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Gender Recognition Act Consultation

Volume 680: debated on Thursday 24 September 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Women and Equalities if she will make a statement on the Government’s response to the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004 outlined in the Government Equalities Office update of 22 September.

We want transgender people to be free to live and prosper in modern Britain. We have looked carefully at the issues raised in the consultation, including potential changes to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. It is the Government’s view that the balance struck in this legislation is correct, in that there are proper checks and balances in the system and also support for people who want to change their legal sex.

We will make the gender recognition certificate process kinder and more straightforward. We will cut bureaucracy by enabling applications via, and we will also reduce the fee from £140 to a nominal amount. We know from our research that improving healthcare support is a priority for transgender people. That is why we are opening at least three new gender clinics this year, which will see waiting lists cut by 1,600 patients by 2022, and it is why the GEO is providing funding for Dr Michael Brady, the UK’s national LGBT health adviser, and working with him and the NHS to improve transgender people’s experience.

It is also important that we protect single-sex spaces in line with the Equality Act 2010. The law is clear that service providers are able to restrict access to single-sex spaces on the basis of biological sex. It is also important that under-18s are properly supported in line with their age and decision-making capabilities. That is why Dr Hilary Cass, former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, will lead an independent review of gender identity services for children and young people. The review will look to ensure that young people get the best possible support and expertise throughout their care, and it will report back next year. Together, this upholds the rights of transgender people and women, ensures that our system is kinder and more straightforward, and addresses the concerns of transgender people.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for enabling the Government’s overdue response to this consultation to be questioned by colleagues so promptly. This issue is of first-order importance to between 200,000 and perhaps 500,000 of our fellow citizens and their families. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could begin her reply with her analysis of why so many trans people choose to hide in plain sight.

I welcome and enjoy the dynamism that my right hon. Friend brings to her unprecedented, historic responsibilities in retaking control of British trade policy after nearly half a century. The command of technical, economic and legal detail required is at once intimidating and inspiring. For a great trading nation, that needs all her attention, and she has risen to the trade challenge.

My right hon. Friend’s acquisition of the equalities brief in September 2019 was hardly planned. The Prime Minister has done her and the nation no favours by continuing to overburden her after the election at such an extraordinary time for trade. The reputational contrast as between each responsibility is horribly stark. On women and equalities, it is horribly stark set against the reputation and achievement of my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt). It was in her tenure that we created the expectations that we were finally going to deliver on equality for trans people in principle, on the basis of a comprehensive consultation, itself based on work under the coalition going back to 2011.

Does my right hon. Friend the Minister understand the crushing disappointment of trans people with the content of her statement on Tuesday, set against the consultation on which it was based? Does she appreciate that trans people cannot discern any strong or coherent reason for this screeching change of direction? They are aware of the fear being used against them and of fears, void of evidence, to sustain them. Does she understand the anger at the prospect of their receiving their fundamental rights being snatched away?

The longer the uncertainty has been allowed to continue, the worse the fear and anger have become. Does my right hon. Friend understand that the delay in the statement helped to contribute to that? Does she see that the underlying trend of the majority of people in this country is following the path set by a change of attitude in society a generation earlier towards those with different sexualities? This time, despite the complexities of understanding around trans, younger people in particular are more starkly intolerant of the cruelty of wider society’s inhumanity towards trans people. The vast, vast majority of lesbian, gay and bisexual people will stand in solidarity with trans people.

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that her statement does not command a majority in this House? Will she confirm that that is one of the reasons why she cannot propose any legislation? She has presented the House with an inherently unstable settlement that will have to be addressed—hopefully sooner rather than later.

Does my right hon. Friend understand that when the pre-emptive statement she made to the Women and Equalities Committee earlier this year was properly explained to me, I gave this issue my full attention and that of the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights? I engaged with people who had different views to understand the compromises necessary to deliver reassurance around trans people, but also to be able to deliver trans rights. That work was done. It was given, quietly, in a comprehensive paper to the Government in early July and, tragically, it has been ignored.

I believe that the settlement we have reached balances and upholds the rights of transgender people and of women. It protects access to single-sex spaces. As I noted in my statement earlier, the number one concern of transgender people is improving healthcare services. The new clinics that we are putting in place will be the first new clinics in the United Kingdom for 20 years. We are also addressing people’s main concerns—the cost and bureaucracy—with the gender recognition certificate process, and I believe that we have come to the right conclusion, which is in line with those of other major nations.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. After three years of toxic debate, it is deeply disappointing that the Government have let trans people down and dropped their plans to reform the Gender Recognition Act. The debate around reform of the Act has been intensely fought and has caused great harm to many. Trans people face daily discrimination and the average wait for a first appointment with a gender clinic is 18 months, so it is vital that steps are taken to tackle discrimination and provide the services and support that people need.

The delay in responding to this consultation is completely unacceptable. Can the Minister tell us why it took so long? She failed to answer my question yesterday on whether the three new clinics mentioned in her statement were new, and we now know that they are not. What steps will the Government take to reduce the waiting times radically for people to access gender clinics? What will the Minister do to ensure that all public bodies, including the Government Equalities Office and the Equality and Human Rights Commission, produce statutory guidance that is in keeping with the legislation?

The Government are to make changes to the administrative process for obtaining a gender recognition certificate. Can the Minister tell us what the new online process will look like, what the new fee will be and when it will come into force? What is the timeline for when this new process will go live? Will she commit to ensuring that she engages with stakeholders in developing it? What steps will she be taking to tackle the rise in transphobia and misogyny?

Labour is committed to equality and inclusion for trans people and will continue to support updating the GRA to include self-declaration for trans people. We are also proud to be the party of the Equality Act 2010, and we will uphold it, not least because it plays a vital role in ensuring that we are an inclusive society.

I can assure the hon. Lady that I brought this decision forward as much as I was able, given that it is a complex issue that we needed to thoroughly examine. I feel that where we have got to is the right place; it maintains the rights of transgender people and improves the process to make it kinder and more straightforward, at the same time as protecting single-sex spaces.

The hon. Lady asked about healthcare. I agree that that is a priority. That is why we are opening the first new gender identity clinics in 20 years and we are committed to ensuring that transgender healthcare is improved and waiting lists are reduced. We have funded Dr Michael Brady, our LGBT health adviser. There is definitely more work that needs to be done to ensure that services operate fully right across the country and across the national health service, and of course I am working very closely with the Health Secretary on that.

The hon. Lady asked when the new fee arrangements and the new online arrangements will come into place. The answer is that we will be doing that as soon as possible; obviously, it is an IT process that we need to get online, but I aim to introduce the new fee, which will be nominal, as soon as possible.

Many members of the trans community whom I represent feel very locked out of the healthcare system at the moment. I welcome the comments that my right hon. Friend has made about focusing on healthcare, but can she assure the trans community whom I represent that we will truly look at ensuring that the healthcare is accessible? For many, this issue has gone on for far too long.

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that there are not enough services. That is why we are introducing new clinics. There is also an issue with support for the under-18s, which is why the NHS launched the Cass review yesterday. We are taking this issue seriously. I welcome the reduction in waiting lists, but of course there is more to be done and we need to work closely with the Department of Health and Social Care to achieve that.

Sometimes people are opposed to the human rights of others in case they encroach on their own; it is an almost instinctive human reaction. When we as politicians want to ensure those human rights, it is about not just actions but language and education, so that we all understand each other and we are all in a place where we are happy for others with whom we do not necessarily identify to have equal access to human rights and opportunities. That said, action is crucial, and I am sorry to say that the Minister has failed on that front this week.

I am sorry to say that, because the Minister’s language in the past has indicated better, and her failure to take action will have an impact on the many very distressed trans people who have written to me from across the UK. The fact remains that trans people continue to suffer poorer outcomes relative to the wider population, and that needs to change. We are now at a stage, in terms of equality, where the language we use around race, gender and disability, while not perfect, is getting there. Actions have been taken and laws have been written. We need more compliance and enforcement, but at least the laws exist.

This is a devolved matter and, yes, it is complex, but it is not too complex for the Scottish Government, who continue to have a strong commitment to reforming the Gender Recognition Act in Scotland before next May’s elections in 2021. There are many reasons for that. One reason is that everyone surely has the right to be who they are, but we also recognise that we must comply with international human rights law, and the way to do that is to have a system for obtaining legal gender recognition. Do the Minister and her Government recognise the need to comply with international human rights law? Do they care about that? The gender recognition panel takes applications from across the UK, and the Scottish Government will carefully consider what she has said and what it means for Scotland, so will she commit to co-operating with the Scottish Government?

I am very interested in what the hon. Lady has said, because my understanding is that the Scottish Government’s draft Bill to reform the GRA has been paused. I would be very happy to take this up with her at a later opportunity. In terms of human rights law, of course we are committed to that, and we continue to lead the world in LGBT rights and human rights. We will shortly be hosting an international LGBT conference.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to reflect on the need to treat members of the trans community with kindness and respect and to find a way to make the path to self-determination not only cheaper but easier?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and it is important that we address the issues that transgender people have had with the process—namely, the cost and the bureaucracy. We do not want finance to be a barrier to people to be able to go through the gender recognition certificate process.

It has been well over two years since the Government first sought views on how to reform the Gender Recognition Act. The consultation received more than 100,000 responses, the vast majority of which were in favour of reform, yet the truth is that the Government have chosen to change little about the process of acquiring a gender recognition certificate. They have chosen to leave in place a lengthy, medicalised process that requires medical reports, statutory declarations, consideration by a panel, and more. Why have the Government taken so long to respond, only to ignore the wishes and destroy the hopes of so many in the trans community?

As I made clear earlier, the Government do not believe in moving towards a model of self-ID. This is a serious process that has taken time for us to consider, but our view is that we need to maintain proper checks and balances in the system. We have addressed the issues that transgender people highlighted as important to them around healthcare, bureaucracy and the costs of the process, making the process kinder and more straightforward.

May I take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend for engaging with me and others on this issue? The community are feeling frustrated by the lack of substance in the conclusion to this lengthy consultation. Notwithstanding her valid point about reforms to healthcare, will she acknowledge that these changes are minimal, with waiting lists of well over 13,000 people pre-covid? This is of great concern, given that research shows that 84% of trans people have thought about suicide, with 50% attempting it. Will she commit to further working with me and others who care passionately that the Government get this right? Will she report back to us on her work with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care, and on her progress?

I certainly agree that healthcare is the big issue of concern to transgender people, which is why we are focusing on improving the service received from the national health service. Of course, it is the Health and Social Care Secretary who is in overall charge of that, and I would be very happy to facilitate further meetings with Dr Michael Brady, our LGBT health adviser, and, of course, the Department of Health and Social Care, to make sure that we get this right and reduce those waiting lists.

I welcome the fact that the Minister has tried to take some of the heat out of this discussion and that she has at least come forward with some conclusions, because the wait has caused many of the problems. However, I fail to understand how her administrative changes will comply with the World Health Organisation’s requirement that by 2020 we remove gender dysphoria as a medical classification, seeing as the GRA is based on that medical classification. How will the Minister’s administrative changes fulfil our international obligations to remove that classification?

The administrative changes will make the process considerably better. As I have said, we are also putting additional resources into transgender services. The clinical diagnosis is a matter for clinicians, and the Health and Social Care Secretary is working with them on this issue. I think there needs to be a medical element to the process, so that there are proper checks and balances in the system, but the specific diagnosis is a matter for clinicians.

I am proud to be the first openly LGBT person to represent Carshalton and Wallington in this House, and I stand by the trans community in saying that their rights are human rights. The reforms are a welcome first step, particularly in relation to health, but they need to go further. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give that this is indeed the first step and is not the end of what we are going to do for trans people in this country, that we will bring the UK into line with countries such as Argentina and Ireland, and that we will make those changes that cost so little but mean so much to trans people?

I point out to my hon. Friend that on this issue we are in line with the vast majority of major European countries, and we are working, through our international LGBT conference, to improve the rights of LGBT people across the world. I am very proud of the leadership that we as a country have shown in areas such as equal marriage and other issues of LGBT rights. It is important to note, though, that while we do want to improve healthcare services—and I am committed to working with the Department of Health and Social Care on that—we do not believe in moving to a model of self-ID. We believe that the system needs proper checks and balances.

The problem is that the Minister is not showing leadership on this issue. The decision is wrong, the delay has been wrong, and the hurt caused to the trans community and to the non-binary community is wrong. That is what my constituents are telling me. She has heard the concerns from across the House. Does she understand the hurt to our fellow human beings, who are feeling deep distress and are deeply let down and deeply concerned about the direction in which this Government are going? And will she stop the off-the-record briefings to newspapers, whipping up hatred against the trans and non-binary community?

I do not appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s tone. I am being genuine and honest, and I am seeking to make this process kinder and more straightforward. I do not think that levelling such accusations at me is helpful.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker; it is very important that this Parliament demonstrates that it represents everybody in the United Kingdom, and I reiterate my solidarity with the trans community. Will my right hon. Friend clarify again the situation in relation to the three new clinics, as was implied by her statement on Tuesday? Are they new clinics in addition to the pilot projects previously announced? On their work, will she take on board the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich East (Nicola Richards), in terms of a number of 1,600 against the ever-growing waiting list?

The clinics are new. As for whether they are the pilot clinics previously announced, those in the Department of Health and Social Care are the experts on that, but they are new clinics and they will reduce the waiting list. Clearly, they will not reduce the waiting list to the extent that we need that to happen, which is why we are working with that Department on what more can be done, but I agree with my right hon. Friend that we do not want people to have to wait for this important treatment.

On 13 July, Baroness Barker’s office submitted a freedom of information request asking for details of who the Secretary of State met with regard to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. To date, there has been no answer. Will she now confirm whether she personally met trans-led organisations and trans people before making this important decision, which ignores the views and recommendations of a clear majority of those who responded to the consultation?

I can assure the hon. Lady that I and the GEO have met with a wide variety of organisations. We have met 140 representative organisations, including LGBT and women’s organisations. I have also met a number of parliamentary colleagues to discuss this issue.

There is a strong trans community in Darlington who are valued and appreciated by their employers. Over 200 company leaders have written to the Prime Minister in respect of trans rights. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the compatibility of the Government’s position on trans rights with that of corporate Britain?

I have set out the Government’s position on transgender rights, in terms of making sure that we protect those rights and making the process kinder and more straightforward in improving transgender healthcare services. As for what corporates’ views are, that is a matter for them rather than the Government.

I welcome the very measured and conciliatory tone that the Minister has taken today. I welcome the improvements in transgender health services and the protection of vulnerable women, in terms of the retention of single-sex spaces in places such as domestic abuse shelters. Will my right hon. Friend outline the Government’s approach to women’s prisons?

My hon. Friend is right that under the Equality Act 2010, service providers can restrict entry on the basis of biological sex. Of course, there are places, such as women’s refuges and prisons, where that is an important issue.

It has taken the Government nearly three years to respond to this consultation and, in that time, the trans community have had their hopes raised and now dashed. If my inbox is reflective of the inboxes of other Members, the trans community feel bitterly let down by the Government’s actions this week. This has to be seen in a context of rising hate crimes, and the Government’s response—I will pull the Minister up on this—is not in line with what other nations are doing. We can look to Argentina or the Republic of Ireland, our near neighbour, which is doing things very differently. The Republic of Ireland has had a de-medicalised, self-determined system for gender recognition since 2015, and it is working. I urge the Minister to look again and not to let down the trans community, who are some of the most vulnerable constituents we represent in the House.

In my statement, I outlined the work we are doing to improve transgender healthcare. In all the research work and engagement we have done, that comes out as the No. 1 issue for transgender people. Focusing on improving those healthcare services is the way to help people lead better lives.

My right hon. Friend’s statement will make it easier for people to be who they want to be, while maintaining the integrity of the Equality Act. Many women have felt anxious during this process, so will she reconfirm her support for single-sex spaces where reasonable?

My hon. Friend is right that we are striking a balance between the rights of transgender people and the rights of women. The position is clear in the Equality Act that service providers can restrict the use of spaces on the basis of biological sex, and it is important that women’s spaces, which have been hard fought for over generations, are protected.

In her written statement on Tuesday, the Minister stated that she wanted

“transgender people to be free to live and to prosper in a modern Britain”,

but between 2013-14 and 2017-18, recorded anti-trans hate crimes nearly trebled. What steps are she and her Government taking to tackle the discrimination, abuse and hate crimes that many trans people experience?

These crimes are appalling, and that is why the Home Office is taking very strong action to address them.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and I echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) said: while this is a very important step, it cannot be the destination, but can only be a step in a long journey. Does my right hon. Friend agree that under-18s should receive specialist support, and can she outline some of the measures that will be taken?

My hon. Friend is right that under-18s need specialist support. That is why Dr Hilary Cass, the former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has been appointed to lead an independent review of gender identity services for children and young people. It will be wide-ranging, looking at the referral route to specialist services, assessment and diagnosis, as well as best practice for services.

Despite a few crumbs of comfort, fundamentally, the Government are sticking with a process that the Women and Equalities Committee rightly said

“runs contrary to the dignity and personal autonomy of applicants.”

Instead of describing this as “checks and balances”, will the Minister recognise that, in actual fact, it is a breach of human rights and the Government should think again?

As I have said, we want to make the process kinder and more straightforward. That is why we are reducing the bureaucracy by putting it online and reducing the fee, so that finance is not a barrier to people being able to access these services. The most important thing we are doing is improving the level of service available within the national health service, so that more people are seen more quickly.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.