Monday 23 May 2022
[Sir Roger Gale in the Chair]
Legal Recognition of Non-binary Gender Identities
[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, Session 2020-21, Reform of the Gender Recognition Act, HC 977, and the Government response, HC 129.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 580220, relating to legal recognition of non-binary gender identities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank Ezio, who started the petition; we have met and had a good conversation on the subject. The petition has gained more than 140,000 signatures, so this topic is on the minds of many.
Many of the people I have spoken to have said that they supported the petition because they feel that, at present, they do not exist. I want the community of people who feel that they are non-binary to know that, of course, I accept that they exist. I see them; I hear them; I feel for them; and I want to help them. I say to them, “We are a tolerant nation and we accept you as you are.” It does not follow, however, that the law should be changed to reflect the way that certain individuals feel. No matter where anyone sits on this subject, their opinion should be respected.
I have not taken part in any social media discourse on this subject, because I believe that it often becomes completely negative. I have met some people who suffer with gender dysphoria, and I do not think that such discourse helps them in any way whatsoever. We must always remember that we are talking about human lives—about people with whom we share society. I have spoken with many people about this subject, and I thank them all for their contributions.
The petition asks to
“Have non binary be included as an option under the GRP (Gender Recognition Panel)/ GRC (Gender Recognition Certificate), in order to allow those identifying as non binary to be legally seen as their true gender identity. As well as having ‘Non-binary’ be seen as a valid transgender identity… By recognising Non-binary as a valid gender identity, it would aid in the protection of Non-binary individuals against transphobic hate crimes, and would ease Gender Dysphoria experienced by Non-binary people.”
That may seem straightforward. It would be just an extra column on a birth certificate or a gender-recognition certificate and part of the forms that we complete daily, and the Gender Recognition Act 2004 is already in place, so why not? Whether or not our starting position is to agree with the idea, we need to look at the impact on and implications for wider society.
Let me walk hon. Members through my reservations. First, I do not believe that the inclusion of non-binary would necessarily help with gender dysphoria. If people feel that they can exist only by putting an X in a box, we as a society need to convince them differently. Prior to the debate, I spoke with many people in the non-binary community, and they certainly spoke well. I do not think any of them need a mark in a box in order to exist.
Secondly, I do not think the change would reduce any so-called hate crimes. People who carry out such offences have no place in a free society, and we already have criminal laws in place to deal with such appalling behaviour. There are also practical issues relating to the non-binary and trans questions: protecting our kids from making life-changing decisions before they are adults and old enough to make such decisions; single-sex spaces; and, of course, sport.
I will start with children. In certain areas of the country, clusters of schoolchildren are saying that they are non-binary or trans. Where has that come from? Why is it more prevalent in some areas than in others? Who or what is putting that idea in young minds? Who is telling them, “You can be the opposite of what you are”?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his comments about a respectful tone, with which I am sure we all agree. What I do not agree with, however, is the notion that someone has put into people’s minds an idea about their own identities. Will he maybe reflect on that as he goes forward?
I thank the hon. Member for her comments. I will reflect on that later as I go through my speech. But such cases are growing exponentially at the moment, and I am deeply concerned about it.
I do not want to get too technical on this, but there are certain times in our life when certain areas develop. The first two years are crucial, with the development of the front part of our brain. The same can be said about the nerve endings in our eyes: if those do not join properly by the time we are four or five, they never will. Puberty is also a time of development, and many young people are now questioning their gender at that crucial time. If we stop that developmental process in its tracks, before puberty, the results can be life changing. I believe that making non-binary a legal identity, and having an acceptance that that is an easy path to take, will have hugely detrimental effects on many young people, when I know as a certain fact that they are not old enough or mature enough to make that decision and understand the long-term and life-changing consequences. They are children; they are not adults. Therefore, any such decisions for children below the age of 18 must be avoided.
I am also unsure who is to decide that a child is not a boy or a girl, and when. The child cannot decide when it is born, so who decides? Doctors have always decided the biological sex, and there are rules in place for that. What about a 10-year-old? Can a child decide at that age, or is it still a parental choice? All the time, one of the few consistencies that a person can have in this mixed-up world is taken away. Is society really to say that he or she cannot decide whether they are a boy or a girl, or feel they are, before they have gone through puberty?
The interim Cass report said that we are letting our young people down by not having enough centres for kids who believe that they are suffering from gender dysphoria, but there are those who disagree. I have heard from a senior mental health specialist that the lack of appointments is actually saving us from a tsunami. That specialist is not alone in that view, so perhaps clinics are not the answer; perhaps they are. Perhaps education is. Perhaps there could be a standard curriculum—a single piece on what this looks like practically. It would be just basics: “This is what a life can look like and how it can never be changed once medication starts.”
Let us also educate parents not just to say yes in order to keep the peace, but to be strong and get kids on the right path. Let us give teachers the ability to say no to this issue at school; they want to. They want to teach kids and watch them shine, not fall apart. And please let us stop with this blurring of lines and bending to every whim that a lobby group asks for. Let us ask ourselves why a lobby group wants to work in this space. Why does it want to put kids even as young as 10 on to puberty blockers, especially when it knows that most who do take puberty blockers end up on further drugs—leading to infertility, and facial hair for girls—and in a place where no one else is.
It has been said that people are taking their own lives because they are so confused prior to treatment. But these struggling individuals are taking their own lives after treatment, too, so that really is no answer. We have to protect our children while they are children.
The next problem is what happens in single-sex spaces. This is deeply concerning. If we were to work around it to make it work safely for women, which I believe would be imperative, the necessary changes to our buildings would cost billions of pounds. Why should a female prisoner have to share a prison with a man who identifies as non-binary or a trans person? Why should a lady have to share a changing room with a man? Why should a woman have to follow a pre-op trans woman into a toilet cubicle? Why should a girl at school have to get changed in front of a boy? Why should a girl have to share a dormitory with a boy? Whether the girls think that that is okay or not, I am sure that their mums and dads do not. I do not believe it is safe; I do not believe it is decent; and I do not believe it is right. Women are not only entitled to safe single-sex spaces; those spaces are also absolutely necessary. Society has been this way for centuries. It works, and it should not be casually put aside.
Sport is another issue. I am not the greatest sportsperson who has ever lived; I never have been, but I do understand competition, the feeling of winning, and wanting to strive to be the best. I speak in schools whenever I get the chance, and I encourage all children to aim high in life and not be frightened of competition. Am I to tell the girls in a school, “Don’t bother competing, because you’ll never stand on the podium at the highest level. The best you can hope for is second when you compete against a trans woman. Everyone will know you have won, but I’m afraid that gold medal is forever out of your reach”? That is wrong. Biology matters and biological sex is real. Men and women are built differently from birth, and remain different throughout their lives. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. To make non-binary a legal entity reaches beyond what many people can think of. That is why I cannot support the petition.
Am I being unfair? I do not think so. I am being, I hope, realistic. The vast majority of people in my constituency know that men and women exist and that they are different—they are male and female. There may be people who feel that their gender is non-binary, but they are all biological men and women. What is my response to the genuine concerns behind the petition? My first ask is: leave our kids alone. Kids have enough to cope with as it is. Let them decide when they are old enough and mature enough to make those decisions. I hear so much about complex families and complex lives, so let us not make them any more complex. That would be unwise.
While I am here, I want to speak to parents. If their child comes home with those concerns, they should talk to them but be strong. They should not ever give in to them or to peer pressure from other adults. Their child was born either a boy or a girl; they should be proud of who their child is and tell them to be proud too. Wherever their interests lie, parents should hope and encourage them. They should be part of their life and talk to them—talk to them all the time. However, parents should push back on this. Sometimes parents have to be cruel to be kind—children will thank their parents for that in the long run. I have one further thought on that. If children say that they are unhappy, think for a second about how unhappy they will be when their best friend is having a child and they cannot; when their best friends are dressing up beautifully and they are having to shave. What makes you sure that they will be happy then?
Single-sex spaces are exactly that, and they should stay that way. When an individual enters one of those spaces, their sex is what should matter, not their assumed gender or how they feel that given day. To endanger women, or even to make them feel uncomfortable, is not fair. Some surveys reportedly show that people are okay with that, but who has been asked and where were they asked? What were the questions and how were they phrased? Have they knocked on the doors in my constituency? I know the people there, and I know that they agree with me.
Turning to sport, again, it is just not right. Certain sports, such as rugby, may carry out risk assessments that exonerate them from joining this argument, but please shout up. Sport is sport, and if it is not fair, then it ain’t right. I ask the biggest voices in the arena—the sportsmen and women at the top of their game and the pundits, who have all earned their money from the public and say that they want to give back—not to blow in the wind but to use their position to speak out on this subject. That would truly be giving back, by giving every child a chance to have a great childhood and to dream big, as they did. They should speak as one voice and push back.
I have read many books on this subject of late, and spent much time trying to see a different side to this, but ruining young lives, making women feel unsafe and taking away the sporting ambitions of half the population just is not right.
I have one final argument. I have heard that this is what other countries have done, and therefore so should we. I do not represent another country; I represent this one, which I believe is by far the best. Do not tell me that England is a bad place; it is not. It has its issues, as all other countries do, but I truly believe that it is absolutely wonderful. We should never do something because another country has done it; we should do something because it is right.
I am afraid that I cannot back a movement that may rob a child of their life. I could never back a community who wanted to put a biological male in a female changing room. I will never back anyone who wants to put a biological male in a female sports event, be that at Wimbledon or on a school field. In all fairness, I do not think any of us should back that.
I may have come across quite strong. I feel that I have to. I started by saying that I want the community who feel non-binary to know that I of course accept that they exist—I see them, I hear them, I feel for them and I want to help them. I say to them, “We are a tolerant nation and we accept you as you are. At 18 we should be able to give you a person to talk to—someone who can help.” That we must do. Anyone who abuses that community needs taking to task. If an offence is committed, they should be prosecuted. However, I am afraid that the course of life, that a small minority wish to embrace, comes with far-reaching implications for the rest of society. As such, I am afraid that I cannot support the petition.
“Non-binary” is a term for gender identities that are not solely male or female—identities that are outside the gender binary. So what do we mean by gender? The word “gender” used to be interchangeable with biological sex, and biological sex is indeed binary. Humans, like all mammals, have either male or female sex chromosomes in every cell. We are male or female; that is immutable and scientifically indisputable.
So what is gender identity? Gender is sometimes used as a descriptor of how masculine or feminine something is perceived to be, such as a particular character trait, choice of clothing or type of behaviour. We all understand what feminine or masculine clothes look like, though of course the stereotypes change between cultures and over time. Certain preferences are considered to be more masculine or feminine, and certain characteristics are more common in males or females. We all know both males and females who possess these traits. Given how important one’s sex is to one’s biology and psychology, it would be very odd indeed if our sex did not have some influence over our choices and behaviour.
What is the evidence for the idea that someone could have a gender identity that is different from their biological sex; the idea that someone can be male but feel female or, in the case of non-binary people, be either male or female but feel neither or both? It is absolutely normal for an individual to feel that they do not fit in with cultural or stereotypical ideas of how boys or girls and men or women should behave. How many of us in this room feel like we fit into a purely male, female or any other stereotype? No one completely fits neatly into a mould. Some people feel that they do not fit at all. Of course it is possible for someone to feel that they identify in some ways more with people of the opposite sex than their own, or not particularly with either. This is a normal part of the human experience.
While there are infinite different ways to express masculinity and femininity, it does not follow—logically or scientifically—that one’s soul or self has a gender, or that that gender is distinct from one’s biological sex. There is no observable marker for what it feels like to be female or male, because no one knows what it feels like to be anyone other than themselves. If we see a person’s likes or dislikes and preferences or behaviours only through the lens of gender, then we have lost sight of a concept far more important and evidence-based: the variety of human personality.
Through the wonder of DNA and the infinite permutations of upbringing and environment, every one of us has a unique personality, but those who see everything through the lens of gender are watching humanity in black and white, rather than through the glorious technicolour of the richness and variety of human nature. In trying to squeeze all that human diversity into the box of gender, there is also a danger of losing a grip on material reality.
Some people struggle intensely with gender distress, and some from a very early age. They should be treated with the utmost compassion and care. They should receive all the care, support and treatment they require. Adults in this country should, of course, be free to dress and present in any way without fear or discrimination, and they should be fully accepted. However, in this country our law is based on facts, evidence and material reality; it should not be used to embed contested and unevidenced ideologies that can sometimes be harmful. I will explain why I do believe this ideology is so harmful.
Children are now being taught in schools that there are more than two genders and that they can change their gender. They are being told by trusted adults that if they are gender non-confirming—itself a regressive concept that we threw out in the 1980s—then that might mean they were born in the wrong body. In one classroom, children are being taught the facts of sexual reproduction, and in another that women can have penises and men can have periods. They are being told to suppress the evidence before their own eyes by saying that a boy is now a girl and a girl is now a boy—or neither boy nor girl.
Vulnerable children, particularly those who are autistic, same-sex attracted or have mental health conditions, latch on to gender theory as an explanation for why they might be different or why they do not fit in. These children then look up the terms “trans” and “non-binary” online and are drawn in by adults they do not know on Discord and TikTok, who tell them how to obtain and inject cross-sex hormones. They follow YouTube stars who glorify surgical transition. Schools jump into transitioning children, changing their names and their pronouns and celebrating their new gender status publicly, sometimes without informing their parents, which cuts them off from the people who care about them most.
There has been a fifteenfold increase in the number of children referred to gender clinics, and an exponential rise in the number of trans and non-binary-identified children in school. Let us remember the ultimate consequences of transition: infertility and loss of sexual function for life; and for girls, permanent facial hair, a deep voice, male pattern baldness and lifelong health problems. This is a failure of safeguarding. It is not biology; it is ideology, and in many cases it is indoctrination.
It is not open-minded or compassionate to teach a child that they may be trans or non-binary. It is not open-minded or compassionate to encourage a child to look up gender on the internet, and to talk to adults who ask them intimate questions and for intimate pictures. It is not open-minded or compassionate to tell a child that their teenage problems can be solved overnight by a rejection of their own body and a denial of their biological sex.
We need to wake up. Gender theory is not the next frontier in the culture war or a new battle for civil rights; it is an unevidenced ideology that is causing harm to women, children, and people who are gay and lesbian. There is a significant amount of work to do to fix the safeguarding failures that are taking place in some schools, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is aware of some of these issues.
To recognise non-binary as a gender identity in statute would be a mistake, separating law from reality and putting vulnerable children at risk. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher): this is a debate about people, and I fully recognise that there are many people in this country who identify as non-binary and should absolutely be accepted. However, this is a matter of putting ideology into law, and we should resist that.
I had wanted to say only a few brief words in this debate, but given that we have a little time, I might add a few more. I start by echoing the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), who opened the debate: we absolutely have a duty to be tolerant of those who do not identify with the gender that reflects their biological sex, or who choose to identify as non-binary. I acknowledge that a great many young people suffer from gender dysphoria, and we need to be supportive and give them the help they require.
That does not mean that we have to change the law, and it certainly does not mean that we have to change statute in order to recognise one particular description of how people are choosing to identify. As my hon. Friend said, there are criminal laws in place to deal with transphobic crime and other related hate crime. It is important that those laws are enforced and are seen to be enforced, in a way that is no different from how they are enforced in respect of those who do not identify in that way.
The petition states that recognising non-binary as a valid gender identity
“would aid in the protection of Non-binary individuals against transphobic hate crimes, and would ease Gender Dysphoria experienced by Non-binary people.”
That is quite a bold claim, for which I do not see the evidence. Indeed, being faced with the possibility of identifying not as a male, not as a female, but as non-binary could cause added confusion, certainly to teenagers going through a very formative and impressionable stage of their lives—as if they do not have enough to worry about already.
In so many debates, we hear about the huge pressures on our teenagers, and those of us who are parents have seen those ourselves. Teenagers certainly face far more pressures than when you or even I, Sir Roger, were at school and growing up, going through puberty and everything related to it. They face the mental health impact of the modern world—of social media, of peer pressure, and of the trendy thing to do that goes on in school and, crucially, in the social media world, out of the range of face-to-face challenge.
Those are huge pressures on our young people. What are they to do if faced with the question, “Are you sure you are a girl or a boy?” If we put that into law and say, “Actually, you may not be a girl or a boy; you can opt for non-binary,” whether or not a young person instigates that themselves, the pressure from some people to get their contemporaries to do so could be overwhelming. I take issue with the formula in the petition because I think it could actually make things worse for children who are already potentially questioning their gender identity because of pressures on them.
Not acknowledging that the law needs to be changed in order to protect such individuals should not be seen as in some way anti-transgender or anti people who want to identify themselves as different from the sex with which they were born. I share the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) about the disproportionate number of young people, in particular, who are looking to identify as transgender or non-binary and are ending up in gender clinics. She said there has been a 15-fold increase in recent years. Why is there this big increase? We need more evidence and research on exactly what is driving it in certain parts of the country and certain parts of the world.
I gather that it is heretical to claim that a person cannot change their birth sex, but to me, it is not terribly traditional to have been brought up with biology lessons that say that sex is not immutable. I fully acknowledge that people can choose to change their gender and want to be identified as something else. They cannot reverse history and change their birth sex. They can only choose to change their gender or the way they are recognised now; they cannot go back in time.
We must also look at the impact on the rest of the population. It is absolutely right that we protect a minority of people who need protections, but it is not right that we do it with no regard whatsoever to the vast majority of the population who do identify as men and women—in particular, women; the impact on women’s space is absolutely worrying. We have heard examples relating to gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms, the situation in prisons, and so on.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given way. Is he able to go into some more detail about his concerns regarding prisons? I have heard the Minister on numerous occasions clarify the arrangements for ensuring that everyone ought to be safe on the prison estate.
Indeed, everybody should be safe in prisons. I have raised this matter with the Prisons Minister in the past. There are statistics, I am afraid, that show that there have been sexual assaults committed in prison by somebody whose gender is different from their biological sex. I appreciate that the Government are doing more to ensure that that cannot happen in the future, but I am afraid there are cases where that has happened. That is why women, in particular, feel threatened. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady may well not feel threatened, but a lot of my constituents have come to me, having seen this evolving argument, to say that there are places where they no longer feel safe. We have a duty of care to those people; we must ensure their safety and wellbeing too.
Frankly, anybody who has the audacity to question any of these things, as I just have, is faced with the cancel culture, which is so utterly damaging and absolutely does not help the population as a whole. It certainly does not help women, and it does not help the gay and lesbian population, who feel greatly restricted by much of this. This argument and the terminology in the petition are, I am afraid, about the creeping blurring of language and a conflation of and around sex and gender. That threatens to erase the recognition of males and females—of men and women.
As I said, I am particularly concerned about the impact on children. I have been in Parliament for quite a while—not quite as long as you, Sir Roger—and in that time most things have become more restricted for children; for more things, we have seen the age of access raised to 18. A person under 18 can no longer go into a suntanning parlour to get a suntan, and they can no longer have a tattoo. We quite rightly restrict cosmetic procedures for children unless medically required. We know the pressures on young girls to get breast-enlargement surgery to be with the programme, and all the social media pressures about men and having cosmetic surgery.
Against that trend of recognising that children are children—when they are adults, they can do what they like, within reason, if it does not harm anybody else, but children need our protection, and that that is why the laws are there—it seems extraordinary that we have seen a huge increase in access to puberty blockers through gender clinics. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge quite rightly said, puberty blockers have life-changing impacts on children—far more than a tattoo, a temporary suntan or even a breast-enlargement operation would have. Yet if someone challenges that—if someone questions whether those children are capable of thinking through the consequences and are cognisant of the implications for the rest of their lives of making that decision, with or without the involvement of parental responsibility—they are subject to cancel culture. There is a huge contradiction in those two scenarios.
Let me end with some examples from Parliament. Whether we like it or not, what we do here is seen outside, and it is seen as setting an example. Sometimes it is a bad example, but certainly what we do and say in this place has influences. Members may have seen the reports of the debates on the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill in the House of Lords, where there were attempts to erase the term “woman” from the Bill. I am glad that my hon. Friend Baroness Noakes led the resistance to that. She said:
“I am not prepared to be erased as a woman”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 22 February 2021; Vol. 810, c. 640.]
Effectively, that is what was happening there. The language that we use in this place is important.
I mentioned the creeping blurring of language. You may recall, Sir Roger, that three years ago I was successful in my private Member’s Bill, which is now the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019. It enabled opposite-sex couples to have a civil partnership, it enabled the mothers of married couples to have their names on marriage certificates, and it brought in various requirements for stillbirths. Unbeknown to me, and only pointed out some time after the legislation went through both Houses, section 3 refers to persons who are pregnant—not “women”, but “persons” who are pregnant.
If I had known that that had been inserted—I did not write those words; they were written by civil servants in one of the Departments—I would have insisted that the language be changed. Indeed, at the first opportunity—perhaps in the conversion therapy legislation that is coming through—I will be proposing an amendment to my own Act to ensure that we refer to women, because it is only women who can get pregnant. This is happening all the time, and the insidious changing and blurring of our language is so important.
Another thing has just come to my attention. If we are looking for a fellow Member on the Houses of Parliament search engine—or if one of our constituents is doing so—and we are not sure where they come from or what subject we are looking for but want to search by sex, we now have four options. We can say that they are “male”, “female”, “any” or “non-binary”. That is on the search engine of this House, yet, as we have heard, the term “non-binary” does not have any status in legislation. Indeed, that is what the petition is all about.
We are setting the trend by acknowledging the existence of a formal term “non-binary” in searching for Members of Parliament. I am not aware that any Member of the Lords or Commons has, in any case, identified as non-binary. That is what I am worried about. Words matter. Although this petition—
I should hand over to the Front Benchers, or we will run out of time. I have been generous to the hon. Lady.
Words matter, and if we do not set a good example in this place—if we allow the blurring of terms and language to go unchallenged and unnoticed—then we should not be surprised when we see the consequences, some of which my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge and for Don Valley have alluded to.
Finally, the noble Lord Winston, who has written extensively—he is a man of huge expertise, knowledge and respect for his scientific and medical background—talks about badly damaged children who have been subjected to puberty blocking and other treatments at gender clinics. We have a duty to young people and to our constituents to ensure that words matter, that protections matter and that respect matters. That is why, despite the best intentions that I am sure the petition has, I think that it would have great implications were it to be adopted by the Government, and I urge the Minister to desist from doing so.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, which is an important one. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for opening it and for reflecting that people have told him that they feel they do not exist. That is a sentiment that we should reflect on as we go through the debate.
The petition has 189 signatures from East Renfrewshire. I am grateful to those people for signing it, and to those who took the time to speak to me and share their views. I am also grateful to a number of organisations that have provided briefing materials for the debate.
I think we need to get to the crux of the debate: what are we talking about, and why does it matter? I suspect that the hon. Member for Don Valley and I—I am sure that he will take this in the positive spirit that it is intended—do not have a lot in common in our outlook and views.
He is shaking his head, so he agrees with me. However, I support what he said about the importance of tone in the discussion. I am not sure that anyone concerned about this at a personal level will have been particularly comfortable hearing the debate, but I absolutely support the hon. Member’s calls for a proper tone to be adopted. He also spoke about listening being important—we have to not only listen, but take in what we are being told.
It is welcome that we are having the debate. These kinds of conversations are well overdue. In my view, we should be on a journey to a situation in which it is an absolutely normal and unremarkable thing to accept people for who they are. We should not have to hear othering comments and we should not hear portrayals of non-binary people as a threat—that is not fair, helpful or accurate. I am uncomfortable with the notion expressed by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) that this is something we should consider in the context of its being a medical complaint or a concern that is related to people who are neurodiverse, for example.
I thank the hon. Lady for letting me intervene, but the evidence is pretty clear that a disproportionate number of children who identify as trans or non-binary are autistic—they have been diagnosed as autistic, with many more awaiting diagnosis. There is a clear link between children who are neurodiverse and children who are choosing to go down this path. Does she not think that that in itself is of concern and that those children should be surrounded with safeguarding support?
I think that all children should be surrounded with safeguarding and support—I suspect that that is something the hon. Member and I can agree on—but to conflate autism diagnosis and people who are non-binary is a mistake and unhelpful in the bigger picture.
I also did not agree with the assertion of the hon. Member for East Worthington and Shoreham—
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton)—I beg his pardon. I am glad he corrected me—I cannot read my own writing—but I did not agree with his assertion that there is some kind of issue with something like “non-binary” appearing on a drop-down menu. That should not be an issue for any of us. That costs us absolutely nothing, and it makes people feel more comfortable.
If I could make some progress first, I will be delighted to let the hon. Member intervene.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said himself that words matter and that we need to set a good example in this place. He said that no MPs or peers were non-binary. I do not know that that is necessarily true, but if there were MPs or peers who identified as non-binary, I wonder how they would feel in this Chamber today. How comfortable would they be with the statements that their peers had made? I just put that back to those who have contributed, because I suspect that those people might feel quite uncomfortable.
I thank the hon. Member for letting me intervene. It is the implications that concern me. Most of my speech was built around the fact that if we give people this as a way forward, what will follow from it will change society as a whole. It may just be a drop-down menu to her, but to me it could change the way that young people grow up and the way that women identify themselves; basically, as we have said, we will erase women. It would also have a huge effect on the sports scene. It may just be a drop-down menu to her, but it is certainly not that to me.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I have to say to him that I am a woman and I am not going to be erased, and other people having the opportunity to have their identity respected is absolutely no threat to me or to my identity.
I wondered whether it was worth going back to consider the principles. Who are we talking about? Who are non-binary people? The hon. Gentleman has used the word “they” a few times. He may have a very clear picture of who he is referring to, but people who are listening or watching may not, so I think it is useful to explain that the term “non-binary people” reflects an incredibly diverse group of people—people who are undergoing various forms of social and medical transitions or none at all—and that not all of those whose views, lives or concerns are reflected here today would use the term “non-binary” to describe themselves. We are talking about a broad range of people.
The one thing that we can be sure of is that this is a group of people who are not currently recognised in the UK, and that presents them with challenges. The lack of legal recognition results in barriers. If they have a piece of identity documentation, as we all do, it may present differently from the way in which they present in their day-to-day lives. I think that all of us can understand that that might present a challenge. When we join a new workplace we have to present an identity document, and it must be a matter of concern for anyone whose identity document does not reflect their daily life. We do not need to agree with everything that has been said today to accept that that is a challenge and that perhaps we can find a better way.
I think that society in general is moving on this issue. We have heard a lot about young people. The young people I speak to have a much broader and open perspective on such issues than was the case many decades ago, when I was at school. At that time, LGBT people faced a difficult climate. My school was very large and it was thought that nobody there was gay—of course, that is complete nonsense, as I now know, because lots of people are gay. There was nothing wrong with the school, but the social climate was not accepting, so the situation was not okay for them.
That shows how we have moved on, and I think we are moving on further. Business and civic society are more open to the fact that we need to accommodate the needs of non-binary people, whether that is in employment, service provision or whatever. The fact that we cannot have this type of conversation about the barriers—never mind legal recognition—is a challenge.
Seventy-eight per cent of non-binary people have told TransActual that they do not have identification documents. That is a real challenge for them. How on earth do people go about their lives without having identification documents that align with their lived experience? How will that affect people socially, never mind things such as employment?
Other countries have moved further forward. The hon. Member for Don Valley reflected that in what he said. I think he said that England is the best country and that he supports the way things are done there. That is absolutely his perspective, but I think it is sensible for us to recognise that other countries around the world have a different perspective. Perhaps we should examine why that is the case and consider whether it has caused difficulties. It does not appear to be challenging in countries such as India, Nepal, New Zealand, Iceland and Taiwan—I could go on—for there to be a different and more open way of recording.
In considering how we go forward, it is key that we take on board the views and lived experience of those directly affected. The Women and Equalities Committee has done that. It produced a report on transgender equality in 2016, recommending a different option for gender recording on passports, with an X. It also suggested that consideration could be given to the removal of gender information from passports and that the UK Government should move towards non-gendering official records as a general principle. In its report on the GRA last December, the Committee asked the Government to clarify which barriers prevent them from allowing non-binary people to be legally recognised. These are reasonable and valid questions. I cannot emphasise enough the need for lived experience to be at the heart of these conversations.
To conclude, people who are non-binary and have a real stake in this kind of debate have had experiences with which that nobody in this Chamber would be comfortable. They have been refused services. They have poorer mental health than the rest of the population. They feel uncomfortable sharing their identity at work. More than half the people surveyed did not think that their identity would be respected. That is why we need to do more.
I am glad that the Scottish Government recognise the need to do more. They have a strong commitment to improving non-binary equality—for example, by recognising the need to end conversion practices. That provides a real contrast to the extraordinary pantomime that the UK Government have got themselves involved in over conversion practices. It is really disappointing that trans conversion support was missing from the Queen’s Speech.
The Scottish Government are also committed to advancing equal access to healthcare for LGBTI people and will also continue to use the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association rainbow index as a benchmark for action. By contrast, in 2018 the UK Government Equalities Office published an LGBT action plan in which it said that it would issue a call for evidence on the issues faced by non-binary people. The Minister may want to correct me, but I do not think that has been published, and we need to understand why.
My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) spoke about these issues in February and noted that none of the UK Government’s proposals even acknowledged the identity or existence of non-binary people, and that that has to change. She was absolutely right. The Scottish Government appreciate that more still needs to be done, even though there are positives they have put in place, such as the working group on non-binary equality, which includes a focus on the lived experiences and voices of non-binary people. That has been done for reasons of fairness, wellbeing and the good of all of us. I am keen to hear the Minister’s response to the points I have raised.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am very grateful to the petitioners and to the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for opening the debate.
This discussion has been of acute interest and importance to people who identify as non-binary. It is also important to be sensitive to the needs of those who describe themselves as intersex or as having differences in sex development. We must consider whether they would describe themselves as male, female or non-binary, and we must understand the differences in terminology when we discuss these issues. Everyone is different, and that is why it is essential that we discuss these matters in an atmosphere of respect, care and compassion. We will find solutions only by working together.
The background has already been set out. The Conservative Government maintain that they would reform the Gender Recognition Act. However, they are only determined to reduce the fee and put the process online. We have not seen progress on, for example, removing the spousal consent provision, which we discussed in this Chamber not so long ago. The Women and Equalities Committee and many respondents to the Government’s call for evidence called for change to provision for non-binary people.
The fundamental value for Labour when examining these issues is that of respect. We recognise the abuse that many non-binary identifying people have been subjected to—something rightly referred to by the petitioners. Furthermore, we recognise that this is a particularly visceral matter for those non-binary identifying people who may also describe themselves as biologically intersex or as having differences in sex development, as I will come on to later. Again, I appreciate that these categories are not used by everyone.
Labour has been clear that we must have far stronger measures against hate crimes, to which LGBT+ people are subject, and treat them as aggravated offences. That is surely necessary, given what appears to have been a doubling in reports of such appalling behaviour over the last five years. That is an area where I depart from the comments of the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Don Valley. We believe that there needs to be a change in the law to treat those offences as aggravated, and we believe the same of offences against disabled people, who are also not protected in that way.
We also need to acknowledge that, of course, as well as gender, sex continues to play an important role in different areas of policy. As I have repeatedly made clear in my role as shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, sex is not the same thing as gender and both are important in different contexts. That difference is reflected in legislation. For example, as a woman I am an adult female—that is my biological sex. There are, of course, also trans women who have made a transition in their gender, and they deserve respect and dignity also.
That is a slightly different question from the one I was discussing. I hope the hon. Member is aware of the fact that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently released guidelines on those matters. I may well already have shared such a changing room; very often, women’s changing rooms will have separate cubicles, and in any case, that is how people often choose to try on clothes. If the hon. Member is interested in that matter, he could look at the EHRC’s guidelines.
In the spirit of what I have just said, Labour urges the Government to focus on the treatment of non-binary people, and to especially focus on the need for research. The hon. Member for East Renfrewshire (Kirsten Oswald) referred to the fact that the Government’s LGBT 2018 action plan committed the Conservatives to launch separate calls for evidence on the issues faced by non-binary and intersex people. The Government appear to have contracted the National Institute for Economic and Social Research to investigate that area, but no research appears to have been carried out. The EHRC has also
“recommended that further understanding was needed before any legislation was brought forward”.
We believe that additional research is particularly important when it comes to those people who might describes themselves as intersex, or as having differences in sex development. That refers to the relatively small number of individuals who are born with any of several variations in biological sex characteristics—for example, in chromosomes or genitals—some of whom may describe themselves as intersex and some of whom may describe themselves as non-binary. I appreciate, again, that not everybody uses those categories.
The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time and making a very measured speech. I have been listening carefully and what she says about intersex individuals and disorders of development is very important. However, we must be clear not to conflate what are genetic disorders with gender identity. Those are two extremely different things. People who are born intersex do have a sex on their birth certificate. They do, and should, receive close medical care, but that is a very different thing from gender identity—something for which there is no biological marker at all. That is the subject of today’s debate.
I most certainly have not conflated the two; I would have thought that it was quite clear from my comments that I was not conflating the two. I have been very explicit about the difference. This matter did come up earlier, because the hon. Member for Don Valley suggested—unless I misheard him—that doctors might take some of the decisions if there are differences in sex development. There has been a very significant discussion around this, as I am sure the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) is aware. In countries such as Germany, quite a bit of work has been done on the possibility of ensuring that people can make decisions for themselves at the age of medical consent and competence—if it is still healthy for them to do so—although if those particular biological characteristics are aligned with physical health problems, earlier intervention might be required. The hon. Member for Don Valley mentioned that earlier. We need more research into the prevalence of those cases in the UK, as we do not have much data on them.
Of course, we are discussing the matter in the context of the Government rowing back on their commitment to adopt a ban on conversion therapy that would cover trans people. Let me be crystal clear. Such a ban must not cover psychological support and treatment, non-directive counselling or the pastoral relationship between teachers and pupils or religious leaders and worshippers, or—and this should go without saying— discussions within families. Indeed, the interim Cass review has made it clear that there is a disturbing lack of support and healthcare for children and young people with gender dysphoria, especially when it is accompanied by an additional diagnosis that requires care. I regret that that is in common with the current general lack of treatment for children and young people in this country, where many waiting lists are spiralling out of control.
A ban on conversion therapy covering trans people would prevent what the British Medical Association and the mental health charity Mind have intimated is psychologically damaging abuse. It seems to me that only this Government could spend time arguing over whether a form of abuse should or should not be banned rather than supporting people in their daily lives.
It would surely also be helpful for the Government to explain in more detail their understanding of the barriers to altering the current legal categories around gender and—separately, given the frequent and unfortunate elision of both concepts—sex. We need to understand the complex practical consequences to which the Government have referred. They have stated in response to calls for a non-binary category for passports that “a coherent approach” needs to be maintained “across Government”. They have not, however, fully explained why some forms of documentation appear not to indicate whether the holder is male or female.
Surely additional research and transparency from Government are needed, not least to explain their reasoning in those cases. Useful learning can be drawn from the different ways in which comparable nations have approached these issues. I think it is a symbol of the maturity and strength of our country that we are able to compare our public policies with those of other countries and learn positive and, indeed, negative lessons. That is a positive rather than a negative.
Finally, we must do more to tackle gender stereotypes in the first place. As a convinced feminist, I so often feel that we have moved backwards rather than forwards in that regard. Care work and jobs in catering and in the creative industries are for boys and men just as much as they are for girls and women. Jobs in manufacturing and science that use—dare I say it?—hard maths are for girls and women just as much as they are for boys and men. Of course, all jobs should be open to non-binary people, too. We need to eliminate gender stereotypes, including those based on body image—I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham on that.
Above all, we need to make sure that everyone in our country can reach their full potential, and that cannot happen when we have such a degree of gender stereotyping. As I have said, the key value for Labour in considering such issues is respect. Issues of sex and gender are highly emotive, for understandable reasons: they are fundamental to people’s sense of self and so much more, including for those who identify as non-binary.
To conclude, I will reverse John Major’s adage. When we come from different viewpoints on these issues, we surely need to condemn each other less and understand each other more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher) for introducing the debate.
I want to put on the record that, since I took up the role of Equalities Minister, I have always sought to ensure that the tone is respectful. People have a right to disagree. They have a right to hold views and express them firmly without being cancelled, as hon. Members have said. I also want to put on the record that pursuing someone’s rights does not mean taking someone else’s rights away. It does not have to be one or the other. I am sure that, as we pursue these thorny topics, we can seek agreement and find some common ground.
The United Kingdom is a diverse society with many different cultures, backgrounds, identities and perspectives, and that diversity is a source of strength and enrichment of our culture and a driving force for change and growth. Our United Kingdom is made great by its diversity and its embracing of new cultures, new peoples and—dare I say it?—new ways of looking at people’s sexuality and gender.
That diversity started from simple things—well, they were not simple at the time—from the 1957 Wolfenden report on the decriminalisation of homosexuality, to the full recognition of same-sex marriage across all four nations of the UK.
All converts to equal marriage should be welcomed. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and I sparred over the debate on equal marriage. Now I am delighted to see that we agree not only on equal marriage but on civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples. It is amazing how things sometimes come full circle.
The Minister is indeed right, but we sparred not over equal marriage but over the same-sex marriage Bill, which had many deficiencies. I have never had a problem with the principle of same-sex marriage, and I was very happy to be one of the sponsors of the extension of the measure to Northern Ireland, as has just happened, late in the day though it may be.
I stand corrected.
The Government have no plans to change the Gender Recognition Act, and nor do we have an appetite to change the Equality Act 2010. The provisions in those Acts will remain.
The journey of LGBT equality has been debated with rigour, and those debates have not always been respectful. We need to ensure that people feel that they have the right to disagree and to debate those points forcefully where necessary. We sometimes feel that change can be too slow. Those who want more change are always hungrier for speed, while those who are less sure of the change often take some convincing or seek to stop the change. I understand that, and that is where we are today.
Non-binary people are an emerging focus of LGBT equality. Although to many people non-binary identities are familiar and understood, to others they are much newer and raise questions that challenge the traditional notions of gender. Interestingly, throughout history there have always been individuals across many cultures with different experiences and identities, many going back thousands of years. Some of the identities we are debating today have been with us for thousands of years; they are not a new phenomenon driven by TikTok. Some of them go back 2,000 years or more.
Today, as in the past, people who identify under the non-binary umbrella are as diverse as any other group. They are of all ethnicities, sexualities, backgrounds and ages; their experiences will be unique; and the obstacles they encounter will be unique. What is true of one person’s experiences of living as a non-binary individual may not be true of another person’s, and it is those experiences, this information and that data that the Government are committed to examining and monitoring.
Members have called for more data and research, and that is exactly the Government’s position, because we must understand how everyday life for non-binary people is impacted by their identities and explore any obstacles they face that may require addressing in law, which is exactly what the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) supports. We need more data, because it simply is not there in sufficient quality—as I have said, that information is lacking at present. Officials in the equality hub have conducted an analysis of existing data and research on non-binary identities, and have found that it is not of sufficient quality to allow us to draw conclusions, so the Government will continue to monitor research into the experiences of non-binary people, seeking to better understand their lived experience.
I turn to the LGBT plan, to which Members have referred. The Government remain committed to improving outcomes for LGBT people at home and abroad, and we continue to explore opportunities in the areas of health, education and safety specifically. I am working across Government with ministerial colleagues to develop tangible commitments that will improve the day-to-day lives of LGBT+ people in the UK.
I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous with his time. One of the things that would certainly improve the day-to-day experience of trans people is banning conversion therapy for them as well as for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and I would be really grateful if he could outline his views on the lack of that provision.
The hon. Lady seeks to tempt me down a particular path, but the only view I have on that is the view of Her Majesty’s Government, which is that the Bill will proceed without the trans inclusion while we do further research on the complexities. All I can say to her is that it is a work in progress, and I cannot be tempted down that path at this stage. However, I have committed to ensuring that some of the day-to-day issues facing LGBT+ people are addressed across Government, and I hope to be able to discuss further details in the coming months.
Members have referred to single-sex spaces, and the hon. Member for Oxford East talked about the guidance that has been issued by the EHRC. Members also took part in what I thought was a very good debate in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago. Those on all sides of the debate agreed that clarity on the law and on the rules around single-sex spaces was to be welcomed, and I think that is a position that we are getting to. It is important that the principle of being able to operate spaces reserved for women and girls is maintained, and I think we all agree that that clarity is important.
Turning to prisons, there have been incidents in the past, but I refer Members to the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), who made it abundantly clear that the rules were changed three years ago and that there have since been no incidents in prisons. Where a prisoner is placed is not down to what gender the prisoner identifies as; it is down to the offence for which they have been convicted, their physiology, their medication and where they are on the trans journey. All those factors form part of the risk assessment, which is how the Prison Service comes to a conclusion on where place a prisoner. It is simply not true to say that a prisoner can self-identify and place themselves in a prison of their choice.
I want to touch on the issue of trans people in single-sex spaces. For many years, trans people have used single-sex spaces in their gender without issue, and we have no interest in curtailing that. The law strikes the right balance, and we will not be changing it. The newly published guidance does not change the legal position or the law; it simply seeks to provide clarity to providers on the existing legislation, and that will not change.
To touch on the issue of trans adolescents and healthcare, it is important that under-18s are properly supported in line with their age and decision-making capabilities. To be clear, the child and adolescent Gender Identity Development Service does not provide any surgery to those under the age of 18, or permit any treatments that the NHS believes to be irreversible. That is the NHS’s view and the Government’s position. If Members believe that the NHS is prescribing puberty blockers inappropriately, that is a matter for the NHS and Members need to take it up with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
I fully accept the Minister’s comment that what is being done within the NHS is within current guidelines. However, there is no evidence for the use of puberty blockers in gender treatment. Their evidential base is for other conditions, and while they may stop certain elements of puberty taking place, their effect on those going through puberty—the effects on brain development and bone density—are not known at all. Those drugs are being used without the evidence that is required.
That may well be true, but I urge my hon. Friend to take it up with the Secretary of State. This is a matter for the NHS; it is not a matter for me, and at the moment the NHS is of the view that puberty blockers are reversible.
I also put on record that the interim report that Dr Hilary Cass has published is absolutely clear. Members have referred to the incidence of other factors that may cause gender distress, such as neurodiversity. Dr Cass is absolutely clear that it is the clinician’s duty and role—a protected right—to ensure that they explore all possible causes of gender distress. She will be issuing firmer guidance to ensure that clinicians, as well as their clients and wider society, understand that it is the role of the clinician to explore all possible reasons for gender distress. That clarity will be welcomed not only by the patient, but by parents, teachers, clinicians themselves and wider society.
The Minister is making an interesting argument. He has quite rightly said that permitting puberty blockers is a decision to be made by the NHS. The capacity of minors is a decision for the Government, so does the Minister think that a 12-year-old has the capacity to opt into puberty blockers without the need for parental consent?
Again, I am going to have to stray into areas for which I do not necessarily have the detail, because the clinical operation of clinics is obviously a matter for the NHS. My understanding is that under-18s cannot make those kinds of decisions, but I am looking for guidance from officials in case I get this wrong. It is probably safest for my hon. Friend to let me write to him with specific details of the clinical guidance on how under-18s are supported, but my understanding is that under-18s are not permitted to make irreversible decisions. Let me write to him regarding the exact line for decision-making capacity with parental involvement, so that I can get it absolutely right for him.
I am grateful, but I want to make sure that the Minister is writing to me on the right question, because he has just referred back to an opinion as to whether or not puberty blockers are reversible. I want an assurance from him, because I think I know the answer to my question, and I think he is inclined to give me a different answer. My view is that no child under the age of 18 should be able to opt into a puberty blocker form of treatment that is not required for medical or clinical reasons without parental consent, unless there is a question mark over the capacity of that parental consent. This is about whether a 12-year-old has capacity to take what many of us would regard as life-transforming decisions without any reference to their parents, who retain parental responsibility if that child does something wrong, at least until the age of 18.
I am not trying to give my hon. Friend a different answer; I am trying not to give him the wrong answer, so what I will do is this. I think the officials have a very clear understanding of the question, and we will write with the details, to ensure that that very specific question is answered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley raised the issue of participation in sports by trans and non-binary individuals. The Government are clear that we support the independence of sports governing bodies to define their own rules on transgender inclusion. It is entirely appropriate that they can determine the right position for their own sport. Gender has no impact at all in some sports, even at elite level; and for those where it does make a difference, the devil is always in the detail. Sports governing bodies are best placed to navigate that. We may have an opinion, but the Government’s view is that sports bodies are best placed to use all the available evidence to come up with their own policies on how to deal with trans sportspeople.
The Equality Act has permitted restrictions on the participation of transgender people in gender-affected sporting competitions in order to uphold fair and safe competition. That has been in place since 2010. Again, the Government have no intention of amending that provision.
In September 2021, the Sports Councils’ Equality Group published the “Guidance for Transgender Inclusion in Domestic Sport”. The sports councils are currently working with a small number of sports to pilot some practical ways of using that guidance. Obviously, Members who wish to engage with that are advised to contact the relevant sports councils so that they can understand what is being reviewed and their views can be expressed and taken into account. The Government believe that time should be given to sports to consider that new guidance.
I would like to draw attention to the changing atmosphere for LGBT people in sports. Sport has traditionally proven to be a more challenging environment for some than for others to make themselves feel comfortable and safe to participate—that is not the same issue as where trans people are placed in sports. But it has begun to change in recent years. Only last week we witnessed the first male professional footballer in a UK club coming out as gay in more than 30 years. Jake Daniels, who is only 17 years old, has shown courage, maturity and authenticity in coming out publicly. I hope that his coming out will encourage a more inclusive sport, because I cannot believe for one minute that he is the only gay footballer in the professional sport. Certainly he has also been very honest in assessing the impact that it is likely to have on not just his career, but how he is reacted to by the fans. But he is now able at least to live his life the way he chooses, on his own terms. I genuinely wish him the very best and I hope that more follow his stance.
I want to finish on an international point. The UK is and will always be committed to being a global leader in LGBT+ rights. We are by no means perfect and we have work to do, but our role as co-chairs of the Equal Rights Coalition and—until this month—the European Governmental LGBTI Focal Points Network is very important to us. Working with colleagues such as Lord Herbert, who is an envoy specifically on global matters, we will continue to address many of the issues that are facing us overseas, because many countries are further behind. Some of that involves providing support, and some of it involves providing financial support, to ensure that non-governmental organisations are able to challenge discrimination. Although we took the difficult decision to cancel the “Safe To Be Me” conference, I am grateful to all the stakeholders for their work to get the conference almost in place.
I want to ensure that at home we continue to build a consensus on the legal recognition of non-binary individuals, because that has not yet emerged. We may not reach that consensus, and the Government may decide that they do not want to go down that route, but we need sufficient data, research and analysis to start to make decisions on where we go with this issue, based on the evidence. These issues are always thorny and never easy. All I can say is that the Government are willing to listen, talk and engage with many individuals so that their points of view are fully reflected in our policy development.
I thank the petitioner for attending the debate. I hope that they feel we have had a good debate —I definitely feel it has been good. It is the sort of debate that we need more of; it has been respectful of all people involved, and I thank everyone for that. I thank the Minister for clarifying the prisons issue—that was good to hear. I would like to be included in any letter regarding puberty blockers, to ensure that it is confirmed that they are not being given to under-18s without serious consideration. I am sure the sporting world will make its own mind up, but it desperately needs to look at the issue before too long. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, and all the people I spoke to prior to the debate. I hope that it has shed some light for everyone involved.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 580220, relating to legal recognition of non-binary gender identities.
Taxes on Motor Fuel
[Julie Elliott in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Written Evidence: Summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee on the impact of increases in the cost of motor fuel, reported to the House on 12 May 2022, HC 73.]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 599089, relating to taxes on motor fuel.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Elliott. I thank the petition creator, Michael Bromley, for taking the time to meet me last week to discuss his motivation for creating the petition. With more than 102,000 signatures, it obviously means a lot to a lot of people. I thank all those who signed the petition, especially the 152 people from Gower. I also thank the Petitions Committee for running an online survey of petitioners so that they could explain in more detail exactly why they had signed the petition. The survey had nearly 2,500 responses, and that overwhelming number of responses reflects the strength of feeling on the issue.
The petition calls for a 40% cut to fuel duty for the next two years, in order to go some way to combatting the spiralling cost of motor fuel. It states that
“The price of diesel and petrol is at an 8-year-high”,
and that the Government have
“the ability to sacrifice some revenue to appease the British public.”
If the Government are concerned that the fuel duty relief is not being passed down to the pumps, why is that not being addressed, and in the strongest terms? Does the hon. Member not agree that there must be consequences to ensure that the public are not ripped off at the pumps?
That is a big concern to people. When there was a fuel duty cut from the Government—of only 5p, but still—we did not even notice it. That is very concerning. I hope the Minister will address that issue.
When I spoke to Michael last week, the issues that he raised, and that were raised in response to the survey, were the same as those that my constituents raise with me week in, week out. Michael explained that as a single parent he could see the cost of filling up starting to mount, and that as a company owner he has had to make economies in the business as well. He is therefore clearly seeing this from two sides. Michael said that reducing the mileage of company cars and ultimately cutting the number of cars in the fleet was a big issue for his automotive business. We also spoke about the environmental angle. He said that he was really supportive of electric cars, but that there were still issues with the initial cost of electric cars and the lack of infrastructure to support a mass roll-out.
The AA has calculated that the cost of filling a typical 55-litre tank has risen during the year from £70.61 to £92.20 for petrol, and from £71.94 to £99.48 for diesel. There has been the most derisory of efforts to help drivers. For me, that is symptomatic of a Government who have no idea about the impact that the cost of living crisis is having on people across the country—rising home energy prices, food prices rocketing and the cost of fuel at a record high.
May I add in the views of the domiciliary care workers whom I met recently in Newport East? Collectively, care workers drive more than 4 million miles a day to care for the vulnerable in our communities. They fear that they may have to leave the profession because the cost of fuel is making it difficult for them to get to work. Does my hon. Friend agree that that can only add to the recruitment crisis in care?
I thank my hon. Friend for making the point about care workers being on the road all the time. That cost has a huge impact on the quality of the care service, which we need to support, particularly at this time of year. So yes, that does contribute to the crisis. I hope to hear the Minister’s views on that as well. Ultimately, Michael would like the Government to grab this issue “by the scruff of the neck”, as he said. I am sure he will be listening very carefully to the Minister’s response.
For me, the most telling part has been the responses from the people who signed the petition. We heard about how the austerity agenda from 2010 was very hard for so many people; they allocated every month how much they were going to spend on fuel. Now, those prices are rocketing. Despite rising costs, many people have told us that they have to drive. They have to use their cars for their job or to access essential services. One man said:
“We live in an isolated village with a bus service that runs once a week, out of the village and back again. My wife is disabled, so the car we have is absolutely vital to us.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) has mentioned, we heard from care workers who have to travel between clients as part of their work. One told the survey:
“I am a home carer for the elderly and vulnerable who live at home. We are paid little enough as it is, with petrol prices so high, and that comes out of our pockets, not the company that I work for. This means if I don’t have the money to put fuel in my car, I can’t go to work, and these vulnerable people do not get essential care.”
Rising fuel prices are also impacting on people’s ability to visit and care for their own relatives. Where once people used their cars as a lifeline to visit friends and family, the cost of filling up has made them even more isolated, compounding the impact that we suffered during covid-19. Another comment read:
“I haven’t seen my mum in months because of how much it will cost me to drive to see her. Two years of lockdown and now it feels like another worse punishment…My children and grandchildren live 100 miles and 140 miles away, so I have had to restrict travelling to see them due to the cost of fuel. The two years of covid restrictions has affected my mental state, and not to be able to see my children and grandchildren has exasperated this condition.”
Many are having to make difficult sacrifices to get by. One person said:
“I work for the NHS and have two disabled children. It has been a nightmare, as I cannot afford to keep putting fuel in, but I need it, as they go to a special school a few miles away and I have to go to different hospitals for work. I go without food so that my kids have food and fuel, all because these prices keep rising.”
In many of these situations, there are no alternatives for people. Public transport links are often not good enough, and the Government’s lack of investment in local transport has made the public reliant on their own means of transport. I have been contacted by a community car scheme from Gorseinon in my constituency about fuel prices and the approved mileage allowance payment rates. Such schemes rely on volunteers who support those with mobility issues by taking them to appointments, often NHS appointments, instead of going by ambulance. The rise in petrol prices has affected those schemes’ ability to recruit and retain voluntary drivers, which will ultimately have a knock-on effect on the NHS. The volunteers also serve as companions to people who may be isolated and lonely. This lifeline, like many others across the country, is at risk if the Government do not act.
When the Chancellor set out a cut of 5p per litre in his spring statement, we did not think it would make much of a difference. It has not even scratched the surface. In fact, last week there were newspaper reports of this cut barely being passed on to the customer at the pumps, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East has spoken about. When we go to fill up, we quickly see price rises when oil prices go up, but we rarely see lower prices when the price of oil falls. Any evidence of profiteering by the petrol retailers must be looked at in full, and I welcome the Business Secretary’s call on retailers to make sure they pass on any cut in the oil price to customers.
We know that there is more the Government can do. We have seen examples from across Europe of Governments taking action to deal with the cost of fuel. In Poland, the Government cut VAT on fuel to 0%—something that UK Ministers said we could not do within the EU. Why are we not doing it now? Ireland’s Government announced a 20% cut in excise duty per litre of petrol and a 15% cut per litre of diesel. France introduced a 15 cents per litre discount on fuel prices on 1 April and has given €400 million in immediate aid allocated for hauliers. That money will be allocated to companies in the transportation sector based on the number of their vehicles and their tonnage. In Germany, the federal cabinet announced a relief package, according to which the energy tax on fuel is to be reduced to the minimum rate—a cut per litre of about 14 cents.
Spain introduced measures to cut fuel duty by 20 cents per litre and Belgium cut its fuel duty by 17.5 cents per litre. The Netherlands, Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Croatia, Romania and Sweden have all introduced measures to cushion the blow to consumers of these higher prices.
The Labour party has made it very clear that we will introduce a windfall tax on oil and gas companies that are benefiting from this increase in prices. We have seen bumper profits from Shell and BP in the first quarter of this year, while prices have risen and risen for working people and pensioners, with no end in sight, and there is no sign of action from this Government either. The Tories are out of ideas and out of touch. They should bring in an emergency Budget urgently, with a one-off windfall tax to cut household bills and support businesses.
I know that the people who keep this country going—those who need to get to work, those with caring responsibilities, the people who deliver our parcels, and people who want to go out and enjoy themselves after two years of restrictions—will be fascinated by what the Minister tells us today. The 102,000 people who took the time to sign this petition, and Michael in Chorley, will be waiting to see if the Government are really willing to help with the cost of living crisis.
This petition on taxing motor fuel is not just about motor fuel. Ultimately, it is about the whole cost of living crisis and what levers the UK Government can pull to address it, if they choose to do so.
Fuel costs have spiralled so much in recent months that prices have been breaking records. Indeed, petrol prices have broken records on 26 separate days in 2022. Fuel duty has remained at around 50p a litre for the past 12 years, but consumers also pay 20% VAT on the total cost of their fuel at the petrol pump. That means that consumers pay tax—VAT—on fuel duty, so they currently pay over 80p in tax on every litre that they buy. As I say, they are paying a tax on the tax. That is before the costs of extraction, purchase, shipment and forecourt sales are added. The Treasury is raking in 20% of the total cost at the forecourt, with fuel price increases bringing in additional VAT, amounting to billions of pounds, all of which is helping to accelerate inflation. As the cost of fuel has risen, so has the VAT being raked in by the Treasury—vast additional revenue for the Chancellor.
There was an attempt at providing some relief for motorists and consumers when the Chancellor announced a 5p cut in fuel duty in his spring statement. However, as we all know, that measure was woefully inadequate. We know that, in theory, a duty cut benefits all drivers, but as we have heard, this cut is not always passed on to drivers. Indeed, the RAC has shown that that seemed to be the case after the spring statement. In any case, it is clear that even if the 5p cut in duty was passed on, it would simply be swallowed up by spiralling prices—as indeed it was—so its effect would never be truly and meaningfully felt by those it was intended to help.
A cut in VAT would be much more effective, because VAT is charged on the total cost of the petrol or diesel, so even if the price rises, the amount of VAT would be reduced. That would be a much more impactful measure to try to help motorists and consumers with spiralling costs.
The situation with inflation is now so serious that a very serious measure to ease inflationary pressures must be implemented. I contend that halving VAT on fuel until the cost of living crisis is under better control is now essential and overdue. The eye-watering cost of fuel does not just hurt motorists—although it certainly does that, as the cost of filling up the family car becomes more and more of a struggle. It also drives up the cost of every good and service that we buy. Every single item on our supermarket shelves has been delivered by haulage companies for at least part if not all of its journey to its destination. When their fuel costs rise, so too does the cost of those goods.
Like others, I have been urging the Chancellor for months to make a serious and meaningful cut to VAT on fuel in order to better control inflation across the economy, because fuel costs impact every area of our economy. Anyone can see that cutting VAT on fuel is good for everyone across the UK. It will ease pressure on the incomes of families as they try to maintain their family car, it will ease pressure on the cost of doing business, and it will keep the price of our groceries and other goods down. Everyone will benefit and inflationary pressures will ease. That will benefit the whole economy and will more than make up for the loss of VAT receipts to the Treasury from such a cut. This is a no-brainer: it is a win-win for the economy, consumers and business.
We are living through unprecedented times, and bold action and brave hearts are needed. The dithering and delay must end. Halving VAT on fuel will have an immediate and positive impact. I hope the Minister will tell us that she will be happy to go back to the Chancellor and his Cabinet colleagues and tell them to get on with this and cut VAT on fuel significantly, because it is long past time.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Elliott. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for her excellent introduction, which she delivered with panache, as always. I am sure she pleased the people who signed the petition by covering many of the issues they want to raise.
This is an important debate for my constituency. We have made vehicles in Ellesmere Port for more than 50 years, and we have one of the few remaining oil refineries in the country. Most importantly, people in my constituency overwhelmingly depend on private transport to get to work. Some 78% of people in Ellesmere Port and Neston use a private motor vehicle to get to work, which is about 15% above the national average. That is not just a reflection of our proud industrial heritage; it is probably more to do with the lack of a regular and affordable public transport service in the area.
Although fuel duty and VAT are the same at whatever pump in the country someone fills up at, their impact differs depending on where they live and what they do for a living. Shift workers are far less likely to be able to use public transport to get to work. To be honest, people with jobs that finish after about 6 pm in my constituency are lucky to find a bus to take them home. If a person has children they need to place in childcare or school on their way to work, or pick up them up from afterwards, they may well need a car. If they are in a job that requires a large amount of driving, that of course makes a huge difference to how much they have in their pocket at the end of the week. Taxi drivers are a particularly affected group, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) said, so are care workers. Of course, the Minister will have some reflections on that from her previous role.
Nor should we forget about the impact that fuel has on other costs that we as taxpayers have to meet, including police cars, ambulances and school transport. There are literally millions of miles travelled every day that end up paid for by the taxpayer. The cost is quite often met by local councils, which do not have a say in the amount of fuel duty raised in the first place. As the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) rightly pointed out, fuel costs also play into wider inflationary pressures, particularly on food and other services that are delivered.
What someone does, and where they live, can make a huge difference to the impact of fuel duty, and I am afraid that that extends to some inexplicable variations in the price at the pump up and down the country. It might only be a couple of pence most of the time, but that can quickly add up, and I wonder why the average price is a couple of pence more around Ellesmere Port than it is in various other parts of the country, given that we are on the doorstep of a refinery.
On a related point—this is something my hon. Friend the Member for Gower mentioned earlier—the RAC Foundation has said that the 5p cut in fuel duty, which was introduced by the Chancellor in March, led to an average fuel price reduction of 3.3p per litre for unleaded and 2.6p per litre for diesel. In their defence, the representative bodies for the retailers claim that their members passed on the cut in full, but that prices were rising at the time. It might not be right to lay the blame entirely at the door of the retailers, but it is very difficult to get the level of transparency we need.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that the other issue is that retailers often have no choice as to which distributor or wholesaler they go to? If the wholesaler does not take any of the 5p duty cut off the wholesale price of fuel, the retailer is given a double whammy: they cannot cut the price, but they get flak from drivers who expect to see 5p coming off a litre of fuel.
The hon. Member is right, and it goes to my point about needing greater transparency. It can often be difficult to know exactly where the 5p has disappeared to, but I think it beyond contention that our constituents are not seeing the full benefit of the fuel duty cuts. The key question that we need to ask is how these measures will help to put cash back into people’s pockets. The reason this debate is so important at the moment is because we have the biggest squeeze on living standards in a generation, and the steps that the Government have taken so far are woefully inadequate.
The rise in prices across the world is obviously largely out of our hands, so it is inevitable that people will look at what the Government can change to ensure that there is some respite for people, and that help reaches those who need it most. We have already discussed the windfall tax at length in this place, so I will not repeat the arguments on that, but it is the fairest and most effective way to get help to those who need it most in a fairly quick manner. As we have seen already, although reducing the cost of fuel can help, there is a risk that such a reduction might not be passed on in full, and that it will benefit only those who have a car in the first place. In the context of wildly fluctuating oil prices, those savings may not be felt by people at all.
On fluctuating oil prices—or, to be more accurate, increasing oil prices—we should remind ourselves that higher prices at the pump mean that the Government have an increased income from VAT. Research has indicated that because of the rising oil price this year, the Government’s VAT receipts on pump sales have gone up by an average of 7p per litre for petrol and 9p per litre for diesel, which is far more than the 5p per litre that has been taken off. Fuel duty cuts might be a sleight of hand that creates a good headline and the illusion that the Government are taking decisive action, but it could be that those cuts are being made up for by increased revenue elsewhere—revenue that comes out of the pockets of the same people who are meant to benefit from the cut in the first place.
This debate cannot really happen in isolation and away from the influence of the Treasury, and we must be realistic and acknowledge that it will always be the primary driver of these decisions, given the huge amount of revenue that fuel duty brings in. Sooner or later, however, the debate must move on from whether we take off 2p here or add 2p there, because if we are to meet our net zero targets and move away from reliance on fossil fuels, we must also move away from reliance on taxing those fuels that we currently tax. At the heart of this is a complicated dilemma about moving to a similar fuel duty system for electric vehicles, which may disincentivise people to change. If instead we decide to tax people by the mile—I know that has been suggested in some quarters—that may disproportionately impact some communities, as well as removing one of the major reasons for investing in an electric vehicle in the first place.
There is also the question of whether the infrastructure is in place to make reliance on electric vehicles realistic. I certainly see that in my area there is a long way to go in order to get a comprehensive charging structure in place. We know that many properties—some say at least one third, and possibly even higher—are not, and never will be, suitable for home charging. With the differential VAT rate for charging at home and at a filling station, that is a major inequality that needs addressing. I would suggest that it needs addressing now, before the tax taken from it becomes so high that it becomes impossible for us to wean ourselves off that too.
Those are debates for the future, however, and we now need more effective and rapid ways of putting more money into the pockets of those who need it the most. As I have said, the best proposal I have heard so far is the windfall tax, and with this being a debate on the cost of living crisis, it is very disappointing that not one Government Back Bencher has come to speak about this issue. It shows, I am afraid, just how out of touch the Conservative party is.
I am pleased to begin summing up this debate. Like the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), the most striking thing about it is that out of around 350 Conservative Members of Parliament, not a single one wants to come and defend the Government’s woeful lack of action on this element of the biggest cost of living crisis that most of us have ever seen—hopefully it is bigger than any that most of us will see again.
I recognise, the SNP recognises, and the Scottish Government certainly recognise, the need to move away from our dependence on fossil fuels. The Scottish Government’s record on the promotion of renewable energy stands up to comparison with anyone else in the world. It is a record that I am proud to have played my own tiny part in, as a former council leader. The simple fact remains, however, that for the foreseeable future we will still depend on petrol or diesel-powered vehicles for a lot of our everyday travel, public transport, and the delivery of goods on which our economy and communities depend. We cannot simply say that the way to deal with crippling increases in the prices of diesel and petrol is to stop using our cars, buses or trains that rely on diesel or other fossil fuels.
There is a massive contradiction here, in that Scotland remains one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas—we are one of the most fuel-rich countries in the world. How can it be that a supplier country gets poorer when the price of the commodity goes up? Somebody, somewhere, is ripping Scotland off, and I have a pretty good idea as to who that might be.
How can it be, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston asked earlier, that his constituency, which is beside a major oil refinery, has to pay more for fuel than, for example, parts of London? The hon. Member should try looking at the price in the places where fuel is actually produced, and sometimes at the places where it comes ashore, because people in a lot of the more remote parts of Scotland get a double, or even triple, whammy. They have higher fuel prices to begin with, which is ridiculous when they are closer to where the fuel is produced than any of the rest of us, and because they are in sparsely populated areas, they must travel longer distances to get to school, work or a doctor’s appointment. Things that in a city such as Glasgow, London or Edinburgh can be done by walking half a mile, can be a two-hour journey in some parts of the highlands of Scotland. Although the roads might be in a decent condition, they are certainly not designed for fast, constant-speed travel, so fuel consumption per mile on those roads is vastly greater than on roads in more densely populated areas.
That might be why it is noticeable how many dark colours there are towards the north end of the map on the page of the petition. My constituency is uncharacteristically dark—the last time I checked, Glenrothes and central Fife had 224 signatories. My constituents do not tend to get all that excited about Parliament’s online petitions, so that number is quite high. I guarantee that I have had at least that number of emails—probably more—about the fuel-price crisis, and the general cost of living crisis in just the last few weeks, never mind in the months that the petition has been live.
It is important to emphasise that a massive increase in the price of fuel means a massive increase in the price of everything else. Almost everything that we buy in the shops was delivered in vehicles that rely on fossil fuels. Although I welcome the much greater use of electric vehicles by some distribution companies and hauliers, and the attempts by some to introduce hydrogen fuels, the vast majority still rely on diesel to get food to supermarkets. If hauliers cannot afford fuel costs, prices on supermarket shelves will go up even more than before.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that some hauliers are unable to pass increased fuel costs on to supermarkets, which have so much purchasing power, and are at risk of going out of business as a result? That puts our supply chain under pressure and threatens jobs in areas where hauliers are large employers.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. Of course, if hauliers manage to pass those price rises on to supermarkets, the supermarkets get together and pass them on to the customers, which adds even further to inflation. The general answer to that point is that the United Kingdom’s food-distribution system is broken beyond repair. This is not the debate in which to discuss that, but the last few years have made it clear that that system is not fit for purpose and needs to be changed radically and quickly.
The Government’s response to the petition contains all the usual platitudes, and I look forward to the Minister repeating them when she gets to her feet. The response points out that the Government do not
“set the prices paid at the pump… The degree to which petrol pump prices respond to changes in crude oil prices is a commercial matter.”
Why? Is it not time that the Government started regulating the price of fuel at the pump, even temporarily, in the same way that they regulate—not all that effectively—domestic electricity and gas prices? If we know that somebody, somewhere is profiteering, is it not time for a regulator that can insist on the kind of open-book approach that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston mentioned, so that we can identify where the profits have been made, and what parts of the supply chain are struggling? The few remaining independent fuel-station operators in the UK are seriously struggling. I do not think they are the ones that are profiteering, but somebody quite certainly is.
The Government’s excuse on the rate of VAT is extraordinary. Their response states that exceptions to the standard rate are possible, but
“these have always been limited by both legal and fiscal considerations.”
What legal considerations are those? The Government might have tried to use the excuse of “the Europeans won’t let us do it”, but as the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) pointed out, the Europeans seem to let everyone else do that, and it was just Britain that could not find a way of doing so within the limits of European law. We are not in the European Union any more. What has happened to taking back control? It is not Europe’s fault now—it never was—and the Government can no longer pretend that it is. They cannot pretend that it is anybody’s fault other than their own.
The Government also point out that there are “fiscal considerations”. We know that, but where were those fiscal considerations when the Government decided to spend massive amounts of public money on a scheme to deport people to Rwanda? To date, that scheme has not deported a single person—thank God. The Government cannot even tell us when—if ever—that scheme will have its desired impact of disrupting the business of people trafficking across the channel. When things will get the Government a headline on the front page of the Daily Mail, they can find the money, and “fiscal considerations” are suddenly not that important.
In January 2020, before the start of the pandemic, the average UK price for a litre of unleaded petrol was slightly more than £1.27 per litre, and the Government took 79.1p of that in tax. In April 2022—after the Government’s very generous new fuel duty price—the typical price was up to 161.7p per litre, and the Government’s tax take was 79.9p. Despite all the crowing about cutting fuel duty, the Government are taking more tax from the customer than before. As my hon. Friend the Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) pointed out, a significant part of the tax on fuel is VAT, which is a percentage of the net cost plus 20% of the duty added back on again.
Prices have now got so bad that energy firms are warning that 40% of their customers could plunge into fuel poverty before the end of the year. This is in the week the Chancellor tweeted that it was nice to see the economy still growing—in that tweet he copied numbers that told us the economy was shrinking. That was in National Numeracy Week, which I thought was quite appropriate. The Tories response to the general cost of living crisis seems to vary from, “Get a second job,” to, “Learn how to cook.” How utterly offensive that is to my constituents—to all our constituents.
It never takes the Government long to come up with a scheme that they think will get the headlines they want in the newspapers they want. If the political will was there, they would have already come up with a scheme. Whether that was a duty or a VAT regulator on a sliding scale, so that it reduced as the underlying price increased, they would have found ways to either permanently or temporarily reduce the tax burden on the fuel at the pump. They would have started making noises about regulating the price of fuel in the same way that they regulate the price of domestic electricity and gas. I bet if the Government started seriously to talk about regulating the price of fuel at the pump, the industry would sort itself out pretty quickly. The one thing that the big oil companies do not want is the public being allowed to see just how much of a profit they make at the expense of our hard-pressed constituents. They are allowed to make those excessive profits with the consent, and possibly even the connivance, of a Government that simply do not care.
Thank you, Ms Elliot, for the chance to respond to the debate on behalf of the Opposition. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on leading this important debate on the e-petition relating to taxes on motor fuel. As she set out, the fact that it has been signed by over 100,000 people underlines what we all know from our constituents: the rising cost of fuel is a pressing and urgent part of the wider cost of living crisis that is hitting people across the country.
With inflation at its highest in decades, the cost of living crisis is causing immense hardship and driving households into poverty. At the same time, this Government are alone in making us the only G7 country to be raising taxes on working people at such a difficult time. In that context, the rise in the price of fuel is being felt particularly acutely. The Office for National Statistics has published data on fuel prices that confirms what everyone knows when filling up their cars: there has been a consistent weekly increase in price since the start of 2022, with the highest rises occurring since March. As an RAC spokesperson recently said:
“March 2022 will go down in the history books as one of the worst months ever when it comes to pump prices… To describe the current situation facing drivers at the forecourt as ‘bleak’ is therefore something of an understatement.”
The hon. Gentleman is talking about the impact that prices are having across the whole of the UK. Every community and constituency is affected. Does he share my disappointment that there are no Tory speakers? No Tory MPs appear concerned enough to have participated in this debate.
Like the hon. Member, I find it very depressing to see no Conservative Back-Bench Members apparently interested in this debate. However, if the best many of them can come up with is to suggest people buy value brands or get a different job, I am not surprised they have little to add to the debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower said, the Petitions Committee’s survey to the respondents of the e-petition has helped bring to life some of the real impacts that fuel price rises are having on the lives of people across the country. Those responses include the supply teacher who explained the necessity of reducing working hours due to the cost of driving to different schools. An NHS worker reported the challenge of transporting her disabled children to the special educational needs school, and having to cut down on food in order to balance the cost of fuel. A carer reported being unable to attend appointments to give essential care to vulnerable people; a taxi driver was unable to make ends meet. Parents reported having to remove their children from nursery as the cost has become unsustainable, and people have been unable to visit elderly relatives.
Fuel prices have been hitting people across the board. At the same time, businesses have reported that the increased fuel costs have made it more challenging to recover from the losses suffered during the pandemic. Respondents felt that the temporary 5p reduction in fuel duty did not go anywhere near far enough—something that we have heard from many Members today—and was ineffective, as the saving was quickly cancelled out by rising prices. When it comes to the price of fuel, respondents confirmed what we had all concluded about the Government’s actions so far. Following the spring statement and the announcement of a temporary 5p per litre cut in fuel duty, the Chancellor was quick to arrange a glossy photoshoot in a borrowed car at a petrol station forecourt, but the reality is that the 5p cut in fuel duty has been quickly eclipsed by the rapid rise in the overall price of fuel.
As we know and as other hon. Members have said, fuel prices are just one of many pressures hitting people’s lives, and the Government’s response to the cost of living crisis has fallen woefully short of what is needed. People across the UK are seeing the biggest squeeze on their finances in a generation, while at the same time, oil and gas producers’ profits have shot up. As has been widely reported, BP’s chief financial officer said that
“we’re getting more cash than we know what to do with”,
while its chief executive has said that the current rising prices are making BP a “cash machine.” In the first three months of 2022, 28 of the largest oil and gas producers made close to $100 billion in combined profits, with Shell, for instance, making over $9 billion—almost three times what it made in the same period last year.
Faced with oil and gas producers receiving such bumper profits while everyone else suffers the cost of soaring energy bills, Labour has called on the Government to implement a simple, effective and fair solution: levy a windfall tax on oil and gas producers’ profits to help cut people’s bills by up to £600. People need that help, as they are left with no other options. Martin Lewis, the founder of MoneySavingExpert, has said that he no longer has any ideas for how people can save money to cope with the massive surge in the cost of living.
The fact that people are struggling and do not know what to do makes it incredible that the Government have twice voted against Labour’s plans to address this cost of living crisis by imposing a windfall tax on oil and gas producers’ profits. We are left wondering what on earth their objection is, when consensus seems to be growing by the day that a windfall tax is the right thing to do. Current Treasury Ministers may not know what to do, but the previous Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), has said that the arguments against a windfall tax
“at present are very weak.”
He added that Margaret Thatcher would have backed a windfall tax on energy companies.
Of course, in recent weeks, Government Ministers have taken a wide range of positions. We have heard opposition to the plan for a windfall tax from the Health Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Business Secretary, the Northern Ireland Secretary, the Attorney General, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and the Deputy Prime Minister, and yet the latest position from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury is that
“all options are on the table.”
Every day of delay hurts people across the country. When the Minister responds, I urge her to give some indication of when the inevitable U-turn will happen and the Government will implement a windfall tax. We have been calling for this for months, and we are all waiting for the Government to finally do the right thing.
The Treasury’s failure to act exposes a deeper failing at the heart of Government. While we have been pressing the idea of a costed and effective plan to levy a windfall tax to cut energy bills, the Government are out of ideas and out of touch when it comes to helping people with the hardship they face. The Chancellor needs to get a grip on this situation, so when the Minister responds, I again urge her not to add to the delay, but to simply tell us when the Government will go ahead with the windfall tax that we all know is needed.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Elliott. I thank the Petitions Committee for organising this important debate and all hon. Members who have contributed today, especially the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who opened the debate.
I also thank the more than 100,000 people across the UK who signed the petition calling for a reduction in fuel duty and VAT. Those signatures are a reflection of how hard high fuel prices are hitting people. As well as being Exchequer Secretary, I represent a rural constituency, and I know that for most people in my constituency, there is no alternative to going by car for most journeys. As hon. Members have said, whether it is getting to work, doing the school run, going to the supermarket, the doctor or the dentist, or visiting family, there is usually no alternative. If we add to those journeys all the business journeys—the man in a van, delivery drivers, logistics and so on—we can see that so much of our economy is reliant on road transport.
The UK has about 30 million drivers, and the vast majority of us fill up our vehicles at the petrol station. As many hon. Members have said today, fuel prices have dramatically increased in recent months, and they reached their all-time highest levels this spring. I know that this comes at what is already a painful moment for many households, with so many pressures—ranging from heating bills to higher food costs in the shops—on people’s budgets. I welcome the Petitions Committee survey assessing the impact of increases in the cost of motor fuel on petitioners, which reflects what I have heard from my own constituents and from people I speak to up and down the country. Whether that is the parent struggling to put food on the table for their children or the care worker providing vital care across her community, we hear you, and the Government have stepped in to help, with support measures that add up to £22 billion.
However, we should not ignore the context. We are part of a global trend, driven by global issues—by the surge in demand post pandemic, exacerbated by Putin’s war in Ukraine. And just as these circumstances are not unique or specific to the UK, so they cannot be solved by the UK alone.
Prices at the pump are not set by the Government, and nor are crude oil prices more widely, but the Government have taken action to help people with recent unprecedented price increases. After the launch of this petition last October, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer took the decision, at autumn Budget, to freeze fuel duty rates; this was the 12th consecutive year of the freeze. He then went further. In the spring statement, the Chancellor announced that fuel duty for petrol and diesel would be cut by 5p per litre. Unlike many international counterparts, who have introduced shorter-term relief for motorists, we have this measure in place for a full 12 months. This is only the second time in 20 years that fuel duty has been cut, and this time, it is the largest cash-terms cut ever across all rates of fuel duty at once. It represents a tax cut worth £2.4 billion in 2022-23. Coupled with the fuel duty freeze, it is worth £5 billion overall and equates to a reduction in fuel duty of about £100 over the year for the average car driver.
The hon. Member comes to exactly the next point that I was going to make in my speech. The petition called for a VAT reduction, as did the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) when she intervened. Given that VAT is applied on top of fuel duty, the 5p duty cut on petrol and diesel also results in a VAT reduction. It effectively translates to a reduction of 6p per litre overall. That said, a VAT reduction is not generally the best way to provide help with fuel costs, particularly because it would not help many businesses, many of which already claim back VAT paid on fuel for business use. About 40% of fuel is used by businesses. If we had just focused on reducing VAT instead of fuel duty, that would have left businesses more exposed to fuel price increases, in turn impacting the cost of goods for consumers. Making the focus fuel duty rather than VAT means that businesses, as well as consumers, will benefit from that tax cut. Also, by helping businesses with the fuel duty cut, we ensure that the duty cut benefit flows through to people who do not own cars, as well as those who do, because of the importance across the supply chain of the cost of fuel.
That is not what I just said; I said that if we particularly focused on reducing VAT on fuel, that would not result in a saving to many businesses, because businesses can claim back VAT. By cutting fuel duty, we are benefiting businesses and the whole supply chain, as well as consumers who buy fuel.
The Minister, if I understand her correctly, is saying that cutting VAT will not necessarily help business, and that the best way to help them would be by cutting fuel duty. From what the Minister said, I do not know what the answer is. Perhaps the answer is to cut VAT to help consumers, and to put a substantial cut on fuel duty to help reignite the economy, reduce the cost of living and control inflation.
That goes a long way into the broader economic questions about the right way to deal with the crisis we are in, and how we raise money if we are to make further tax cuts to provide further support to consumers. As I have mentioned, and as I am sure the hon. Lady well knows, we have already put in support worth £22 billion to help people across the country with the cost of living. That includes £9 billion to help people with energy bills—some of that will be through council tax rebates of £150—and that money is already going into many people’s pockets. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady shakes her head and says that that is not enough, but the Chancellor has been clear that he stands ready to do more. We do not yet know what the retail cost of fuel will be in the autumn, and we are absolutely concerned about the rising costs to people. We have already taken steps, and that is what we are talking about today.
I want to come back to VAT, because it has been suggested that the Treasury might be getting some kind of VAT windfall. Overall, the Office for Budget Responsibility is forecasting that VAT receipts will now be lower than it had expected in the autumn. There is not some great surge in VAT coming through to the Treasury.
I will move on and keep to the topic of the petition, if that is okay with the hon. Gentleman. Another question that came up earlier, particularly from the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Margaret Ferrier), was on the extent to which the fuel duty cut has been passed through. I am well aware of that concern and the suggestion that suppliers have been taking the benefit of the £2.4 billion tax cut.
To provide some context to this, the spring statement was made at a time of sharp rises in international oil markets, which would have taken some time to feed through to the pump. Diesel has faced specific pressures, because of the particular role of Russian exports in the European market. That has, unfortunately, contributed to diesel reaching all-time high prices this month. The background movement in prices makes the 5p cut harder to see. The Government have been clear that we expect all in the supply chain—from the moment fuel duty is owed to when fuel is bought at the forecourt—to pass the fuel duty cut through to consumers.
The Chancellor and the Business Secretary wrote to industry on the day of the announcement to set out that expectation. The Business Secretary wrote to industry on this matter again last week. The Competition and Markets Authority is closely monitoring the situation. To quote its chief executive, Andrea Coscelli, the CMA stands ready
“to take action should there be evidence that competition or consumer protection law has been broken in the fuel retail market”.
He went on to say that a formal investigation may be considered appropriate,
“which could ultimately lead to fines or legally binding commitments”.
The Government will continue to undertake longer-term analysis to establish the extent to which the Chancellor’s cut may have been buried beneath further wholesale price increases, and to ensure that the market does not fail to pass on the benefits of the duty cut to those refilling at the pump.
I have also heard public discussion of something called PumpWatch to regulate prices at the pump. Some comparisons have been made to Ofgem, the energy regulator, and the role of the price cap in the domestic energy retail market. However, that price cap was introduced in 2019 specifically to correct the market failure identified by the Competition and Markets Authority, which showed that the conditions for effective competition were not present in the market. While the energy price cap has shielded customers from volatile energy prices, it was specifically designed to better protect disengaged customers from being offered poor-value deals.
To date, we have not seen evidence that the same situation is happening in the fuel market, because pump prices are conspicuously displayed outside fuel stations to encourage competition and allow drivers to make comparisons and find the best deals, but I reiterate that if the CMA finds evidence of anti-competitive behaviour in the market, it is clear that it will not hesitate to act.
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman asks that question. I noticed that although this is a debate on fuel duty, he and other hon. Members took the opportunity to talk quite significantly about a windfall tax. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister have made it clear that it is not the Conservative Government’s instinct to reach for a windfall tax; that is not the most naturally attractive option to us. We want to see the energy sector invest in North sea oil and gas, which is important to our transition. However, the Chancellor has also been clear that no option is off the table.
To return to the topic of the debate, the Government take fuel duty costs seriously, and we have responded with a substantial duty cut to help motorists across the UK. The Government and the CMA continue to monitor the situation extremely closely, and Members should be in no doubt that further action will be taken if necessary to ensure effective competition. The 5p cut in fuel duty is part of a £22 billion package of support to help people with the cost of living. As the Chancellor has made clear, we stand ready to do more.
I thank the Minister for her response to the petition, and I thank the petitioners for signing it and Michael Bromley from Chorley for promoting it. This petition was created on 18 October 2021 and closed on 18 April, because they last six months, but what a six months it has been. He was concerned in October, and many people have expressed their concerns alongside him.
The sum of £9 billion was mentioned earlier—that is the Government’s support to help people with energy bills through their council tax bills. I say to the Minister—I know she cannot respond—that £9 billion was the sum that the Government wasted in relation to personal protective equipment, so we know they are not looking after their pennies.
When we left the EU, one thing we were promised was that VAT on fuel would be cut, and it has not been. There is a knock-on effect on costs, as many Members have said, and the Government need effective and rapid ways of putting money into our constituents’ pockets. Like the 100,000 petitioners, we want more to be done, because unfortunately they are not feeling the benefit of what has been done so far. I thank the Minister for responding, and we will carry on from here.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 599089, relating to taxes on motor fuel.