentence or a fine—a fine was the penalty in the original Bill before my amendment—or both a fine and a prison sentence. I am pleased that your Lordships agreed to that and that it is now in this present Bill. A fine would mean very little to a private practitioner dealing in this kind of practice. But the threat of a prison sentence would, I hope, stop anyone in this country from even contemplating performing such an operation unless an operation was necessary on medical grounds for the physical health of that person or for the rectification of abnormalities. This is written into the Bill which is before your Lordships, but perhaps there is a need for slight amendment at the Committee stage so that general practitioners and midwives are protected in their treatment of patients under their care in the community.
We live in a very mixed and complicated society and demands on our health service are numerous. Last Saturday, the Yorkshire Post printed an article about the wishes of the Community Relations Council. They are urging the Bradford Health Authority to meet the special needs of ethnic minorities. They want staff to understand and have training in racial and cultural awareness. Better understanding between groups is 994 always a good thing, so that people can live in harmony, but we must make it quite clear that this barbaric custom of female circumcision is not to be performed except for medical reasons. The only way to make this crystal clear is to have a simple Act of Parliament outlawing any practice of this sort.
I cannot see that private hospitals are written into the Bill. These are the very places in which this operation might take place. The Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Glenarthur, tells me that they are covered by the Registered Nursing Homes Act 1975. I should be happier if the words "independent hospitals and nursing homes" were written into the Bill. There might he some confusion as some private hospitals in this country are American, and I think that in the United States of America hospitals and nursing homes are defined separately.
We should not leave any stone unturned. I, too, hope that your Lordships will give this Prohibition of Female Circumcision Bill a Second Reading, and that it will have a swift passage on to the statute book, after slight amendment.
§ 5.41 p.m.
§ Baroness Cox
My Lords, I should like to speak again on this important subject because, as I said previously, I believe it draws our attention to a matter of great medical and social concern. Speaking as a nurse and as a sociologist, I should like to repeat, in an abbreviated version of my previous contribution, my support for the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, in the reintroduction of the Bill.
The first point concerns definitions. The term "female circumcision" is generic, covering a range of procedures with degrees of mutilation ranging from the least traumatic (sometimes termed "sunna" circumcision) to the most radical, called "pharaonic" circumcision, or infibulation. The wording of the Bill effectively proscribes all forms of female circumcision. This is to be welcomed, because all the evidence suggests that there are no physical benefits to be gained from any of these practices—rather, there are numerous attendant risks. The health hazards associated with some or all of the procedures have been well documented by health care workers. I shall repeat them briefly, because they are so serious that they must be taken into account in our present deliberations.
First, there are the immediate and short-term physical complications, including haemorrhage, pain, shock, localised infection, septicaemia, difficulties with micturition and damage to adjacent tissue and organs. Then there are the long-term physical complications. They include chronic infection, development of abscesses, scar tissue and/or of cysts and neuromas, dysmennorhoea, dyspareunia and obstetric complications. Yet other secondary and long-term complications may also follow; for example, renal disease resulting from urinary tract infection. In addition to these physical ill-effects, psychological and especially psycho-sexual problems may result. The research evidence is less substantial here, partly because many of the women involved are naturally reluctant to speak on the subject and are influenced by the norms and values of their culture. Often that culture may advocate circumcision as desirable. However, the 995 physical mutilation resulting from circumcision in even its mildest form must be expected to have some adverse psyscho-sexual effects.
Despite these problems, female circumcision is still widely practised in more than 20 countries—in Africa, in Oman, South Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and among the Moslem populations of Indonesia and Malaysia. While it is impossible to estimate precisely the numbers of women involved, well informed sources claim that the order of magnitude is at the level of tens of millions. A small number of cases have recently been reported in Europe—in France and in the United Kingdom. Hence the significance, the timeliness and the importance of this Bill.
May I refer briefly to the reasons for circumcision, because a practice which is so widespread must have powerful social and cultural legitimation and be supported by many members of the communities involved. The reasons for this support for circumcision include beliefs that it is desirable because it is hygienic; because it prevents promiscuity; because it is in keeping with age-old tradition; and because it symbolises a girl's transition to adulthood. Also, sometimes, especially in Moslem communities, it may be carried out in the sincere but erroneous belief that it is demanded by Islamic faith.
It is perhaps relevant very briefly to reiterate that many of these beliefs are inconsistent in so far as they bear no relation to empirical reality. For example, there is no correlation between female circumcision and hygiene: rather the reverse, because it is so often associated with infection. With regard to the traditional association with the rite de passage into adulthood. this, too, is often wrong. It is anachronistic, because circumcision is often performed on girls who are so young that they cannot be seen as nearing adolescence. Finally, the belief that it is a religious requirement is inconsistent with the facts, because it is carried out by adherents of many faiths: Roman Catholics. Protestants, Copts and Animists—faiths which clearly do not require it.
Given these anomalies, it is important to explore other reasons for the perpetuation of this custom. The informative report on female circumcision by the minority rights group suggests several reasons, including the financial incentives for those who perform the operations; the influence of older women who have themselves been circumcised; the power of community pressure; and the suspicion that westerners are trying to eliminate traditional cultures. It is important to understand these reasons so that health educators in this country can take them into account if they are working with people who adhere to these cultures who might be subject to the influence.
Turning now, very briefly, to the case for action and legislation, given the complexity of the situation, attempts to bring about change must obviously be sensitive to the multiplicity of factors involved. Recent initiatives have consisted of two kinds of approach, legislative and educative. Several organisations have made very strong recommendations designed to try to eliminate the practice of female circumcision. I mention briefly four such initiatives. I will not repeat the detailed account of these initiatives which was 996 given in our previous debate, but those to which reference was made were, first, the World Health Organisation seminar in Khartoum in 1979; secondly, UNICEF's position on female circumcision in May 1979; thirdly, the Council of Representatives of the International Council of Nurses; and, fourthly, the Royal College of Nursing of the United Kingdom's strong support for this Bill.
I should like to conclude by referring briefly once again to two kinds of argument which I have heard in opposition to this Bill and to the whole idea of passing legislation designed to prohibit the practice of female circumcision in this country. First, there are those who argue that it is wrong to impose what they regard as "western values" on people from other cultures. Secondly, others claim that if the practice is made illegal it will merely be driven underground, performed in insanitary conditions, and be fraught with even more danger of complications.
As I argued previously, I do not believe that these arguments constitute grounds for opposing this Bill. On the first point, there are surely some cultural traditions which are so antithetical to human wellbeing that they cannot be regarded as sacrosanct. Cannibalism and the burning of widows are two examples. I would argue that the mutilation inherent in female circumcision could be seen in a similar light, especially as it is all too frequently carried out on small children who are not in a position to choose for themselves. On the second point—the danger that the practice will be driven underground—this is clearly a possibility. However, one may hope that it will be outweighed by the deterrent effect of the law.
I understand that in other countries where female circumcision is widely practised the symbolic effect of the passing of this law in this country will be helpful to them as a precedent. In fact, since speaking in the previous debate on this topic I have received letters of support from women in those countries endorsing this argument and supporting this Bill. I conclude by reiterating my strong support for the noble Lord. Lord Kennet, in his endeavours to bring his Bill through in this Session.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Baroness Gaitskell
My Lords, I am here for one very special purpose, which is to give as much praise as I can to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for introducing this Bill. I do not believe that even he realises what a boon it will be to women and how much women—particularly those from India and Africa—still suffer from these most ignoble and tragic practices.
In our last debate on this subject, I was sickened by the amount of slight hysteria and dishonesty which some women produced—which some of our women produced—about Indian women. They tried to make excuses for these ignorant and primitive Indian women, and I did not much like that. But now we have a Bill that will really make up for all the mistakes which have been made in the past. The truth is that it is an outrage to pass this Bill in this House—there is nothing to be said for it. I was appalled by the fact that English women speaking in our last debate tried to excuse the practices we were discussing. I did not like that at all.
997 I am absolutely thrilled that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has this wonderful Bill in this country. After all, we can be kind and welcome people from other countries, but we must not import primitive and ignorant cruelties and practices just because some other countries have them. It has been a pleasure to read this Bill and to learn how much we have been doing in order to get rid of some of the practices we have heard about.
We were pretty swamped by noble Lords talking about the National Health Service yesterday, but there seems absolutely no excuse to have female circumcision. It is a cruel and ignorant practice and there is nothing low enough that I can say about it. We should not allow it to be imported into this country. It is utterly wrong and it is cruel. They savage our wonderful National Health Service with these practices; they make attempts to save it when they start this sort of hanky-panky. I cannot praise the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, enough. He has done a wonderful thing for women in this country, and I hope in other countries where they are still so backward and where the women still have to cope with these terrible practices.
I started the day by feeling rather ill, but I insisted on coming here because I did not wish to miss this debate. It is so important to women—it could not be more important. A great deal of rubbish has been spoken. People went to Harley Street and were given ridiculously little treatment for £15—I know about this; I am not speaking "in the air". I could not believe that some of our women were on the side of those poor women from other countries who had to suffer so much from their men and from their own women. I could not believe that this was happening.
I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will continue to succeed with this Bill because a more cruel operation I do not know of—and I have actually done a little medicine in my time, although not as much as I wanted. I hope that today the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will go away feeling really proud and grand. It is, after all, enough that women from other countries can come and live in ours. We are doing very well by them in allowing them to live in this country. It is nice for them and it is nice of us to do it. But we do not have to import their kind of rules.
The point is that such people are not in a position to teach us anything about sexual behaviour. What have they to teach us about intimate sexual matters? Absolutely nothing. That is another plus for the noble Lord, Lord Kennet—that we have rid ourselves of that aspect.
I am extremely happy about the Second Reading of this Bill. I wish the noble Lord all success. He has a large view of the human condition and there will be thousands of women who will bless him for the rest of their lives for what he has done to allow them to live in this country, to live freely, to do the right things, and not be subjected to cruel and stupid practices such as female circumcision. There is not one sentence that one can make in favour of that practice. It is evil from beginning to end and we should not touch it. That is all I want to say.
§ 5.58 p.m.
§ Lady Kinloss
My Lords, I am glad that it has been possible for the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, to introduce this Bill a second time. Having spoken in the previous Second Reading debate, I have only a little to say that I have not said before. In the meantime, I have been glad to have the comments of several African friends who were delighted by the principles of the Bill. However, they found our constitutional procedures difficult to understand in that the Bill did not become an Act the first time. I trust that this Bill will have a fair wind both here and in another place and will become an Act in due course.
In August of this year my husband was invited to the Second Congress of International Somali Studies in Hamburg. Although he was unable to attend, he received all the papers. Among them was a paper which was given by Dr. Mahdi Ali Dirie, who is a lecturer in obstetrics and gynaecology in the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery in Mogadishu. His paper was entitled, Prospects of Undertaking an Educational Programme Against Female Circumcision in Somalia. In it he recites all the medical reasons for a programme against female circumcision in a country in which almost all girls are circumcised in one form or another—this from the age of four to eight years in most cases. Also, no less than 92 per cent. suffer infibulation, which is the most severe form. He with others considers that this can only be overcome by consistent education of the women in his country. We must take seriously the opinion of African doctors with specialised knowledge of this practice.
Dr. Dirie is not alone, for the World Health Organisation has urged concerned countries to study and implement ways of stopping this harmful practice. As a result, a seminar sponsored by the World Health Organisation was held in the Sudan in 1979 at which the Eastern Mediterranean Region countries of the World Health Organisation participated. It was agreed that health education especially in this field was the most cherished goal.
For many centuries female circumcision was shrouded in secrecy and taboo, but recently health workers and social scientists concerned for the physical, psychological and moral well-being of women and children have brought it to light. In a documentary series entitled "Forty Minutes", BBC2 showed, on 3rd March this year, a film entitled, "Female Circumcision". It astonished many people in this country, not only laymen but doctors and nurses as well, who have admitted to me that they had never heard of it before. Perhaps we in this country need to be alerted to the dangers and suffering that follow this form of operation, particularly in its most extreme form. So I wish this Bill every success.
§ 6.2 p.m.
§ Baroness Jeger
My Lords, I am very glad to be able to say again that my noble friends and I on this side of the House warmly support this Bill and congratulate Lord Kennet on the initiative he has taken and all the work he has done, in consultation, to try to make this an acceptable Bill and an improvement on our earlier attempts. I agree with those speakers who have suggested that this need not be a long debate, because we did argue the principles very fully before. There are 999 just one or two points on which I hope the Minister can give us some guidance.
To begin with, I hope that the Minister is going to give the blessing of the Government to this Bill and try to find the time to ensure its speedy passage. I may be one of those who are looking forward to having a general election as early as possible, but I hope it will not be so soon that this Bill falls again.
The first question which I think would help the House goes back to an exchange in the House of Commons on 9th November 1982 (col. 132), which came soon after revelations in the Observer newspaper about this operation taking place in London. The Minister of Health said that he shared abhorrence of the practice. Then he said this:Unethical practices by doctors are a matter for the General Medical Council to consider, and we have written asking the Council what action, if any. it proposes to take over these allegations. We shall consider urgently, in the light of its reply, whether any additional steps are needed".That was on 9th November 1982, and I am wondering whether the Minister has received a reply yet from the General Medical Council, what the reply was, and what steps we are urgently taking, as he promised in the House of Commons those many months ago.
I hope also that the Minister will be able to clear up some of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch. There does seem to be some scope for argument about the relevance of Section 18 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act in these conditions. I think one of the main difficulties is that that Act does not apply to Scotland, and I am sure we should all much regret any exclusion of Scotland because of the 1861 Act. It may well be time that that Act was looked at again.
Not only would it help the House to have that matter cleared up, but there does seem to he confusion outside the House. For instance, the GMC, with its Ethical Committee, would, one would have thought, take some responsibility for this. But I have a report from the Guardian of 3rd March 1983 reporting a meeting as follows:The Ethical Committee's private view was that the operation was abhorrent, but that only Parliament had the power to ban it.That does suggest that the doctors do need this new legislation in order to proceed in the way that this House would wish.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, raised the point of the penalties under Clause 3, and I have some sympathy with her doubts about whether a fine is adequate. I have a feeling that the kinds of doctors who might be tempted into this sort of shady illegality might be those who charge the highest fees and collect the most money, as often happened in the bad old days before the 1967 abortion law reform. But I would hope that a doctor who was fined under Clause 3 of this Bill would be automatically reported to the General Medical Council, which I hope would take the appropriate steps. After all, we have all known of doctors struck off for much less serious offences than the mutilation which is the subject of this Bill.
I am sure the whole House appreciated the well-informed contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, and she has put the points so clearly that I want 1000 to save the time of the House by not repeating them. I am sure, too, that we are all very glad our friend Lady Gaitskell has come down here so bravely, because she was not well this morning. She has shown once again the strength of her convictions and her toughness; she puts a lot of other people to shame by coming and making such a forthright statement as she has done today.
Lady Kinloss has again given us some very special and very important information which we much appreciate. I can only hope that the Minister is going to be as co-operative as I know he wants to be, and that he will be able to persuade his colleagues—especially those who arrange the timetable of our business—to make sure that very soon there is adequate time for us to see this Bill on to the statute book.
§ 6.8 p.m.
§ Lord Glenarthur
My Lords, may I repeat what has been said in your Lordships' House on an earlier occasion: that is, that the Government share with the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and those other noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon the repugnance with which he views the practice of female circumcision. I hope that that satisfies to some extent the views of the noble Baroness, Lady Gaitskell. It is something that has no place in our society, and we would never wish it to become accepted among any part of our population. That, I believe, is a view shared also by those who speak for the minority communities in this country.
We cannot, of course, legislate for other countries, but we have through the World Health Organisation added our voice to encourage those who, through exhortation and education, are trying to eradicate these practices abroad. So I was encouraged to hear what my noble friend Lady Cox said about the possible effect on other countries of this Bill being passed in this country.
The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, is to be congratulated on again bringing forward such a Bill. My noble friend Lord Trefgarne has already stated on the previous occasion, on 21st April, that the Government acknowledge the case for a firm statement in legislation that would put beyond doubt the illegality of the practice of female circumcision. I will not, therefore, take up your Lordships' time with descriptions of the law on this subject as it now stands. But the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, raised a question of legislation in regard to the remarks of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor in April. I am afraid I do not think I can go very far in explaining what my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor said on that occasion. What he said was said in his learned capacity, if I may put it that way. He said it as a matter of fact.
So far as private prosecutions are concerned—and I stand to be corrected by my noble and learned friend—I think the Director of Public Prosecutions could step in. A prosecution would not have to be a private prosecution in the way suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby. But this is a very technical and legal matter and I hope the noble Lord will understand that I am not in quite the same position as my noble and learned friend.
1001 Let me simply say that, subject to certain amendments which the Government feel are necessary, we support the principle of the Bill and hope that it will reach the statute book. The only point at issue, therefore, is how best the objectives of the Bill are to be achieved. The Government feel it essential that the Bill does not in any way impede operations which are legitimate and necessary to any aspect of a woman's health. I know the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will agree with me about this.
There are a number of operations, mentioned by the noble Lord, for cancerous, pre-cancerous and other conditions which must be undertaken where medically necessary. The Government would not wish the Bill to impinge in any way on such operations, nor to impose upon doctors any bureaucratic tasks in relation to operations that are and will continue to be medically necessary. Similarly, there are operations of what might be called a cosmetic nature, which may properly be undertaken but which are not required for the direct physical health of the woman. We are not convinced that these are completely covered by the wording of the Bill as it now stands.
We recognise the concern that many of your Lordships may feel if the exemptions are widened too far. We feel the Bill would be improved if specific provision were included to prohibit an operation on the grounds of a desire for it for ritual or customary reasons.
Finally, we are concerned that the restriction of legitimate operations to registered medical practitioners working in the National Health Service and registered private hospitals could leave the position of midwives in some doubt. It is part of their professional function, in both home and hospital deliveries, to undertake minor surgical procedures which might be prohibited by the Bill in its present form.
The noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton, asked about the status of independent hospitals under the Bill as it stands. I can tell her that in the context of the Bill a nursing home is a nursing home and in this country must comply with the law whether it is American financed or not. That point would be covered by the Bill and I hope the noble Baroness will accept what I say on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asked about the blessing of the Government. I hope I have made it clear that the Bill has the Government's blessing provided that it can be amended in Committee in the way I have broadly described to the House. As to the question of the danger of a general election, I do not think the noble Baroness need be in any particular fear of that as the result of the last election was perfectly satisfactory.
The noble Baroness also asked about the General Medical Council, which in the autumn of last year was requested to comment on the Bill. We received its comments in May of this year. The Council gave the clear view that it would deplore such operations, so it considers them to be unethical. The Council was concerned about the problem of drawing a dividing line between female circumcision and other surgery which did not arise from a strictly medical need, and I think that that is a point I covered earlier in my 1002 speech. The final point made by the noble Baroness relating to the legislation as described by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor was covered by what I said earlier.
As I have said, what is needed is a clear statement of law to prohibit operations which have no medical justification, while not inhibiting or obstructing legitimate health care. If suitable changes can be made in this House, as I am sure they can, to meet the points I have raised, then the Government would have no reason to oppose the Bill in an amended form. To these ends the Government will be very happy to assist the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, with the drafting of suitable amendments.
§ Lord Hatch of Lusby
My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, will he expand on the answer he gave to that part of my speech which referred to the statement of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor? If it is the case that the Director of Public Prosecutions can intervene under present law, why has he not done so?
§ Lord Glenarthur
My Lords, the fact is that I am not in a position to speak with authority on the law in the same way as the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor. I hope that the noble Lord will accept that. The fact remains that it is no good trying to prosecute someone if one does not know what has been done. I do not think we can take this argument much further as I would need to seek legal advice on this point. The noble and learned Lord was making a particular point in referring to excision of one part of the anatomy only. If the noble Lord looks that up he will see what was said. We understand that it was considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions but insufficient evidence was available to take action on the particular case to which the noble Lord refers.
§ 6.16 p.m.
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, many valuable points have been made in this debate; many of them familiar, although not all. I am most grateful to all those who have spoken and delighted that the Bill, in a suitably amended form, is to get a fair wind from the Government.
There is one point only over which I should like to go back. It was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, and was about the intervention of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor last time. It is not for this House to consider possible interpretations of the 1861 Act. Nor is it for this House to consider the bringing, or not bringing, of prosecutions under a given piece of legislation. However, I should like to say that the extracts from the speech of the Lord Chancellor which were read out by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, might have given an impression to noble Lords who were not present at the time that the Lord Chancellor was against the introduction of this Bill on the ground that the operation was already illegal under existing law. May I correct that impression, if anyone did glean it. The noble Lord the Lord Chancellor was very careful to be neutral about the present Bill. Having said what he had to say—which was read out by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, this afternoon—he went on to say: 1003This may be an argument for the Bill or it may be an argument against the Bill".I conclude by once again thanking everyone, and especially the Government for showing more of their hand this time. I hope that between us we shall make a piece of good law out of the Bill.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.