I beg to move,
That this House has considered proposals to allow self-identification of gender.
I thank you in advance for your chairmanship and guidance, Mr Hosie. Following our conversation earlier this morning, I am fully aware that this is a sensitive issue. I have concerns about self-identification of gender, but they are not in any way directed at anyone who is unfortunate enough to suffer from some form of gender dysphoria. I have met many trans women who share my concerns about this and want nothing to do with the kind of activism that seems to be going on and shutting down debate. The criticisms I have are of Government, Ministers and politically motivated organisations, many of which have access to public funds.
The law at the moment is that anyone who wishes to change their legal gender has to apply to the Gender Recognition Panel. They have to show a number of things, including that they have lived as their preferred gender for two years and have been diagnosed with some form of gender dysphoria. They also have to commit to living as their new gender for the rest of their life. One thing that they do not have to do is undergo any form of medical treatment or surgery. They do not even have to be taking any hormone pills. The vast majority of people who change gender maintain the body in which they are born. As far as I can find from the statistics, only one in five people who have changed gender have had any form of surgery. This is the cause of concern for many people.
Self-definition of gender is already happening. Organisations seem to be ahead of the law, which the Government may or may not be about to change. There is a particular concern about what is going on in schools with children. Guidance is being given to schools by publicly funded organisations such as Mermaids and others encouraging children to question their gender and redefine it if they wish. They can do so without their parents even being told about it. That can quickly set off a chain of events that can begin with children as young as 12 being given puberty blockers, about which there are many medical concerns. At least one doctor in my constituency has been giving these drugs out to children as young as 12. That can then progress on to hormone blockers, which have powerful and irreversible side effects. Once people start on that road, there is a danger that they may end up having more drastic and irreversible surgery, because once one is on that pathway, it becomes difficult to get off it.
Teachers who have tried to question what is going on or who have fallen foul of the activist groups are liable to find themselves being disciplined. A teacher called Joshua Sutcliffe was disciplined by a school in Oxford for committing the offence—a new one on me—of misgendering a group of pupils. He had apparently said, “Well done, girls”, after a maths exam, although one of the girls identified as a boy. For that, the teacher was disciplined.
That incident happened in my community. I would like to point out that how the hon. Gentleman is portraying the incident is far simpler than the bigger issues surrounding it. It was not just a single incident; there were a number of incidents with that teacher, not only in that specific case but in other parts of the school. I remind him that these things are sometimes over-simplified. Does he agree that over-simplification of such a sensitive and complex issue sometimes is not helpful?
The hon. Lady is right, but if I over-simplify, it is partly so that she can have a chance to speak. We have only 90 minutes, and this is the first time we have debated the issue properly in the House of Commons. I look forward to hearing her longer explanation.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on bringing this debate to Parliament. It is such an important issue, and this is a great opportunity for us to have a respectful debate and discussion, but does he agree that as parliamentarians we have a duty not to over-simplify and to ensure that we properly educate ourselves to have an informed debate and discussion?
Absolutely. That is why I have spent quite a lot of time talking to women who have concerns about the issue. Very few Members of Parliament have been willing to educate themselves and come along and meet people who have those concerns. It is notable that when we have had meetings in the House of Commons, very few people have turned up to listen to the concerns of activist feminist groups who feel that the potential change to the law will have a huge impact on their lives. I look forward to the hon. Lady’s support at future meetings we may have—we look forward to seeing her.
The Government are now considering legislation that would do away with the checks that are currently made and allow people to redefine themselves as any gender they wish. As far as I can see, that would mean that once the consultation has ended, if the Government do what the equal opportunities committee is recommending, people will be able to change their gender at any time. There would be no need to live outwardly as that gender, let alone to take hormones or have surgery. A 15-stone bearded man could simply define themselves as female and there would be nothing anyone could do to object. One might think that that does not matter—in fact, it does not, if that is what people want to do. I am a libertarian. I am a believer in freedom of choice. As far as I am concerned, it is absolutely fine, until it becomes an issue for other people and other people’s rights.
People who might outwardly appear to be male and possess a male body would, if they legally redefined their gender, suddenly gain access to women’s toilets, hospital wards, changing rooms, refuges and prisons. They would have the right to undertake roles that people would normally expect to be done by someone of the same sex as those the service is being offered to, such as nurses or carers conducting intimate procedures, prison or police officers carrying out searches or staff working in refuges for victims of domestic violence.
We saw an obvious example a few weeks ago of what can happen, and will happen more regularly, when a convicted male sex offender who had redefined himself as female was able to insist on his right to be put into a women’s prison. Within a matter of days, he had carried out four sexual assaults on women. Another example was given to me by someone who was the victim of long-term sexual abuse as a young person.
The hon. Gentleman has cited a case and claimed that it proves that the Government should not change the law on gender recognition, yet that case, of which I do not know the detail, has happened under the current arrangements. Does that not actually point to a failure of risk assessment procedures, rather than a problem with the law?
No, because as I said at the start, organisations such as prisons and schools are ahead of the law. They are already allowing self-identification of gender. There was certainly a failure of risk assessment with the case I mentioned. Shortly after it happened and the court case concluded, I asked the head of probation and prisons in Wales whether there had been any change to the guidance given to prison authorities about housing transgender prisoners, and I was told that there had not. I subsequently sought an urgent question about that, because, as I hope the hon. Lady would agree, it is appalling that vulnerable female prisoners, many of whom have been victims of male violence, are being put at risk in this fashion. It was not deemed important enough to be discussed in Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is gracious to give way to me for a second time. May I clarify whether his assertion is that prisons and schools are doing something illegal under the current Gender Recognition Act 2004?
No, I have not asserted that at all. I have said that prisons and schools are allowing self-identification of gender at the moment. The law may well change shortly following the consultation, to give that a legal footing and to allow people to legally register their gender as being different from the one they are born with. The practicality is that that is already happening. I have made that point several times.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Yes, but I am conscious that others may want to speak, and I do not want to use up all their time.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it seems strange to cite an example of a failure in the current system as a reason not to make improvements to the system? He mentioned women’s refuges. Linda Rodgers of Edinburgh Women’s Aid noted:
“The reality is that any service has the potential to be abused, and we would deal with that, whatever direction it came from on a case by case basis…I don’t think this should be used as a reason to restrict the rights of a particular group.”
Surely the hon. Gentleman recognises that we should not make policy on the basis of the incidents he mentions or of some individuals who may abuse the system. It should be about equality and fairness for everybody.
Absolutely, but the point I am making is reasonable: if people are legally able to redefine their gender, the prison authorities, for example, will not be able to prevent a male who has redefined their gender from going to a female prison. That is already happening and is bound to become a lot easier.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Perhaps one last time. I will be guided by you, Mr Hosie.
There is plenty of time.
The hon. Gentleman appears to argue that women prisoners need protection only from trans women. In fact, we need to protect all prisoners from a range of potential hazards, and such things should be applied on the basis of individual cases, not on the basis of someone’s gender identification. How can he argue that a risk assessment should not apply equally? It could apply to other women, not only to trans women.
It could, but the reality is that the vast majority of sexual assaults are carried out by males against females. I am told that the figure is higher than 90%, and I believe that. On extraordinarily rare occasions, women assault males, but let us be honest, it is very unusual. If we allow people who have been convicted of sexual offences as males to redefine their gender and insist on their right to go into female prisons, we will clearly put women at risk. I do not see how anyone can fault the logic of that. We have already seen what can happen when that goes on.
The other example I want to give is of somebody who has been involved in speaking out on this issue. She has been a victim of long-term sexual abuse and was helped by a women’s organisation in the south of England. I will not go into the detail of what went on, but it was horrendous. She told me that there is absolutely no way she would have been able to access that service from anyone who was male, or have anything to do with that organisation if anyone male was there. She has subsequently been told that anyone who defines themselves as female will be able to use the service and be part of the group that helps women who have been victims of sexual abuse. Because of that, she would not have accessed that service today. There are many other women in the same situation.
My point is that even before any legislation has been passed, we are already seeing organisations such as schools, hospitals and prisons allowing people to define themselves as a different gender from the one that they were born with, and to which in the majority of cases their body corresponds. That has an impact on others, and particularly on the right of women to privacy and to sex-segregated spaces.
One issue that particularly concerns me is the lack of debate that has gone on. I am grateful for the fact that we are able to have this debate here today. Although groups in receipt of public funds, such as Mermaids, seem to have an open door to Government and Select Committees, anyone who expresses concern about this matter is ignored. PinkNews seems to have abandoned any pretence at objective reporting and vilifies women’s and lesbian groups that want to save sex-segregated spaces. Women’s rights activists who have met to discuss the impact of the changes have faced verbal and physical harassment. Those who have resisted, such as Venice Allan, have been subject to ludicrous, vexatious legal action and dragged into court to defend themselves for speaking freely about their concerns.
I arranged a meeting in Parliament for a women’s group after a venue in London, at Millwall football club, had been cancelled. Numerous complaints were made to the House of Commons authorities before the meeting, and I was called into a meeting with the Serjeant at Arms. As the Minister knows, I have been an MP for 13 years and, like most MPs, I have organised numerous meetings for numerous groups. I have never before had to go and spend an hour with the Serjeant at Arms explaining myself. I have no problem with the conversation that we had, but it is very unusual for that to happen.
I tried to organise another meeting afterwards. Again, I was contacted by the Serjeant at Arms’ office. After the meeting took place, numerous complaints were made, mostly vexatious, but they resulted in a three-month investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Again, I have no problem with that and with the conclusion that she reached, but such investigations are very unusual. I was even told by another Member of Parliament that I could face police action because of what had taken place, because of the potential that a public order offence had been committed. This matter is one for debate, such as the one we are having now. We have a right to discuss these issues. If people know that meetings will result in investigations and legal action against them, even if it amounts to nothing, they will obviously be far less inclined to hold them.
The Government, whom I support by and large, are proposing fundamental changes that will have a huge impact on people. That is being done without proper consideration and in an atmosphere of menace. Many people are deeply concerned by what is going on. I urge Ministers and members of the relevant Select Committees to listen to the concerns and to meet some of the groups that are concerned about what is going on, rather than ignoring them, which I am afraid is what happens at the moment. Some organisations seem to have an open door into the offices of Ministers of Government, but others—[Interruption.] The Minister shakes her head, but perhaps she can tell me how many times Ministers have met Transgender Trend or Woman’s Place and how many times they have met Mermaids or other pro-trans activist groups.
People should not face dismissal from their jobs for suggesting that a woman cannot have a penis. It may be an issue about which we can have different opinions, but it is certainly a debatable point at the very least. Nor should they face dismissal for the so-called offence of “misgendering”.
Women who want safe same-sex spaces are not transphobic and are not committing hate crimes. They are simply reflecting a concern for their own safety, which, as a man, I have to say is based on a valid fear for far too many. I hope the Government will stop listening to some of the activist organisations and start listening to people, very often outside the M25, who have a different opinion. I say to the Minister, with all due respect, that I have supported the Government through thick and thin, as she knows, often in difficult circumstances, but I will not support the Government on this issue. Not only will I not support them if they go ahead with what I think they are planning, but I will do my utmost, in so far as I can, to stop any changes in legislation going ahead that will undermine the safety of women and change our society in ways that are very concerning.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) on securing this debate. Although we are perhaps on opposite sides on some of the issues, I agree absolutely that not enough debate has been had in this House on this matter.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in the debate today, especially because it is Trans Awareness Week. Yesterday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day when we are meant to remember the huge inequalities and the number of transgender people who have died over the years because of the oppression that they faced. I hope the Minister will join me today in solidarity with the community that over the past few months has had inordinate amounts of abuse hurled at it from all quarters. However, today is an opportunity to shed some light rather than heat on this debate, particularly on the issues that underpin some of that heat.
I want to place on the record my thanks to my Liberal Democrat colleague and friend, Helen Belcher, whom I have worked with closely on this matter. I also want to place it on the record that I am wholeheartedly behind the Government’s proposed reforms of the Gender Recognition Act 2004. I believe that they are proportionate and well thought through. It is time that Britain caught up with many other countries around the world—a point I will come to later.
That said, I absolutely appreciate the sincerely held concerns of not just the hon. Gentleman but many other people, including constituents who have contacted me to say that they are worried about aspects of the proposals. My constituent Juliette said:
“I am frightened by the fact that women’s voices are being dismissed and silenced”.
My constituent Nicola wrote:
“It’s taken me several days to build up the courage to email you for fear of being labelled transphobic or hateful and believe me, I am not—I fully support the rights of the trans community to live their life without discrimination”.
It is a damning indictment on not just us, although we politicians need to take responsibility for shying away from what is a controversial and sensitive issue, but on the media, which I do not believe have treated the issue with fairness on either side. In today’s debate and moving forward, we need to try to bring the two sides together, because I do not think there is a conflict between being a feminist and believing in trans rights.
Since my election in 2017, I have ensured that Ministers are aware of my constituents’ views on both sides of the debate. I particularly thank the Minister’s colleague in the other place, Baroness Williams of Trafford, for taking the time to meet me to discuss the issues. I have not attended the meetings organised by the hon. Member for Monmouth simply because I have been listening to my constituents and working on the issue in other ways. I take slight offence at the insinuation that because I have not attended his meetings I do not care deeply about the issue and have not been engaging in the debate.
I appreciate that Ministers are considering responses to the public consultation, but it would be encouraging to hear from the Minister about what steps the Government are taking to reassure people who are worried about the reform, and what active myth-busting is occurring, or is planned, regarding the misconceptions. That will be the crux of my speech.
It is important to put self-identification and self-declaration in the context of the Equality Act 2010. If we understand what that legislation allows, we can then talk about how the law might be reformed or changed. The Act protects people from discrimination on the basis of sex and gender reassignment, and describes the exemptions that allow single-sex spaces. Under the Act, it is a legitimate aim to provide safe spaces for women, but it is not proportionate to exclude all trans women from those spaces simply because they are trans, which is an incredibly important point. Furthermore, the Act protects those who have undergone, are undergoing, or are proposing to undergo a process, or part of a process, of reassigning their gender.
It is probably worth mentioning the sorts of interventions and operations that some trans people choose not to have. First, that is their medical choice to make. Secondly, think for a moment of the extensive operations that would need to happen. Many trans people are put off simply because it is painful, and in some cases expensive. Sometimes they feel unable to have operations because only a certain number of licensed practitioners in the country are allowed to perform them. Some trans people prefer to go abroad to have them, but that is not recognised in this country. There are many complex reasons behind the 93% figure. The proposed reforms would go some way to removing some of those barriers.
I hear what the hon. Lady is saying. May I bluntly ask her whether she would be happy sharing a changing room with somebody who was born male and had a male body?
I believe that women are women, so if that person was a trans woman, I absolutely would. I just do not see the issue. As for whether they have a beard, which was one of the hon. Gentleman’s earlier comments, I dare say that some women have beards. There are all sorts of reasons why our bodies react differently to hormones. There are many forms of the human body. I see someone in their soul and as a person. I do not really care whether they have a male body.
In essence, the Equality Act already works on the basis of self-declaration of gender, as it does for religion and sexuality. Coming back to the point that the hon. Gentleman made earlier about society being ahead of the Act, that is actually not the case; society is implementing the Act as it stands.
The concern voiced by some people that reforming the Gender Recognition Act to allow self-declaration would allow men into women’s spaces needs more discussion. Since my election, 12 constituents have contacted me on these issues, and that concern is a feature of all their correspondence. Other things come up, but that is the top concern. For example, Elizabeth says that she fears the
“risk of males choosing to change their legal gender in order to gain access to spaces and opportunities reserved for women”.
That is her main concern.
However, the Gender Recognition Act simply allows a trans person to change their birth certificate and have it reissued. It does not change what is in the Equality Act. I appreciate that the hon. Member for Monmouth did not want to take more interventions earlier, but my question to him would be: are we saying that we want to roll back the 2010 Act in the reforms? Allowing trans women into women-only spaces is provided for under that Act. If that is what is being questioned, it is a rolling back of the Act, and not a reform.
Let us think about what would happen if a man did self-declare as a woman using any of the gender recognition reform proposals, and then tried to enter a women-only space for nefarious purposes. This chap is so intent on doing that that he gets himself a new birth certificate. By the way, it is a fallacy that people can just say, “Oh, I’m going to decide this afternoon to change my gender.” Nothing in the reforms suggests that someone can just decide to do that on a whim one afternoon, or say, “In the morning I’m going to be a woman and in the afternoon I’m going to be a man,” or anything like that.
The proposed reforms are proportionate and considered. They are not knee-jerk and they understand that such decisions are some of the most personal that a human gets to make. It is about who they are and how they fundamentally identify. It is not something that people do lightly. However, let us say that someone did want to do that.
The hon. Lady is setting out a hypothetical situation, but a number of countries already have simple self-declaration administrative processes for gender recognition: Argentina, Denmark, Ireland, Malta, Norway and Colombia. Is she aware of Government single-sex service providers or criminal justice sectors in those countries reporting negative impacts from that implementation?
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, because as far as I am aware there are none. A lot of the concern comes from hypotheticals, anecdotes, and often very simplified versions of much more complex events. As a former science teacher, I care a lot about the evidence. What is the evidence about what has happened? I will return to the hon. Lady’s point, which was very well made, in a moment.
Let us assume that someone wants to go into a women-only space for nefarious purposes. That would be quite a stupid thing to do because, apart from anything else, if an offence was committed it would show evidence of premeditation, which would increase the person’s sentence. Also, had the certificate been gained for the sole purpose of entering such a space to commit a crime, that would be a separate crime under the Fraud Act 2006. If someone was intent on harming women, that would be one of the stupider ways of doing it.
Quite apart from that, it is a hypothetical situation that is removed from what the evidence shows. There is no evidence at all to show such harms in countries such as Malta and Norway over the past few years. Importantly, because of how the Equality Act works, we do not even have to look further afield—just look at this country, where the Act already allows self-identification for those who are even considering going through the process. What evidence is there from this country of any problems with self-declaration, which has been going for eight years now? There is none.
This has the signs of a moral panic being whipped up to demonise a community. I am not saying that my constituents are doing that, but there are some people who are intent on rolling back the Equality Act, and I am deeply concerned that they are not being called out for wanting to do so.
Does the hon. Lady share my concern that when the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) cited violence against women, he was conflating two issues? Violence against women is mainly carried out by men; as the hon. Lady rightly points out, it has nothing to do with men identifying as women. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about violence against women, that is what he should focus on.
Hear, hear—I completely agree. It is really important to ensure that we are talking about the right thing. Violence against women is still ubiquitous. It still happens in our society and on our streets, and it should absolutely be called out, but these reforms are entirely separate. We need to come together on this. I am curious about whether the hon. Member for Monmouth has attended meetings in this House on violence against women.
A 2016 report by the Women and Equalities Committee found that the process of gender recognition was bureaucratic and costly. The Government’s LGBT survey, published in July this year, reported that trans women were being deterred from applying for gender recognition for some of the same reasons that I spoke about earlier; it noted that 93% of those who wanted gender recognition had been deterred from applying for it. The respondents to the Government consultation are not people who are thinking about changing their gender on a whim, but people who have grappled with the issue for a very long time. Their concerns are worth listening to.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that trans people, who face huge barriers and a medicalised process, are being damaged psychologically by our legal framework? The core of why we are here as elected representatives is to make the lives of our constituents better and to ensure a level playing field. If we do not act and work together, more trans people will commit suicide—we already know the statistics—and young trans people will face more significant barriers. We absolutely must work together to understand and address their concerns and make sure that their voices are heard.
I absolutely agree. Our laws were groundbreaking when they were introduced in 2004, but our law on gender recognition now lags behind those of other countries. It disadvantages trans people on some very questionable grounds.
I am not sure on what basis the people who raise concerns about gender recognition feel that it is wrong. It is one of our values that there should be a level playing field in our society. Society is evolving and becoming more complex, and we are rightly recognising more intricate parts of it.
It is incumbent on us as British politicians to protect minority groups and understand the issues that they face. The reforms are a logical next step in our evolving understanding of a very small and vulnerable group of people in this country. Yes, many are children when they first start to discover the situation, but as a former teacher and as the Lib Dem education spokesperson, I believe that schools are doing their utmost to make children feel that it is okay to be different and have a space in which they can discuss the issues. To suggest that that extends to encouraging them to change their gender is a step too far for the role of schools.
I am pleased to support the reforms of the Gender Recognition Act, as well as maintaining my support for women-only services, which remain vital for many. The points made about violence against women and about the need to protect women from men who sexually abuse them are absolutely right, but being a feminist and being a supporter of trans rights are not in conflict; the two can absolutely sit together. We need to look at the evidence, not just about what the law currently says, but—
The hon. Lady says that she supports women-only services. By “women-only”, does she mean anyone who defines themselves as a woman?
The hon. Gentleman brings me on to my next sentence. I was about to say that trans women are women. Moreover, trans rights are human rights.
I am very grateful for today’s debate, because it has allowed some of us to broaden and deepen the debate and to start to set the record straight.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Hosie. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who raised a number of issues. It is important that the debate remains respectful and that we can have a reasonable and decent conversation. I commend the UK and Scottish Governments on their consultations. The Scottish Government consultation received a huge number of responses, more than 60% of which were in favour of the proposals.
On a number of occasions, the hon. Gentleman spoke in over-simplified terms. I must repeat what I said in my intervention: that is not helpful because deepening and expanding the debate about those concerns is vital. The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) made an excellent speech. I greatly share her concerns about rolling back on the Equality Act. As her hypothetical example highlighted perfectly, we have to remember that what is essentially identity fraud would be a crime. The fact that 93% of people in the trans community have sought to get support and access services but have been turned away is a shame and a stain on our society.
Yesterday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance—a day when we took a moment to celebrate the incredible contribution that trans people make to our communities, and to reflect and remember our trans siblings who have been killed, committed suicide, faced prejudice or not been able to live or be recognised in a way of their choosing. I firmly believe that today’s debate is about exactly that: living in a way of our choosing, without fear or prejudice, under a legislative framework that supports people to do exactly that.
I started school in the year section 28 was introduced. Section 28 meant that schools and teachers could not talk to students openly about their sexual orientation or gender identity without fear of losing their jobs. So much legislation related to LGBTI rights has been, and still is, based on fear rather than acceptance, but we have come a long way in all parts of the UK. I commend the Minister and her Government on their work, as well as the other Governments around the UK—particularly the Scottish Government, who have gone a little bit further. I hope that at some point the Minister and I can meet to discuss how scrapping the spousal veto in Scotland has meant greater equality for trans people.
Section 28 was scrapped in 2003. By then I was halfway through my university degree. I grew up believing that, if I came out, I could not live a normal life and I would not have equal rights. I am an ardent feminist and an openly gay MP. I am not about to shut the door on the equality of trans people just because people like me now have greater equality. Those of us in the LGBTI+ community, and all of us who believe in equality and enjoy greater equality, must do all that we can to support others who are marginalised and discriminated against. Although the legislation on gender recognition was groundbreaking in 2004, it is now out of date. Medicalising and marginalising people who are trans is absolutely wrong.
We recently celebrated a new chapter in Scotland for LGBTI people. Inclusive education has become a reality—the UK Government are also working on that. I want to take a moment to recognise Liam Stevenson and Jordan Daly from Time for Inclusive Education, plus all the many organisations that have supported us with their briefings today, including Stonewall Scotland, LGBT Youth Scotland and the Scottish Trans Alliance, which worked on the legislation and policies in Scotland alongside John Swinney, Angela Constance and Christina McKelvie.
I appreciate that sexuality and gender identity are two very different things, but I faced challenges in terms of coming to my sexuality. I did not come out until I was 32. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for somebody who is trans who is trying to operate in a system where their transition is medicalised, where they have to travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles—as the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon mentioned, many trans people feel that going abroad is their only choice.
I have met a number of young trans people in my Livingston constituency, some pre-op, some post-op. The challenges they have faced are truly heartbreaking. Even in Scotland, which came second top in inclusiveness on the LGBTI global index, we still have a significant way to go. Living in a country and society where someone’s orientation or identity does not have legal recognition, and where they do not have equal rights, is corrosive to the soul. At the core is the need to reform the legislation—changing our societal view and structures will follow from changing the law on gender recognition.
I recognise that the debate has become very polarised, which is a source of great sadness to me. I do not think it helps when the media sensationalise. There are cases where systems are being abused, and we must recognise and address those concerns, but we must not make policy based on a few individuals who seek to abuse the system. There will always be those who seek to abuse the system. That is regrettable and those people should be dealt with appropriately, but we should not make policy on that basis.
As the hon. Lady has rightly pointed out, a small minority would seek to cause others harm. However, more than half of trans people in the UK have attempted suicide and 84% have said that they have experienced suicidal thoughts. Does the hon. Lady agree that a lot more needs to be done to protect and support them?
I could not agree more. The hon. Lady makes a very powerful point. It is a stain on our society that many trans people feel so marginalised. In this debate and in the wider discussion, we must do all that we can to raise our voices to show our support and ensure that our policies and our laws properly support and recognise them.
The Scottish Government consultation on reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004 ran from 9 November 2017 to 1 March 2018. There were 15,697 responses and 60% of respondents were in support of the Government’s proposals. It is important to recognise and understand why 40% were not in favour, but those are the figures none the less.
The hon. Member for Monmouth raised a number of concerns about domestic violence and women’s services. I have a few quotes from organisations in Scotland for him. The chief executive of Rape Crisis Scotland, Sandy Brindley, said that the most important thing to say was that the proposed legal changes
“should make no difference to the provision of women-only services – that’s where some confusion has arisen. There isn’t any Rape Crisis which would ask to see documentation of gender.”
I mentioned Linda Rodgers of Edinburgh Women’s Aid, who said that
“there are concerns out there that our service could in some way be abused”
by allowing people to self-declare their gender. She said she had not heard that from the organisation’s staff or board. She continued:
“The reality is that any service has the potential to be abused, and we would deal with that, whatever direction it came from on a case by case basis...I don’t think this should be used as a reason to restrict the rights of a particular group.”
Many people are concerned about young people. Stonewall has said that accessing legal recognition would have a hugely positive impact on trans young people’s health and experience in education. Like all young people, trans young people get on better at school and college when they are supported to be themselves, which is particularly important given the alarming rates of transphobic bullying happening in Britain’s schools and the impact that that has on trans young people’s mental health. Lowering the age at which young people can obtain legal recognition would also raise awareness of trans young people’s needs and support schools and colleges to address the misconceptions and stereotypes that fuel transphobic bullying.
Stonewall provided a case study from a woman called Susan:
“My daughter deserves to have the legal status and identity that matches who she is. I don’t understand why people can’t accept that everyone has a right to live their life being true to themselves, as long as it doesn’t break the law or impact negatively on anyone else.”
Earlier in the year, I visited Malawi and met a number of trans activists and heard their stories. They live in a country where it is illegal not just to be trans, but to be gay. Trans people have no legal standing in that country. One of the activists had been attacked in their workplace purely on the basis of being trans. They went to the police, and were told to go home, dress in their proper identity and come back—only then could the crime be recorded. That is a world away from where we are. The mental and physical toll on those activists was terrifying.
We absolutely have to recognise that changing gender is not something that anybody would do lightly. Should it be done for nefarious reasons, it would be very rare and should be dealt with appropriately.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech. She said that the experience in Malawi is a world away. Sadly, 41% of trans people have experienced a hate crime in the past year. I know from talking to some of my trans constituents that that is consistent with their experience. In reality, do trans women not need precisely the same protection from male violence and access to safe spaces that other women need?
I absolutely agree.
I hope the hon. Member for Monmouth and others who have concerns will be reassured by the fact that women’s groups such as Rape Crisis Scotland, Scottish Women’s Aid, Zero Tolerance, Engender, Equate Scotland, Close the Gap and the Women 50:50 campaign have come out in support of the proposed changes in Scotland, as have their equivalent organisations in the UK. We must recognise that there are concerns and we must address them, but we absolutely must hold a mirror up to those who are marginalising and attacking trans people and their rights. There is a groundswell of support for equality and for a change in the law to ensure that gender identification and the processes that trans people have to go through are not discriminatory at their core. We absolutely must change the law to ensure that they are properly supported, that the law reflects that and that our society reflects that.
I thank the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) for bringing the debate to the House. It is absolutely right to say that we need to have this discussion. It should have happened sooner—if it had, maybe the void that was created would not have been filled with such hostility.
As many Members have recognised, yesterday was the Transgender Day of Remembrance. I want to reflect on the 369 reported killings of trans and gender-diverse people—one was in the UK—between 1 October 2017 and September this year. I also want to reflect on the number of trans people who, as we have heard, have considered taking their own life, especially students.
It is important that what is discussed in the House is accurate and sensitive. I feel that some of the remarks of the hon. Member for Monmouth were not as sensitive as they could have been. We have to remember that people who are transitioning will be watching this debate, and that we are decision makers and lawmakers. They will be looking at how we address this issue.
It certainly was not my intention to cause any offence to anyone who is trans or otherwise. Perhaps the hon. Lady will educate me a little by explaining which of my comments she thought was insensitive.
You made a comment about people who are “unfortunate enough” to suffer from gender dysphoria. That has very negative connotations, just as it used to be said that people were “unfortunate enough” to be gay, to be a woman or to be black. The way you speak was picked up in your talking about simplifying—
Order. Please use the correct terminology.
Sorry, Mr Hosie. The hon. Member for Monmouth simplified cases to sensationalise them, which is unnecessary for this kind of debate.
It was not my intention to cause any offence to anyone who is trans; I have tried to make that clear throughout. My understanding is that gender dysphoria is a medical condition that must be diagnosed. I suggest that, if somebody has gender dysphoria and is unhappy with their gender, that might be an unfortunate situation to be in. By saying that, I am certainly not trying to undermine the rights of anyone who is transgender.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman’s comments will slightly reassure the transgender community. The UK’s legislation is so out of date that we are no longer considered a world leader on LGBT+ rights. We were once No. 1—right at the very top. We slipped to third, and we are fourth in this year’s rankings. The International Lesbian and Gay Association’s “Rainbow Europe index” report cites a surge in transphobic media coverage as the reason for our falling down that league table.
The Labour party has a proud record of championing equal rights, including LGBT+ rights. It was a Labour Government who brought in the Equality Act 2010 and the Gender Recognition Act 2004, and who abolished section 28 and created civil partnerships. We need to recognise that LGBT+ people still face widespread discrimination, and it is clear that we must do more to enhance their rights and protections. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 is now out of date and needs amending. The issue is about changing sex and gender on birth certificates, and we should talk about the facts. Apart from birth certificates, it is already possible to change one’s name, title and gender marker on all UK identity documents. That has been working well for more than 40 years. In fact, most trans people do not want to go through the indignity of applying for a gender recognition certificate. The Government will have the support of Opposition Members to amend the Gender Recognition Act 2004.
I will go through a few more facts. Deliberately making a false statutory declaration is a serious crime and is punishable by imprisonment. From the heartfelt contributions that we have heard, we know that changing one’s gender is not done lightly. Reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 does not affect access to single-sex services and facilities, which has been made clear.
On the issue of prisons, can the hon. Lady confirm that very high-risk trans women are sometimes not held on the female estate because there are no facilities to house them? Depending on a risk assessment, they are sometimes even held in male prisons. That goes to show that the current system already works: if somebody is considered a high risk to the exclusively female population, the system and guidelines already provide for that.
That is absolutely correct. In the case that was mentioned, there was a failure of the prison authorities, not of the system. The process should have gone through certain panels before the decision was made—it had nothing to do with the principles of the Equality Act 2010. We have good information that a transgender expert who consulted on that particular case was overruled. The failure of Leeds prison authorities to act on the expert’s advice arises from the reaction to Vikki Thompson’s tragic suicide in Leeds, which is maybe why that particular case happened. It was a failure not of the system but of the prison authorities.
Labour recognises the rights of all groups to debate the implications of reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004. All views should be listened to and supported, and we have listened to various groups that have vastly different opinions. That does not mean that we will be bullied into taking one side or the other. Decisions and law should be made on the basis of facts and take into consideration the majority, not just people who are sensationalising certain aspects of a particular case. As I have said, with 45% of trans students attempting suicide, the Government’s delay in amending the Gender Recognition Act 2004 has contributed to fraught and toxic debate, from which I hope we can move on.
I have a few questions for the Minister, which I am sure she will appreciate. Will she outline the Government’s planned timetable for reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004, including the publication of their response to the recently closed consultation? Will she outline the Government’s plans to launch their separate calls for evidence on issues faced by non-binary and intersex people, and can she confirm that this will not delay the much-needed reform of the Gender Recognition Act 2004? In line with the LGBT action plan, will she provide an update on research on the feasibility of the “Tell Us Once” service as a sustainable model for trans people to update their name and gender only once across multiple Departments? I am sure this is the case, but just for clarification, will the Minister confirm that trans people will not lose any rights under the Gender Recognition Act reforms?
I will conclude by quoting a letter from a Labour activist, Heather Peto, but before I do so I want to thank the organisations that fed the views in to us, including Unison, Stonewall, DIVA magazine, my LGBT advisory panel, LGBT Labour and our parliamentary Labour party LGBT group. When we make legislation in this place, it is important that we listen to people’s lived experiences. For too long, laws have been made for people, about people, without their having a place around the table.
I spoke to a young trans woman who found herself homeless. She told me that she had been put into an all-men hostel and was scared for her life. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must make law to protect all women, and that must absolutely include trans women?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. Trans women suffer from abuse, violence, domestic abuse and assault in the streets, just as every other woman does. We need to recognise the intersectionality of women, including trans women; we often do not. Often, only some women are recognised and have a privileged position.
The hon. Lady has made an excellent contribution. I just want to share with hon. Members an excerpt from Baroness Helena Kennedy’s excellent book, “Eve Was Shamed”, about the experience of trans prisoners, which illustrates the hon. Lady’s point excellently:
“One of the most distressing cases I ever conducted was defending a young transgender woman who had been raped and vaginally damaged by a former partner. She had gone to the police and reported the violation only to be greeted with ridiculing asides and suppressed laughter. The case pre-dated the Human Rights Act and reforms in rape law and the Equality Act. Her experience at the hands of the police was so wretched that she decided to withdraw the allegation whereupon the police charged her with perverting the course of justice.”
That was a long time ago and things have moved on, but such cases show that there must be no rolling back of rights.
I thank my hon. Friend—I will refer to her in that way—for that intervention. That feeds nicely into the letter from Heather, who has been trans for many decades. She said:
“Not so long ago, I was assaulted in a club when a stranger came over and roughly grabbed my crotch and breasts ‘to see if I was a woman’. I would call that sexual assault, but the police with stretched resources gave it low priority as it was a ‘lad having a laugh when drunk’. Being pushed over and abused in the street has also become common place again. When it happens now, myself and other trans people have to weigh whether it is worth reporting it to the police at all. Is your indignity worth the time it takes to go through all the police processes, the triggering of old memories of being sexually assaulted and the police’s lack of concern? For the more minor assaults usually it isn’t, but for the rapes and domestic violence support it is, and transwomen need support and safe spaces just as other women do.”
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) for securing this debate and enabling us to have this conversation about a very important area of our society in the 21st century. A lot of us are feeling our way in it.
I thank all hon. Members for the respectful tone in which they conducted the debate. I get asked about this issue regularly, and we all share a sense of sadness about the fact that this important debate sometimes gets taken over by loud and sometimes aggressive campaigning by activists. I am sure they hold their beliefs very strongly, but they perhaps lose sight of the fact that we have to be able to talk about this issue in a reasoned, respectful and caring fashion. The vast majority of the public—and, I am sure, parliamentarians—are in the middle. We want to talk about this issue in a caring and careful way so society gets to a position in which we are all comfortable with the consequences of the changes to legislation and so on.
There is perhaps a lack of understanding, so we need to help schools and the other organisations that have been mentioned to understand what the law is so they can apply it confidently in their services. I take that away not just from this debate but from the discussions we have more generally. We have tended to focus on trans women, but of course this debate also involves trans men, which I will deal with towards the end of my speech.
The consultation closed on 22 October. I hope that those who looked at it noted that the questions were very open. We deliberately tried not to lead people down a particular path because we wanted to ensure that we heard a range of views from as many people as possible to see how the current system is working. This debate is about self-identification, but no decisions have been made yet about what if any changes will be made to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. The consultation was about seeking views, so people should not walk away with the idea that we have made up our mind. It is only a couple of weeks since the consultation closed, so no proposals have been put forward about self-identification or other ways in which we can deal with the Act.
The consultation ran for 16 weeks and received more than 100,000 responses, which shows the interest that this topic attracts. My hard-working civil servants are now analysing those responses. In response to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), we hope to have a Government response to the consultation ready in spring next year. She will appreciate that it takes a bit of time to work through 100,000 responses. We also want to ensure that we get the right response, in which we will set out the next steps.
The hon. Lady also asked about calls for evidence regarding intersex and non-binary people. We will publish the call for evidence shortly, and it will not cause delay to the response to the overall consultation. She also asked about the “Tell Us Once” service. Work is ongoing in the Government Equalities Office to deliver that commitment in the action plan.
The hon. Lady asked about trans people’s rights. Again, I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth for securing this debate, because it gives me the opportunity to say that there will be no loss of trans people’s rights. This is an open consultation to determine what the law should be and explore people’s thoughts about its application in the 21st century.
I understand that my hon. Friend is concerned that the views of women and women’s groups have not been heard in the consultation. I reassure him that the Government are committed to hearing from everyone, including the groups he mentioned. We do not want to close down the debate. We absolutely do not agree with those who seek to vilify the views of people who do not agree with them. I, for one, have been on the record for some time as having grave concerns about the development of things such as no-platforming in our universities. It seems to me that we should have the confidence to talk about this issue, to express our concerns, to ask questions and to do so in a way that is met with respect so our questions are answered.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), said that Labour fully supports debate. The Minister has just said the same. Do they both support local authorities—Conservative and Labour—in allowing groups such as Woman’s Place UK and Transgender Trend to hold meetings in local authority buildings?
I take the view that we have the principle of freedom of speech. We should have a debate as long as it does not go beyond the legal markers delineating hate crime and so on. People are sometimes almost too scared to talk about things, which is not right. We do not want a climate of fear in the debate. We want people to be able to express their views respectfully and in a caring and careful manner, so that we ensure that questions are flushed out and answered.
The people whom my officials have met represent what I call the “rainbow full of views”—the spectrum of views on the topic. My officials have met women’s groups, those who run and administer refuges, domestic abuse charities, local government, LGBT groups, unions, service providers, transgender charities, Government Departments, European Governments, and organisations who campaign against reform of the Gender Recognition Act, including Fair Play For Women, Woman’s Place UK and Transgender Trend. They have also met feminist organisations that support reform of the GRA, because our priority with the consultation has been openness and listening.
As the Government consider the options, there are a couple of points I will make clear. Since the Gender Recognition Act came into force, transgender people have been able to acquire a new birth certificate matching the gender they live in. Experience has shown, however, that some do not use the process because they find it to be difficult and intrusive. They are therefore left with a birth certificate that does not reflect the gender in which they live their lives. Without a new birth certificate, transgender people are unable to marry in the gender in which they live their lives, and cannot claim their pensions at the age appropriate to that gender. Those who are a little older live with the worry that their death certificate might carry a name and a gender that have not applied to them for decades. That is one of many reasons for the consultation.
For a transgender person, changing their birth certificate requires them to obtain a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria; to obtain a second report from a medical professional detailing any medical treatment that they have had, such as hormone treatment or surgery; to sign a statutory declaration that they intend to live in their acquired gender until death; to provide proof of having lived for at least two years in their acquired gender; to pay a fee of £140; and, if they are married, to obtain the consent of their spouse. That documentation is sent to the Gender Recognition Panel, which is made up of legal and medical experts, and which makes a decision as to whether the person has fulfilled the requirements. If satisfied, the panel will issue a gender recognition certificate, which is used to obtain a new birth certificate. The transgender person never meets the panel that makes that decision about them.
When the UK Government introduced the 2004 Act, it was world leading, as the hon. Member for Brent Central mentioned. We feel that the time is right to ask whether it is still appropriate and whether it needs improving. We have head from 100,000 people and from colleagues across the House.
Does the Minister agree that it is cruel not only that a transgender person does not meet the Gender Recognition Panel, but that they have no right of appeal?
That point was raised in the consultation.
The Minister’s point about the time being right is important. She mentioned a number of organisations that she has met, but I am concerned that some organisations suggest that gender identification is a trend. To me, that is deeply offensive, because it is akin to somebody telling me that my sexuality is a trend, which I absolutely refute in the strongest terms. In reality, trans people across the UK face murder, homelessness and violence. It is important that we change the law as soon as possible.
I am about to move on to something that the hon. Lady spoke about in her speech. She may not know but I have said on record that I would never dream of using the word “trend” in this context, because its use risks demeaning or minimising the journeys that people are on or have been on. To my mind, that comes back to the point about being caring and careful in the way that we discuss the issue. If I may correct her for the record: the organisations I listed have met my officials.
I want to relay the story of a friend of mine whose spouse was asked to provide that certificate and found it deeply concerning. Their feeling was, “Who am I to stop my partner from defining who they are?” In fact, it stopped them from going through the process. Does the Minister agree that that is problematic and can she confirm that it is being looked at?
We will look at the matter of spousal consent and those responses as part of the consultation.
The hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) gave a moving account of her personal experience, and other colleagues have given accounts of the experiences of people who have been on, or are on, their journeys, and the challenges, or sometimes the heartbreak, that they face. I know from conversations that I have had with trans people that there is often a great deal of sadness in the process of coming to a decision. That is not necessarily their own sadness, but can be the sadness of those around them. I am very conscious of the experiences of people who have been through that and, for me, the key words on the issue are “caring” and “careful”.
I say “careful” because of some of the concerns expressed today. I absolutely understand those who expressed them—for example, about women’s refuges. As a Home Office Minister, I will take the draft domestic abuse Bill through Parliament in the coming months. I know people are concerned that refuges will no longer be able to provide safe spaces for women. May I please make it clear that that is not the case?
Domestic abuse services, including refuges, have robust risk assessment procedures and may exclude anyone who might threaten a safe environment for victims and their children, as well as signposting sources of support for those people whose needs they might not be able to meet. I am very conscious from my conversations with refuge organisations that they take different approaches, which I welcome. We have to be in a situation in which we can offer support and refuge services to people regardless of their lifestyle, background and so on. I absolutely understand people’s concerns and I hope I have been able to offer reassurance to them.
We are committed to maintaining protections for single-sex services and will consider as part of our response to the consultation whether any further action is needed to reaffirm that approach. To be clear, the single-sex exceptions under the Equality Act 2010 allow a service provider to provide a service for women or men if an organisation needs to define it in a way that does not allow a trans person to access their services, or to provide a service to them in a different way. They are able to do that as long as they can show that it is a proportionate means of meeting a legitimate aim.
The issue of transgender offenders has understandably been raised as well. The case of Karen White in particular has been examined. I want to be clear that the case of Karen White is appalling. There was a series of terrible failings that should never have happened. In the light of that, my ministerial colleagues at the Ministry of Justice are looking again at the decision-making systems that apply to the management of transgender prisoners, as well as how they were applied in that case.
The issue of children is of concern outside the walls of this Chamber. We have no intention of lowering the age at which people may legally change their gender, namely the age of 18. We recognise the increase in referrals of children and adolescents to gender-identity services for people aged under 18, so we have committed to improve our understanding of the impacts on children and adolescents of changing their gender, and to gather evidence on the issues faced by people who were born female and who transition in adolescence. We are not the only country to witness and experience the increase, and we need to understand why it is happening.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth for securing the debate. I hope I have been able to reassure him on some of his concerns, and other hon. Members who hold different views on the concerns they expressed. The Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that everyone in our society can thrive, and to upholding the rights and protections that all our citizens enjoy. We want to support and protect women; we want to support, protect and improve the lives of transgender people; and I hope that those two ambitions have the support of the House.
Of course, everyone who has concerns about this issue in any direction totally condemns any violence against anyone who is transsexual in any way. Those responsible for physical or verbal assaults, or any other kind of abuse, deserve to be punished with the full force of the law. I have never met anyone who disagrees with that proposition.
I say respectfully to the hon. Members for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) and for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) that I have in fact tried to educate myself on the issue of violence against women over a number of years. In fact, I served on the Home Affairs Committee between about 2005 and 2010, when it brought out its reports on forced marriage and female genital mutilation, issues that I raised on many occasions in the House of Commons. I was glad when legislation was passed, especially on FGM, although I am disappointed that despite all the laws and fine words, there has still not been a single conviction for female genital mutilation—that probably wanders a little from the topic, but violence against women is an important issue.
On the consultation, I am not surprised that so many people seem to be in favour of changing the law. Mermaids, a publicly funded body, has published online a primer encouraging people to fill it out, which is not right.
The important thing—it comes down to this—is that if people believe a trans woman is a woman, then it is not possible to protect female sex-segregated spaces in the way that many campaigners would like. Many people do not accept the proposition that a trans woman is a woman. A trans woman is a trans woman, worthy of respect, absolutely deserving of protection under the law against discrimination, or physical or verbal assault, but not necessarily eligible to access single-sex areas.
Finally, I very much welcome the fact that on all sides at least lip service is given to the idea of debate. I hope the Minister sets an example by encouraging any local authorities that wish to in their areas to allow groups such as Woman’s Place to hold meetings, and by meeting with some of those groups. To the best of my knowledge, such meetings have not yet taken place, although I have certainly tried to facilitate them. I look forward to that happening in future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered proposals to allow self-identification of gender.