Skip to main content

Legislation: Gendered Pronouns

Volume 792: debated on Monday 25 June 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will adopt the use of “they” as the singular pronoun in all future legislation in preference to gendered pronouns.

My Lords—if I may so use a gendered noun in defiance of my noble friend’s Question—the Government are committed to gender-neutral drafting in legislation. There are a number of ways to avoid gender-specific pronouns, and the use of “they” in the singular is certainly one of them. Other ways to avoid gender-specific pronouns are discussed in the drafting guidance produced by parliamentary counsel.

My Lords, I am grateful for that Answer, but does my noble friend agree that the drafting guidance, which followed a debate in this Chamber some while ago, is very much a half-way house? We still permit repeated use of the “Secretary of State” and the phrase “he or she”, which is a binary rather than a unitary gender expression. In view of the forthcoming review of the Gender Recognition Act, and the expectation that that will further ease the ability of people to change gender, should we not be reviewing the whole aspect of gender in legislation and in public practice?

My noble friend highlights the tension between etymological orthodoxy on the one hand and political correctness on the other. I was brought up to believe that “they” was a nominative plural pronoun and “he” or “she” was the singular. But that was a long time ago; popular usage has moved on, and so have the grammar guides. Indeed, the singular “they” is now used in legislation. It was used in the Terrorism Act. But, to go as far as my noble friend has suggested and use “they” in all circumstances would, I think, be a step too far. In many cases, the use of “a person” would do just as well.

My Lords, while we are talking of nomenclature, is there anything the Government can do to discourage the growing and irritating replacement of the relative pronoun “which” by the demonstrative adjective “that”? How can we get back to using “which” when we mean it without having so many “thats” all over the place?

So far as drafting legislation is concerned, I hope I can assure noble Lords that parliamentary draftsmen will use the correct grammar whenever it is possible. The main purpose of drafting legislation is that it should be clear, but I agree that, wherever practicable, we should also use conventional language as long as we do not upset people’s sensitivities.

My Lords, my former students would tell you that I care greatly about grammar, but will the Minister explain why using “they” would be a step too far?

The suggestion from my noble friend was that it should be used in all cases. I have conceded that we should use it in some cases, and I cited an example from the Terrorism Act, where we do indeed use the word they in the singular:

“It is a defence for a person charged with an offence under this section to prove that they had a reasonable excuse for their action”.

But to insist that it should be used in every case would be to deprive parliamentary draftsmen—parliamentary drafters—of the flexibility they need.

My Lords, trans activists who I know very well do not wish to stop anybody using gender pronouns; they simply wish to add more ways in which people can use terms that describe them more accurately. Private sector companies are way ahead of us and are latching on to this. Will the Government review gender markers which they use in official documents to stop the practice of asking questions out of habit to solicit lots of information that is never used?

I understand the issue that the noble Baroness raises. We will soon be publishing a consultation on the Gender Recognition Act, and we will also be publishing the results from our national LGBT survey, which received over 7,000 responses from non-binary people. I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness that we take this issue seriously.

My Lords, as important as it is to think about language and treating members of each sex equally and fairly, is it not also important to think about the range of experience in Parliament? Is the Minister shocked to learn that while midwives, health visitors and early years professionals provide a vital role of support, particularly for women, there is, according to my Library research, only one qualified health visitor—the noble Baroness, Lady Manzoor—in both Houses? I am not aware that there are experienced early years practitioners, health visitors and midwives in Parliament. Does the Minister think that that should be looked at as well?

I am sure it should be looked at, but it goes slightly wider than the Question about parliamentary drafting.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that the Interpretation Act states that the male embraces the female? Do the Government intend to revisit that Act?

Section 6 of the Interpretation Act 1978 says that:

“In any Act, unless the contrary intention appears,—(a) words importing the masculine gender include the feminine; (b) words importing the feminine gender include the masculine; (c) words in the singular include the plural and words in the plural include the singular”.

That remains on the statute book in order to assist the interpretation of legislation before 2007. After 2007, as I said earlier, all new legislation has been drafted using gender-neutral language.

My Lords, it did seem at that point that the Minister was competing with the Clerk Assistant for long explanations. I return the Minister to grammar, which he mentioned earlier. An area over which he has some authority is Hansard. Whenever I say “the Government has” done something, it is reported as “the Government have”. This is a great inconvenience for a number of noble Lords. Might the Minister look, not at my words, but at all the stuff that we write which is still, I think, grammatically incorrect?

If there is one group of people who have listened to what the noble Baroness has just said, it is Hansard. I am sure they will take on board the proposal that she has just put to the House.