Pharmacists may think the issue of FGM – female genital mutilation – is of little relevance to their practice. But new legislation means that regulated professionals in England and Wales, including pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, must be aware of the issue. On October 31, they became legally obliged to make a report to the police if they become aware of an act of FGM on a girl aged below 18.
Effectively, this means you would be breaking the law if a patient confided in you about being a victim of the procedure and you failed to make a notification.
FGM has been a criminal offence in England and Wales since 1985, but no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted. The government is keen to tackle the problem by introducing this new mandatory reporting obligation as well as requiring NHS acute trusts, GPs and mental health trusts to introduce the ‘FGM Enhanced Dataset’ to their record-keeping and to provide a monthly report on identified FGM patients to the Department of Health.
What it means
The new reporting obligation for regulated professionals has come into effect by virtue of the Serious Crime Act 2015. This specifies that “a person who works in a regulated profession” in England and Wales must make a notification under this section if “in the course of his or her work in the profession” the person discovers that an act of FGM appears to have been carried out on a girl who is aged under 18.
The act defines “a person who works in a regulated profession” as a healthcare professional, a teacher or a social care worker in Wales. “Discovery” comes about either where the girl informs the regulated professional that FGM has been carried out on her, or the regulated professional independently observes physical signs of FGM. For pharmacy professionals, a verbal disclosure is the most obvious route to discovery.
The regulated professional’s FGM “notification” must meet certain conditions: it must be made within a maximum of one month from the discovery, must be made to the police force in the area where the girl resides, must identify the girl, must explain why the notification is being made and may be made orally or in writing.
The Home Office has recommended that reports are made orally by calling 101 and that the professional making the report should involve their designated safeguarding lead throughout. If you work in a large multiple, this may be another employee. However, NHS England’s policy on safeguarding vulnerable persons specifies that clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are responsible for securing the expertise of designated safeguarding professionals on behalf of the local health system.
Many have questioned the impact of the Data Protection Act and/or patient confidentiality requirements on the new obligation. But the Home Office has confirmed that the duty to report does not breach any confidentiality requirement or other restriction on disclosure that might usually apply.
Failure to comply
The Home Office has confirmed that cases of failure to comply with the reporting obligation will be dealt with in accordance with existing performance procedures in place for each regulated profession. It adds: “FGM is child abuse, and employers and the professional regulators are expected to pay due regard to the seriousness of breaches of the duty.”
The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) has not issued any specific guidance on the new legal requirement and has simply directed registrants to the Home Office. But it is important to bear in mind that the GPhC’s key guidance on conduct, ethics and performance requires pharmacists to “comply with legal and professional requirements and accepted guidance on professional practice” and warns: “It is important that you meet our standards…your conduct will be judged against the standards and failure to comply could put your registration at risk.”
Andrea James is a partner at Shoosmiths Solicitors and specialises in pharmacy law