In February 2019 MP for Christchurch Christopher Chope objected to a Private Members Bill that sought to amend the Children Act to allow family courts to issue fgm (Female Genital Mutilation) interm care orders, on families already placed on fgm protection orders. Chope’s objection was based on a principle he’s long fought for since he became an MP in the 1980s: That all Bills that seek to ascend into the English law book should go through the hard won rights of Parliament to scrutinise Bills to the fullest degree. This is the utmost important power of Parliament as it secures parliamentary sovereignty over proposed legislation, and in doing so it guarantees the British public the laws their expected to abide by have been scrutinised to the highest pediment by their elected representatives.
Alongside Chope’s objection of principle was the possibility the amendment could lead to “much injustice and family trauma… in cases which are unwarranted” . The possibility of unwarranted cases follows in light of the recent British Medical Journal (BMJ) that found there is “no evidence that large numbers of girls living in the UK are having fgm” and despite “over half the girls referred to a specialist clinic with suspected fgm were not cut… their families had to bear the emotional and financial weight of a prolonged social care and police investigation”. The proposed amendment to the Children Act will add to the numbers of false accusations, as interm care orders allows for the removal of children on a lower burden of proof. As the BMJ indicates, instead of proposing more legislation to tackle fgm, Parliament should instead be scrutinising the legislation already in place (with particular attention to the fgm protection orders) and consider the effects of the alarmist panicked-driven discourse surrounding fgm that have led to authorities issuing impulsive protection orders resulting in an array of false accusations – in particular racially-motivated false accusations as a result of the Government’s bigoted and empirically inaccurate view there are at “at risk” ethnic groups.
A 2017 BBC Newsnight report highlighted one of these racially-motivated false accusations when a fgm protection order was placed on a child who had a mother from an “at risk” ethnic group. The mother “had not had fgm” and if the discourse around fgm honoured the presumption of innocence, the authorities would have taken the mother’s word fgm wasn’t done on her child, as she herself protested she would never “harm her child in anyway”. The Government’s own safeguarding guidelines, whilst full of shortcomings, specifically identify an absence of fgm in the family as the main indicator a child will not undergo the practise. Despite this, because the mother was from an “at risk” group the authorities dismissed her claims and bypassed the Government’s own guidelines, and subjected her to the trauma of her child being taken away for weeks to verify the allegations through an invasive vaginal examination (which in its own right raises considerable legal and ethical concerns surrounding the right to privacy and bodily autonomy). In the end the authorities suspicions amounted to nothing more than a racially-motivated false accusation. Other families haven’t been so lucky as the same false accusations have led to their children being taken away for more than a year. The Newsnight report is just one example of how fgm laws have played out in our country, and despite it being frequent it is an under-reported matter. With all the false accusations that have come as a result of the fgm laws today, proposing new laws such as the interm care orders will only add to more racially-motivated false accusations.
There is much research to show fgm false accusations are guided by racial anxieties which ironically end up harming the very people the Government claims it wants to protect. The racial anxieties underpinning these false accusations was made public in 2013 when a member of the House of the Lord’s no less, posted a lengthy diatribe on Facebook accusing families of subjecting their daughters to fgm. The sole piece of evidence behind this serious allegation which carries a fourteen year prison sentence, was the Baroness witnessing an Ethiopian plane “heaving” (in the Baroness’ own words) with British Africans which she subsequently viewed as “suspect” and reported to the authorities. This outrageous intrusion was only possible due to the racialised othering the fgm legislation has created, which prevented a group of young women travelling overseas to enjoy their summer holiday to be seen as exactly that. Due to their ethnicity and location of travel, the racial anxieties underpinning the fgm legislation immediately grouped these women in an “at risk” territory. Needless to say as it is so common with the outcome of these investigations, the authorities found no findings of fgm. Whilst it would be comforting to regard the Baroness’ behaviour as out of the ordinary, it is unfortunately reflective of the wider public’s knee-jerk reaction (particularly in those who work in hospitals and schools) to issue fgm protection orders on nothing more than the bigoted and empirically inaccurate assumption there are “at risk” groups. The fgm laws have enabled racist anxieties being justified as government-backed safeguarding measures, when in fact the laws are recklessly racially profiling innocent Britons. It’s sad to conclude that as long as the Government propose more legislation that reinforce the racialised othering of entire groups “at risk” such as the proposed interm care orders, racially-motivated false accusations like this incident will continue.
Unfortunately the most damning outcome of the high volume of fgm false accusations is the diminished credibility of the Government who rightly want to protect girls. In reality the racially-motivated false accusations have in fact exposed girls to a trauma they would’ve never experienced if it wasn’t for the Government’s baseless insistence there are “at risk” groups. Added with the number of children wrongly removed from their families stretching the already underfunded care system, it is a national shame that taxpayers are having to foot the bill for this normalisation of bigotry.
As this Bill makes its way through Parliament, it seems the principled reasons behind Chope’s objection have all but vanished as MPs avoid asking tough question (what’s the evidence there are “at risk” groups? have fgm protection orders been effective? is there a possibility introducing interm care orders will lead to more innocent children being removed from their families? how do we ensure in the fight against fgm individuals from an entire ethnic group aren’t tarnished with the same brush?) to what will cause massive trauma to families who come to find themselves falsely accused on the back of taxpayers money. With all of these issues at hand Parliament should examine how effective the fgm legislation in place has been, rather than attempting to introduce new measures that will only add to the rising numbers of racially-motivated false accusations.
UPDATE: The amendment to introduce fgm interm care orders was passed in March 2019.