'Confusion' over FGM law exemptions
Police, midwives and campaigners remain confused over whether s o-called designer vagina operations fall within female genital mutilation laws, a group of MPs have said.
The Government has previously said the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 does not contain any exemptions for cosmetic surgery and it has no plans to amend the legislation specifically to prohibit female genital cosmetic surgery.
But in a report on FGM, the Home Affairs Select Committee said despite Government reassurances there is still confusion and the Act should be amended to make it clear female genital cosmetic surgery would be a criminal offence if conducted on girls under 18 without physical or mental health justification.
Committee chair Keith Vaz said: "The law relating to female genital cosmetic surgery is ambiguous and must be clarified. We cannot tell communities in Sierra Leone and Somalia to stop a practice which is freely permitted on Harley Street."
The number of cosmetic genital surgeries - or labiaplasties - performed by the NHS has risen five-fold since 2001, with 2,000 operations being carried out in 2010.
However, many operations are performed in private clinics, which do not have to submit statistics to the government.
Labiaplasty is the most common form of cosmetic genital surgery and involves reducing the size of the labia so they do not protrude.
It is feared that the rise in demand for cosmetic genital surgery is a result of what doctors have called "unrealistic representations of vulval appearance in popular culture".
The Committee warned there is a "chasm" between the number of reported cases of FGM and the lack of prosecutions.
In Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham alone, 1,500 cases of FGM were recorded over the past five years with doctors seeing six patients who have undergone the procedure each week.
The first prosecution under the FGM Act resulted in a not-guilty verdict when Dr Dhanuson Dharmasena was cleared of performing the illegal procedure on a woman in a London hospital.
The Committee said different authorities, including the Director of Public Prosuections Alison Saunders, were passing the buck for failure to prosecute FGM cases.
Mr Vaz said: "The DPP informed the Committee that she could only prosecute on the basis of evidence, the police said that they could only investigate on the basis of referral, and the health professionals told us that they could not refer cases because their members were not fully trained and aware of the procedure.
"While agencies play pass the parcel of responsibility, young girls are being mutilated every hour of every day. This is deplorable. This barbaric crime which is committed daily on such a huge scale across the UK cannot continue to go unpunished."
Mandatory reporting of FGM by healthcare professionals, teachers and social care workers to the police has been introduced to the Serious Crime Act, however, the Committee said what happens to those who fail to report a case remains unclear.
The group of MPs recommended that the Government set out the sanctions that may apply when a professional has failed to meet their duty, which should range from compulsory training to a criminal offence for intentional or repeated failures.
Some 170,000 women and girls are estimated to be living with FGM in the UK.
More than 2,603 women and girls who went through FGM have been treated by the NHS since September 2014 with 499 women and girls with FGM seen in acute NHS trusts in England in January alone.
More than 200 FGM-related cases were investigated by the police nationally in the past five years.
Crime Prevention Minister Lynne Featherstone said: "Female genital mutilation is a crime and it is child abuse.
"The coalition government is bringing in new civil orders to protect girls before they can be subjected to FGM, through the Serious Crime Act, and measures to punish parents who fail to prevent their daughters being cut.
"We have also introduced legislation to grant victims of FGM lifelong anonymity, from the time an allegation is made, in order to encourage them to come forward. Our cross-government FGM unit is listening carefully to campaigners and those living with the effects of this harmful practice.
"In addition, we are introducing a mandatory duty on professionals to report FGM. We believe this will provide clarity for professionals on their responsibilities and give them the confidence to confront FGM. It will aid police investigations and support an increase of the number of perpetrators caught and prosecuted.
"We are clear that failure to comply with the duty will be dealt with through disciplinary measures that can include referral to a professional regulator or the Disclosure and Barring Service. This will ensure that all breaches are dealt with in accordance with the specifics of the individual case."