[Relevant document: Third Report of the Women and Equalities Committee, Reform of the Gender Recognition Act, HC 977.]
Before we begin, I remind Members to observe social distancing and wear masks. I call Elliot Colburn to move the motion.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 327108, relating to reform of the Gender Recognition Act.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I would like to begin this debate, as I have begun every Petitions Committee debate that I have led, by going over the prayer of the petition before I make a few observations. Formally, on behalf of the Committee, I have moved the motion on the petition entitled “Reform the Gender Recognition Act”.
The prayer of the petition states,
“Reform the GRA to allow transgender people to self-identify without the need for a medical diagnosis, to streamline the administrative process, and to allow non-binary identities to be legally recognised. The response gathered by the government showed strong support for this reform with 70% in favour, but the results seem to have been ignored by policy makers. The current process is distressing and often humiliating for transgender people, as well as lengthy and costly making it inaccessible to many people. Reform is needed to improve the lives of trans people, and I don't think the proposed measures will negatively impact existing provisions under the Equalities Act.”
The petition closed with 137,271 signatures, including 224 from my Carshalton and Wallington constituency.
I have a speech to make about the specific asks in the petition, but I want to make a few remarks first, because there is no denying that the petition and this debate are being followed with great interest across the country, as is the issue of trans rights more widely. The debate has raged not only in this country, but across much of the world. Sadly, it has not been conducted in a well-mannered or well-reasoned way. The discussion around trans people has become so toxic that it frightens people away from engaging with it. Indeed, when the Petitions Committee tried to schedule this debate, it was quite difficult to find a Member to agree to take it on for fear of what might happen on social media should they do so.
To an outsider looking in, it may look like the debate around trans issues is one where there can be only one of two extreme points of view. We have seen the most appalling, dreadful things said on both sides of the debate, with threats, intimidation and venom spat at either side, and there has been a failure to conduct it in a civilised and respectful way. I want to be clear that the failure lies squarely at our doors. It is the failure of MPs, leaders, the media, academia and beyond to make space for a respectful, real and genuine discussion.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that MPs are afraid to engage in this debate because, if they do so, as I have, they receive death threats and, in my case, a threat of corrective rape from a member of my own party?
I completely agree with the hon. and learned Lady. We have failed to make a genuine space to express concerns and come to an understanding with one another, and that has left a vacuum, because, in that space, where the few people making their voices heard want to pull us into one of two very extreme positions, we are left with only one of two options if we want to engage with this debate. It seems we must agree that to be trans is not right or even real and that trans people are inherently dangerous and need a cure rather than support, or, on the other side, we must use trans people as an example of why the entire western liberal system is wrong, and agree that no one can be truly equal until the very foundations of what we understand about society are broken down. The failure to have a real discussion has consequences for us all. We now have a situation where people fear speaking up, and they fear to ask questions in case they get attacked or targeted. There are, of course, strongly held views on both sides, but to shut down discussion and to say that everyone must agree with one’s own worldview, or else, is damaging to society and poisons the debate.
One of the most common things I hear from colleagues in this place—and I am sure Members will agree—is that they just do not know enough about the issue. They have not given much thought to reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004 before, and, as far as they know, they have never met a trans person. That is completely fine, but it therefore falls to us, when we bring these matters to a national platform, to allow space for discussion to happen, so that we can explore and ask questions.
Given that we are legislators, does the hon. Member agree that, particularly when talking about some of the most marginalised people in society, we have a job to educate ourselves? In actual fact, we have had five years to educate ourselves.
I agree with the hon. Lady, who leads me towards points I will come on to later.
If we allow this toxicity to continue and refuse to lead from the front, we will end up in the situation we are in now, where we have ridiculous public conversations about erasing language or trying to figure out if certain words are offensive, and where we label anyone who expresses concerns about the protection of sex-based rights a TERF—trans-exclusionary radical feminist— or transphobic, rather than actually talking about the issues. If we allow that to continue, we abdicate our responsibility as a House and, most importantly, we forget the people in the middle of all of this: the hundreds of thousands of trans people living in the UK, who, like the majority of us, just want to live their lives. They do not want this massive, toxic debate about their existence going on. They just want to be able to live their lives.
I plead with colleagues to use today’s debate as an opportunity to change that narrative. Let us lead from the front, have more respectful discussions and debates with one another and explore these issues without the need to rip each other’s throats out. From looking around the room, I know that there are strongly held views on both sides of the debate. Colleagues will no doubt want to focus on appalling things that have been said and done on both sides of this debate and talk about the more nasty and absurd parts of the far ends of the debate. However, I urge colleagues to just take a moment.
People say that this House is at its best when we come together in total agreement on an issue and get things done, but I would like to go further. I genuinely believe that this House can demonstrate its strength and the strength of the democratic process by coming together on an issue where there is not agreement, creating space to talk about that respectfully and finding a way forward. That demonstrates the best of what this House can do.
I hope today will be that opportunity. We do not do ourselves any favours by taking the easy road of appealing to those who we think are shouting the loudest. Please, colleagues, join me in rejecting the Twitter-isation of this debate, where our arguments are condensed to miniature soundbites. We can find the answers and a way forward together, rather than tearing each other apart.
The hon. Member is making an important argument to frame the nature of the debate, but does he agree that it is sometimes important that we do not talk in big, grand narratives about our political beliefs one way or another? This debate is specifically about the GRA and the process of applying for a gender recognition certificate, so colleagues should not be having these big, grand debates about trans issues and feminism. Instead, we should talk about the practical things that the GRA and GRC do. It does two practical things, and nothing else. It does not give someone rights to anything other than the following two changes: a birth certificate and pension rights. We should limit the debate here to that. That will provide civility.
The hon. Member has second-guessed what I am about to move on to. I truly believe that there is a way for the House to come together on this issue. As a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, which conducted a very recent inquiry into reform of the GRA, I was struck by how much agreement there was on both sides of the debate on many of the practical issues this petition is calling for. There was also repetition of what the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said, specifically on the issue of the application process for the GRC. After all, that is what the petition is all about. Much of the discussion has centred around access to such things as single-sex spaces, but those are not catered for in the GRA or included in the scope of this petition; they are instead governed by the Equality Act 2010, which sets out provisions around single-sex spaces. It is right that we make space for that discussion to happen, because part of the reason that the debate has become so toxic is the confusion around the application of the Equality Act and its relationship with the GRA.
May I just disagree with the hon. Member on the legal impact of the single-sex provisions in the Equality Act? There is a respectable body of opinion that there will be an impact on the single-sex provisions in the Equality Act, and we are waiting for guidance to come out from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Does he agree that that guidance is much needed and will bring some clarity to the debate?
I agree with the hon. and learned Lady on the point of guidance, and I will come on that point next. It is the failure of successive Governments since 2004 and 2010 to produce any guidance about the relationship between the GRA, the Equality Act and the exemptions provided for that has led to a disjointed application of those exemptions in much of public life. There are those who use it to exclude everyone, those who use it to exclude no one and a large majority in the middle who simply do not know what to do, because there is no guidance from the centre as to what best practice looks like.
I therefore urge the Government to look again at the recommendation of the Women and Equalities Committee to produce that guidance and to convene an advisory panel of those on both sides of the debate to look at what that guidance could look like and to bring that guidance before the House so that we can debate and discuss it.
I want to focus specifically on the application process for a gender recognition certificate, as catered for within the petition. In the Select Committee inquiry, we received evidence from those in favour of further reform and those who were against it, but what struck me was how much agreement there was between the two sides on the application process. Indeed, the three big asks for reform of the GRC application process were more or less welcomed universally. I strongly hope that the Government will have a chance to look at those in a bit more detail.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Member that we need to have a civilised discussion about this issue, but given the difficulties and given that it is clear that the Act as it stands creates huge problems for transgender people, does he agree that we need reform of the Act?
Absolutely. There is a strong case, simply if we look at the statistics around GRCs, to show that the process does not work. The fact that only 1% to 3% of trans people go through the process of obtaining a GRC demonstrates to me that the process is too bureaucratic, too expensive for many and simply not fit for purpose.
I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes, but should we not also consider whether GRCs fulfil any useful purpose? The GRA was introduced in 2004, at a time when we did not have same-sex marriage. We now do, so what is the point of a GRC?
I think the point of a gender recognition certificate is the difficulty that trans people have in getting their legal gender recognised by very many bodies. That is why reform of the GRA to allow for an easier process to obtain a GRC is needed. We may need to come on to a discussion later about whether GRCs are fit for purpose in their entirety, and I would welcome that discussion, but given what we have been left with through these two bits of legislation, the first step is reform of the GRA to get us to that point—then we can look to the future.
The changes that were recommended in the Government’s 2018 consultation and in the two Women and Equalities Committee inquiries focused on three particular asks. The first was for the removal of the requirement to obtain a diagnosis of gender dysphoria before applying for a gender recognition certificate, as well as removing the need to provide medical reports detailing all treatment that people have undertaken. Both sides of the debate throughout the Select Committee inquiry agreed with that. The 2018 Government consultation showed that 64% agreed with removing the need for a diagnosis and 80% supported the need to remove detailed medical reporting.
The second ask was for the removal of the spousal veto, which requires a married transperson to obtain consent from their spouse before getting their legal gender recognised. Again, in the Select Committee inquiry there was agreement about this from both sides, and 85% of consultation respondents agreed that it should be scrapped.
Finally, there was a call to remove the need for transpeople to provide evidence that they have lived in their so-called “acquired gender” for two years prior to obtaining a GRC. That was condemned very strongly by both sides because it was felt that it reinforces gender stereotypes, and because there is no agreement on how to define or prove that someone has lived as a man or a woman for two years before obtaining legal recognition of their gender. Again, nearly 80% of people who took part in the Government consultation agreed that that should be removed.
Instead of having to collate all the information and submit it to the gender recognition panel, which from the anecdotal evidence we received is very confusing because there does not seem to be any accountability as to who sits on that panel or how it operates, the call was instead for a form of Registrar General to be introduced in England and Wales, before whom transpeople would have to make a legal declaration to an official in order to obtain a gender recognition certificate and legal recognition of their gender. That would, of course, come with consequences in law for any false declarations being made.
That change would not allow people to self-identify without an application to an official. The phrase “self-identify” has been confusing and, potentially, unhelpful. I admit that it conjures up images to those on the outside, who might think people can just wake up one day and decide to change their gender. That is not what the petition calls for, and I do not think anyone here would recommend that.
The model I have outlined has already been introduced in a number of countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, France, Portugal, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg and Malta, as well as four provinces of Canada and 10 states in the United States, and it is being introduced in New Zealand and Germany. The Irish model is probably the closest example to what some campaigners have been asking for, and is reported to have worked particularly well.
There is a lot of agreement, Sir George, about reform of the application process to obtain a GRC, so I hope the Government can take that away and look at it again, and that colleagues here, as well as those who have not taken part in the debate but would have liked to, can come together to realise that politics is a battle for hearts and minds, but we do not need to be at each other’s throats to talk about this subject.
There are strongly held views, and a temptation to steer the conversation into areas that are not directly relevant to the GRC, but we have to appreciate that transpeople face huge challenges in the country today, not least recognition of their gender, as well as the violent and sexual crimes to which they are subjected. They are twice as likely as other LGBT+ people to be subjected to conversion therapy, for example, and they face discrimination in their everyday lives.
However, there is reasonable and understandable concern, particularly from women, about the protection of sex-based rights. That comes from unacceptably high levels of physical and sexual violence towards women, which creates concerns about erosions of these rights. We must allow space and time for everyone to legitimately be heard, and to find a way forward.
Change is a slow process. I know that is frustrating to hear, particularly in the age of social media in which we live, where we demand instant gratification and action, but in my short time in this House I have found the real world, and the battle for hearts and minds, to be infinitely more complex. We have a duty to lead from the front, in order to remove the toxicity from the debate, because continuing in that way will not end well. It will just push people further in one of two directions, or leave them afraid to say anything or to act.
I urge colleagues to join me today in trying to take the toxicity out of this debate. Let this be the moment that we come together to do more and express the real and genuine concerns held on both sides, so we can work towards what everyone wants: a society where the rights of all are respected, and where what people get out of the country is what they are willing to put in.
Let us try to be the leaders on this issue that the country needs right now and calm this debate down, working together across the divide to find the answers and find the way forward.
Order. Before I call the next speaker, in view of the number of people who want to speak in this debate, I will have to impose a time limit from the beginning. The time limit that might work—I may have to adjust it if it does not work—is seven minutes.
It is a pleasure, Sir George, to serve under your chairpersonship. I will only make a brief contribution, because I have expressed my views on this issue many times in this place, although I do not think we have had enough debates on issues around the real lived experiences of trans and non-binary people. I think we ought to have more debates on those issues, and conduct them in the civilised and courteous way suggested by the petition’s promoter, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn).
I will start—helpfully, I hope—by giving some context. I am glad that our party is committed to ensuring that trans and non-binary people can live their lives with equality, dignity and respect, and I am proud of my own Government—the Welsh Government—for the unequivocal support they have given for trans and non-binary rights and for reform of the GRA, and for consideration of the very matters that are under consideration in this debate today. Obviously, the Welsh Government do not have some of those powers; they have expressed their concerns about the failure to bring forward the reforms that were promised in the past by the UK Government. I hope that we will see those reforms come to fruition, because they are what trans and non-binary people, and their allies, are requesting, and I believe they are what is needed to ensure that trans and non-binary people can live their lives with freedom, dignity and respect.
Of course, such reforms sit within a huge range of issues that affect the lives of trans and non-binary people, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington pointed out at the start of the debate. I am sorry that in the debate on these issues over the last couple of years in particular, their actual lives and lived experiences have been used by some as a wedge issue and by some as a form of ridicule, or simply reduced to academic or philosophical debate—or worse, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, to a couple of words on Twitter. These people are real people; they are not represented in this part of the room today. Their voices are not going to be heard, although I am sure that many people here will speak up for them. I will start by sharing a couple of reflections based on my conversations with people in the trans and non-binary community.
One concern is that there has been a very unfortunate and at times vicious debate, while the actual needs of trans and non-binary people—physical health, mental health, access to public services and access to legal equality—have not been considered. There are so many issues, including the experience of hate crime, which has significantly increased, as indeed it has against all protected characteristics, and against all women and young people; we have seen horrific incidents. The crimes against trans people have increased significantly over the past five years, and that is not just down to increased willingness to report. It is a fact. I have had trans constituents come to me to tell me about horrific experiences that they have had, alongside many other people who are experiencing such things in their daily lives. As I said, the actual issues and challenges that people face in their lives are being put to one side.
I held an event in Parliament a couple of years ago—in fact, I was very nervous to hold it, because some of the things that happen whenever someone speaks out—with the trans and non-binary community, but for me it was one of the most powerful events in this area because it was with young trans and non-binary people, and their parents. A number of Members who were present at that event are here today. The most crucial thing that we did was to listen to people’s actual experiences—to the candour and frankness that parents expressed about some of the challenges they had been through, and to some of the challenges that the young people had been through. We just listened to what they had to say; we did not judge.
The overwhelming feeling in that room was a sense of love, care and support. There will be others who are much better placed to make the technical and legal arguments and distinctions than I can, but if we put those principles at the heart of this debate, remembering that we are talking about people’s real lives and existence—people who have suffered and suffer incredibly every day and every week—we could help to make this place and this country a better place for all trans and non-binary people.
In many ways the hon. Gentleman has already answered my question. Nearly 100 hate crimes against transgender people were recorded by Avon and Somerset police, and the number in London is probably threefold, but we do not even know what the actual numbers are. Given the enormous discrimination that transgender people face, does he agree that at least making the recognition process easier would be a good step forward?
I wholeheartedly agree.
I will end on this reflection—no doubt, I will receive criticism and abuse online as a result. I have spoken out in this place about the conduct of a number of newspapers and others reporting the stories. I had the displeasure a few years ago of visiting the Bishopsgate Institute’s archive of LGBT+ material, which is a fantastic resource, much of which will hopefully end up in the new Queer Britain museum; I was looking back at some of the headlines and stories from the past, and the discrimination and hatred that was directed against other members of the LGBT+ community. We see that reflected again today in similar headlines, myths and mistakes. One of the biggest problems is that there is not a courteous and respectful debate about the technical and legal issues, but rather one driven to ridicule, hurt or actively undermine the position of people who exist, are living their lives, and simply want to get on with their lives with dignity and respect.
I urge all those with strong views on this issue to think about the impact, because I do not want to have, as I have had, constituents who are trans and non-binary people ringing me up in tears about the latest headline that they have seen in the newspaper, or the latest abusive row on Twitter or social media. We should just let people be who they want to be, respect that, give them dignity and show the love, compassion and respect that all human beings deserve, whatever their gender identity or sexuality.
The petition we are debating seeks to reform the Gender Recognition Act to enable transgender people to self-identify into a new legal sex without the need for a medical diagnosis or proof of treatment. In other words, the petition seeks to allow those who have been born male to become legally female or vice versa, with no requirement to undergo changes to their hormones or anatomy, or to be under medical guidance.
Let me be clear: no trans person should face discrimination, and I have nothing but compassion for those who continue to be harassed, abused or stigmatised. Adults should be free to dress and present as they wish, without fear. It is up to all of us to stand up for the dignity and respect of everyone, including trans people. But what is being requested in the petition is not a minor amendment to an existing law or a demand for trans people to have equal rights, which they have under UK law—rights that should always be upheld by us all. Rather, the demands of the petition are for what I believe—I am afraid I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn)—would be a fundamental change to the law.
Society, the law and science all testify that we, as individuals, can never fully define ourselves. Rather, our identity comes from a variety of external factors that we cannot change, however much we may want to: the country of our birth, who are parents are, the colour of our skin and whether we have children. None of those physical realities can be altered by our internal thoughts or feelings, however strongly they are held.
The truth is that individual identities are complex and multi-dimensional, but they are as much a function of the things we cannot change as they are of the things we can. Of course, the same goes for sex. Let us be clear: human beings, like all other mammals, cannot change sex. At the moment of conception, when sperm cell fuses with egg cell, apart from rare abnormalities, there are two possible outcomes.
I recognise the point that the hon. Lady is making. People often think that we have male and female, but the truth is that 1% to 2% of the global population is born intersex, which means they present characteristics of both sexes. To put that into perspective, 1% to 2% of the population are ginger, so is she telling me that she does not believe in ginger people?
I understand the hon. Lady’s point, which is why I said that there are these rare abnormalities. People who are intersex should be treated with the compassion they deserve during every medical treatment from birth, but that is different from saying that someone who is born male can choose to be female or vice versa, which is why I said that that is rarely the case. Normally the determination at conception is either male or female, and that is the biological, genetic fact.
No, I will make some progress. At the moment of conception, the new cell for a unique human being—the zygote—is the blueprint for every single other cell in that person’s body. The zygote divides again and again until there are trillions of cells making up a complete human being. These cells have different functions—muscle cells, nerve cells and blood cells—but every single one of the 37 trillion cells in an adult human has the same genetic code, including the same sex chromosomes.
What about chimeras? There are people who have different sets of DNA within their genetics. The hon. Lady is simplifying the science; it is actually much more complicated. I know she has a genetics degree, but I have a biomedical science degree, so I hope we can do that—
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. As I said, I recognise that there are rare genetic abnormalities. I am simplifying and talking about the majority. The debate is not about people with genetic abnormalities; it is about people who are identifying as a different gender from their birth sex. They are two very different things, and I am talking about the latter.
No, I will make some progress. Every cell in the adult human body has the same genetic code. However much an individual may want to change their sex through surgery, hormone treatment or by changing their lifestyle, it is just not scientifically possible because our sex is written in every single cell.
Sex is immutable. Not only is it immutable, but our sex determines and influences a large part of our identity as people: our biology, psychology and life choices; whether we can become a mother or father; and what diseases we may suffer from. These are established and proven scientific facts, not a matter of individual beliefs or feelings, however strongly they may be held—and I absolutely accept that they are strongly held.
To allow somebody easily to change their sex in law would be to accept as a society that this material reality is not important or that it can be changed in a straightforward way. I do not believe that that is a wise route to take, and it would have wide-ranging repercussions in other aspects of law.
Just on a point of clarity, the hon. Lady seems to suggest in this section of her speech that gender recognition and change should not be part of our law currently. Have I misunderstood her?
I will come to that. I believe that what we currently have is a good compromise, and I will explain why.
As well as the broader picture, there are specific impacts of GRA reform that would be significant, such as threatening sex-based rights. There are sound reasons of privacy, safety and dignity for women’s requirement for single-sex spaces and services. When using changing rooms and sleeping accommodation or for those in prison, women and girls have a right to expect that there are no males using those spaces. Self-ID could threaten those sex-based rights. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington that we are awaiting guidance on the matter. It could row back decades of progress on women’s equality.
I am curious to know whether the hon. Member supports the current GRA and GRC, because what she is talking about in prisons already exists; people can have a GRC but they are not automatically put in the estate based on it. I can give her numerous examples. They are placed depending on an assessment by the prison authorities. What is wrong with the current situation, where the prison authorities make an assessment regardless of the GRC?
There is a lot wrong with what is happening in prisons at the moment, but that is beyond the scope of the debate. As I said to the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), I will come to why I think the current law is a good compromise.
Self-ID could threaten these sex-based rights and row back on a lot of progress in women’s equality, but the effect on children would also be hugely damaging. We are already seeing a situation in schools and online where vulnerable young people—often girls, often same-sex attracted, often autistic—are being told that the answer to their problems is to change sex. This is manifesting in a concerning rise in girls who are not only identifying as trans or non-binary, but who are going on to make serious and permanent changes to their bodies that will result in lifelong medical, sexual and psychological problems.
As a scientist, does the hon. Member accept that hormone therapy is not permanent? The whole point of it is to pause puberty in order to give a child space to make decisions and explore their gender identity.
I do not accept that pausing puberty has no repercussions, but it is also the case that 98% of those who are prescribed puberty blockers go on to cross-sex hormones. That is the reality of what is happening at the moment, with a 5,000% increase in the number of girls referred—
The hon. Lady will be aware that Dr Hilary Cass has been tasked by the UK Government with looking at the reasons why there has been such a huge increase in the number of people, particularly young girls, seeking puberty blockers and surgical treatment. Does she agree that we would be wise to wait for the outcomes of that review before taking a final view on whether we should support self-ID?
Order. Before the hon. Lady resumes her speech, let me say that of course anyone is entitled to make an intervention and the speaker is entitled to take them. I would just warn those who are on the list, however, that their chances of being called will be reduced by the amount of time spent on interventions. I am not trying to dissuade anyone from intervening, but they need to realise that it may jeopardise their own chances of making the speeches that they came prepared to make.
I thank the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) for her intervention, and I entirely agree that we must wait for the outcome of that very important review. If we did reform the GRA in the way that is proposed, it would send a signal to children that society accepts that it is true that one can change sex, and I do not think we should be misleading our children in that way. As such, I cannot support the call for reform of the GRA outlined in the petition.
However, I want to say one final word about compassion, because I have no doubt that those who are calling for this change are doing so for reasons of compassion. Western culture has come to define compassion as giving an individual what they need in order to alleviate suffering. Of course, there is a strong argument for that: as individuals, we all have a responsibility to alleviate individual suffering wherever we can. However, as legislators, we have to balance the best interests of society as a whole with the interests of individuals, and here there must always be compromise. The Government’s position on the GRA therefore represents a sensible compromise. It is possible for trans people to obtain legal recognition through a GRC, subject to appropriate medical checks and balances. This upholds the rights and dignity of trans individuals, but also protects the social, legal and scientific understanding of sex that is vital to the functioning of human society.
It is a pleasure to serve under your inestimable chairmanship, Sir George.
I will speak to the actual issue that this petition is about, which is quite narrow and one that I think we ought to all, in our compassionate selves, be in favour of. The issue is how one gets official recognition through the issuing of a gender recognition certificate, which enables trans people to change their birth certificate to the sex that they wish to be—that they regard themselves as—and access certain pension rights without suddenly finding when they have lived their lives in the gender they wish, but do not have a gender certificate, and there are inconsistencies between their birth certificate and their own identity. This is about respect and dignity for trans people’s lives and the decision they have made to switch the gender that they live in.
The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) made an extremely good speech to open the debate. As he hinted at, the current system is onerous, humiliating and intrusive. It is sometimes impossible for people to interact with it, especially if they transitioned many years ago. Trans people have to get two doctors to agree that they effectively suffer from a mental illness; they then have to demonstrate to a panel, which they do not know and from which there is no feedback, that they have lived in their acquired gender for two years. For two years, they have to collect masses of documents such as bills, which can run into thousands of pages, to prove to the panel making the judgment that they ought to be issued with this certificate. They then have to produce other legal documents, all of which cost money, to make a submission to the panel.
I have talked to trans people who have been refused gender recognition certificates without receiving any feedback from the panel as to why. Trans people have to wait at least two years after they began to live in their acquired gender before applying for the certificate; they then have to collect all those things. They often have to pay doctors, because they cannot get access to those kinds of services on the NHS, much less access to the medical services they need for surgery or hormone replacement therapy, often, without going private. They then do not get any feedback on why they have been refused. That is not the kind of process that any decent, civilised society would put anybody through.
As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said in his opening remarks, we have a very narrow issue on gender recognition certificates. There is a reason why between only 1% and 5% of trans people have successfully applied for such certificates: it is simply almost impossible for them to do so while keeping their mental health stable.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely powerful speech that is rooted in people’s real life experiences. Does she agree that the GRA needs to be reformed to not only make the process quicker and more straightforward and remove the need for medical reports, but offer legal recognition for non-binary people and those under the age of 18?
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s observations. When the Gender Recognition Act was passed in 2004, it was groundbreaking, world-leading legislation. It is now very out of date.
The Act makes no mention whatsoever of non-binary people: if someone wants a gender recognition certificate, they have to pick a gender. However, as we are increasingly coming to realise, many people regard themselves as non-binary and do not want to make that binary choice. They do not regard themselves as either a man or a woman in the binary sense that we all grew up with. We need to ensure that we can facilitate their ability to navigate through bureaucracies and to have a presence, dignity and respect in our state that accords with their feelings and views of themselves.
That is all we are talking about. This debate is not about any of the other issues, although I am more than happy to debate them in terms. If people want to compare nasty threats they have received on social media and in other places, I could do a pretty good job. I empathise with anyone that has had to put up with that rubbish. It is not a way to deal with things. I hope we can keep our heads and have a civilised debate here.
I am extremely saddened that, since the Government said they were going to make this modest change in 2018, we have had a hold-up for this length of time. Meanwhile, trans people have been kept on tenterhooks and there have been attacks on trans people. We have seen the othering of trans people, with tropes now appearing about what trans people are—that they are a danger. I remember the same tropes being directed at LGBT people in the 1980s: “you can’t trust them around children,” “they’re weird,” and “they are violent and a threat”. While all that has gone on, the Government have not acted.
I am very disappointed that the Equalities Department has not acted on this and that it finally produced a response, 21 months after the original consultation, that said effectively, “Cut the cost of a certificate that is almost impossible to get from £140 to £5,” and talked about digitalisation, but does absolutely nothing about a process that is humiliating, intrusive, difficult to deal with, and ought to be abandoned.
Is gender recognition a threat to others in our society? I would say no. We have seen the reform of gender recognition certificates and processes throughout the world; after leading in the world, we are now falling far behind due to our failure to reform that process. That is why the Scottish and Welsh Governments want to reform it, and why we should want to reform it: just to make it easier for already vulnerable people who desperately require that kind of official declaration—so that they can have access to pensions, for example.
All we need to do is get on with this modest reform, and we need to do it now. I hope that we will hear from the Government Minister that we will have a much better approach to the reform of the GRA than we have had to date.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir George. It was also a pleasure to listen to the opening speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn), who I think set the tone extremely well.
If there is one thing that I think about this debate, it is that it has become very toxic. It is—dare I say it—rather too binary. There is, in effect, a clash of rights here between sex and gender, and I am afraid that we, as a political class, have failed. We have failed to show leadership in this area, and it is high time that we did. We should not run shy of debating these issues.
However, by viewing the issues through the sentiments of the petition and the existence of the current Gender Recognition Act, we are rather limiting ourselves when it comes to the remedies to ensure that we properly empower people of all genders—however anyone wishes to live and express themselves. As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend, that Act predates same-sex marriage. We really need to have a fresh look at how we approach all issues of sex and gender in our legislation, because the world has changed. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) was absolutely right: the Act was groundbreaking in 2004, but it now looks very out of date.
I make one comment about the toxicity of the gender recognition debate. We can all condemn the abuse and vitriol that people are exposed to when they engage in the debate, but we must recognise that the reason why that happens is that, for many people, this is very personal. It is very personal for the transgender person who thinks that their existence is being erased, and equally personal for women who feel that their sex-based rights, for which they and their forebears fought for generations, are being erased. However, it should not be beyond the wit of us all, as policy makers, to overcome that, because the truth is that they are both right. We have to get behind that and keep up with meaningful solutions.
As I said, we need a fresh look at the whole issue of how we tackle sex and gender in our legislation. I come to the point mentioned by the hon. Member for Wallasey and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington: the fact that so few trans people actually apply for a GRC. That, perhaps, begs the question of whether we need a GRC. Do we need a GRA that enables people to have a certificate that confirms their gender? In this country, we do not need papers to tell us who we are and how we live.
That is really the point: what useful purpose does a GRC serve? I look forward to hearing the Minister’s views on that. I know we are looking at it from what has been described as a “minor reform”, but let us just challenge the purpose of the documentation. What is it designed to deliver? Does it really deliver any enhanced rights over and above those that anyone has under the law as it is?
For a lot of people, moving towards self-ID puts trans people on a collision course with women’s rights—a collision course that no one really wants to see—so I want a more challenging approach. For me, the way forward is not about establishing gender recognition certificates; it is about going into our laws to determine where sex matters and where gender identity can prevail.
There are a number of areas where sex needs to trump gender, one of which is health. It is fundamentally unhelpful for people’s declared gender to trump their sex on their medical records. We are seeing people not being called for routine screenings, based on sex, for example. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said that transgender prisoners are risk-assessed in the criminal justice system—well, they are if they do not have a GRC, but a trans woman with a GRC is automatically put in the women’s estate. [Interruption.] It is the transgender person who self-declares who is risk assessed—
We have transgendered prisoners with or without a GRC in the women’s estate.
It should be for service providers to risk-assess their premises. That would be a safer situation all round. Do we need to rely on a piece of paper that is no longer necessary? I come back to the fact that the Act was passed to enable same-sex marriages, which are now uniformly enabled in law, so do we need a GRC?
The other area where sex really matters is in sport. It appals me, as I am sure it appals most people, that sports governing bodies are turning a blind eye to women’s sport being destroyed by transgender athletes, where there is an innate physiological advantage. This is all practical common sense. We as a political class have neglected to grip these issues for so long that we have allowed this toxic debate to happen. We have allowed the extremes to happen, and it is incumbent on all of us, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington said in his opening remarks, to bring back some common sense. We as legislators need to have cool heads and come up with a law that suits anyone and that empowers transgendered people to be who they want to be and to live their lives free of prejudice and discrimination, but that enables everyone to be comfortable with that and that protects women’s spaces.
I agree with some of the things that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) said; we sit on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and work positively together. I agree that the debate has become toxic and that we need to find a way forward and to show leadership, but we also need to step back and work out why, over four years ago, there was a call for change. That call was made because the current Gender Recognition Act and gender recognition certificates were not working.
One of the reasons was that the World Health Organisation was going through a process of removing gender dysphoria as a registered diagnosis. As of this year, the World Health Organisation no longer recognises gender dysphoria as a legitimate diagnosis from any doctor in the world. We now require our doctors to break WHO guidelines to continue to abide by the Gender Recognition Act. I am not even talking about the barriers to getting gender recognition, the social problems, the trauma that the issue causes people and the fact that the Act perhaps does not properly reflect lived lives and biology, because it reflects only the mental health diagnosis. Putting all that aside, the very fact that we in this country now require our doctors to give a diagnosis that is no longer internationally recognised should mean that we change the Act, even if it means changing the diagnosis and what a doctor or medical professional looks at.
If we are going to change the Act, it is incumbent on us to consider what a doctor would diagnose. Is it acceptable for it still to be a mental health diagnosis or are other indicators more important, such as someone’s self-declaration, the evidence that they might provide, or someone’s commitment to live in a particular way going forward? Perhaps those are better indicators for how someone lives.
I am happy to have a debate. Some people might say, although it might not be my position, that we need other indicators to do with how neighbours or friends see us, as we do when we get a passport photo signed off to confirm that it is a true likeness. I can understand why people might want to make sure that there is other documentation.
Clearly, the documentation provided at the moment is insufficient and does not work. The other day, for example, I heard about someone who provided two years’ worth of statements. It took six months to hear the case, which the panel then rejected because it said that the two years of statements were six months out of date. It is a Kafkaesque situation: someone submits documentation and there is a delay, so it is rejected. It is no wonder that so few people feel able to submit. In the end, the person had to resubmit, effectively providing evidence in the future, as it were.
There is a problem with the system, and that is the starting point that we have to come from. The Government had that as a starting point but four years ago, unfortunately, they opened a Pandora’s box, and the worst fears and nightmares of everyone on all sides of the debate were ploughed in. Rather than showing leadership, they allowed that to fester. Now they have suggested that they will remove the fees, ignoring the fact that people often have to pay for a diagnosis and doctors’ letters. It still costs hundreds of pounds; the barriers are rather high. They then talk about going online, but that might make it harder, not easier, for some groups of people. We need to step back and look at the process.
We might have different philosophical views on the wider issues, but I hope that we all agree that this small minority of people should be able to change their gender from the one assigned to them at birth. Their gender will usually have been assigned based on a visual check, with no further requirements for anything else to go on the birth certificate. That means that many people will grow up feeling very different.
I also think that we should recognise that “self-ID” is a particularly difficult term. It is not particularly useful. Most of our gendered spaces are already down to self-ID. There is no law in this country about who uses what toilet—and quite rightly: when such laws have been introduced in other parts of the world, it has been a nightmare. If there were such laws, it would probably be cisgendered women—the term that I would use, although I am happy to discuss terms that others prefer—who would end up getting criminalised: they would tend to use men’s toilets in public events, because there is often a huge queue for the women’s. That is what would happen if we had laws saying that it was a criminal act to go into the toilet of the wrong gender. Clearly, it would be bonkers and stupid to do something like that.
Most of those spaces are already down to self-ID, so we are talking about only a small number of spaces that might need protections, and they are already protected. We need better, proper guidelines as to how these protections should be interpreted, but those guidelines need to be written with the trust of all in the community. They need not be seen as some political backlash one way or the other; they need to bring everyone on board.
That also means not trying to rewrite or undermine the progress that many people feel they have already achieved. We cannot suddenly take people’s lived lives and their rights away from them. For many trans people, that is what they feel the debate is doing. They feel that there has been some progress, but that people are now trying to shove them in the box. I am not saying that that is anyone’s intention, but it is how they feel. We need to address that and move forward with them. I would use the term “positive declaration identification”. Maybe that is too wordy, but finding a new term beyond “self-ID” is probably useful in this debate, because we are talking about a legal process.
Finally, it is important that we ensure that we have fairness in this country and that we do not pit different groups against one another. This is not an argument about one or the other.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir George, in today’s important debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his powerful opening speech on behalf of the Petitions Committee and the petitioners. The debate has become toxic on social media. Quite often when we talk about taking the toxicity out of the debate, we often mean the other side to us, but I congratulate my hon. Friend on the clear balance in his opening remarks, recognising both sides of the debate.
We live in a liberal democracy, where everyone is free to live their lives to their potential, making choices that allow them to live in alignment with their values and true selves, and I support those adults who wish to undertake gender transition and apply for a gender recognition certificate. One of the things that I enjoy most about being an MP is the privilege of knocking on the doors of my constituents. At the beginning of the year, I met a transgender constituent, and we had a long conversation on the doorstep about the challenges that they were facing in gaining a gender recognition certificate. We continue to be in regular correspondence, and I am more than happy to help where I can on such issues for any constituents who need my support.
I understand the petitioners’ concerns about the process of gaining legal recognition for those wishing to change gender, especially on the time taken to live in their chosen gender and the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Analysis of the current process showed that in 75% of cases a decision is made within 20 weeks of an application for a GRC, and that over 90% of applications are successful. Where applicants do not provide enough information, the panel gives an opportunity and support for additional documents to complete the application to give it a further chance to succeed. The petition closed 13 months ago. In that time, the debate on self-ID has drawn in the voices of those who feel that they may be affected by the ability of anyone to self-ID at any point without the appropriate checks and balances. Women in particular have raised concerns about protecting their ability to access single-sex spaces and services where they are at their most vulnerable. As hon. Friends have mentioned, those include refuges and hospital wards. There are also concerns from female prisoners who have no choice but to live in close confines with a male-bodied prisoner, potentially not taking hormone therapy, who may choose to self-ID as a woman but has not gone down the legal route to show their intention to live as a different gender.
It is, of course, difficult to measure an individual’s intention; however, the current legal framework provides a compassionate yet balanced approach through ensuring that those who want to transition have lived under their new identity. Importantly, it provides time for reflection and assessment for those who want to transition. I believe that the best decisions are ones that are based on good reflection. That point pertains to us in this place, and the decisions that we take as law-makers. There needs to be sufficient time for all of us to understand both sides of an argument and hear all voices, not just the lobby group that is the best funded and has the loudest voice.
The debate on reforming the Gender Recognition Act and the provision of gender recognition certificates is by no means over, and the Government response has been to acknowledge that the process for applying for a GRC needs to be kinder and more straightforward. I believe that the Government have got the balance right by decreasing the cost of a GRC from £140 to £5, with the intention to move the application process fully online. However, as long as the debate continues I will speak up for women and girls in particular, who need to have a voice representing them in the debate, and whose rights to access single-sex spaces needs to be protected. We all deserve to have our human rights acknowledged, respected and recognised in law. Sometimes those rights come into conflict, and it should not be in the too-hard basket to find a common-sense solution, even if that requires additional funding, so that we can protect and support everyone.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. When I have approached the issue previously, I have preferred to listen rather than speak and to learn rather than lecture. I want my action to be founded in evidence and driven by compassion, while underwritten by an unshakeable belief that trans rights are human rights. As a socialist, it has always been my goal to represent the underrepresented, to strengthen the rights of minorities, and to make our country as easy to live in for the vulnerable as it is for the privileged. Sadly, it is a fact, not an opinion, that our country currently is not a welcoming place for trans and non-binary people. Yes, it is better than some places, but better is not enough, and it is little consolation to those affected, especially when LGBTQ+ crime has doubled in the last five years.
As MPs we have a responsibility to drive positive change to materially improve the lives of trans and non-binary people. It is obvious that the Gender Recognition Act is in urgent need of reform. The process of changing gender is too complex, too bureaucratic and too mentally damaging to those who must endure it. Many people wait more than five years for an initial appointment at the gender identity service, while also attempting to navigate the many hurdles in the way of legal recognition of their gender.
The existing system simply is not fit for purpose. The need for overarching reform is clear. That reform must begin with the introduction of self-identification, and it is a damning indictment that the Government have refused to deliver on some of their promises on trans rights. There is very strong support for the introduction of self-ID and progressive reform to the Gender Recognition Act, with 137,000 people having signed the petition. The response to the Government’s own consultation on this issue showed overwhelming support for removing the need for the distressing and often humiliating bureaucratic hurdles that prevent people from achieving legal gender recognition, including scrapping the need for a gender dysphoria diagnosis, a medical report and evidence that an individual has been living their preferred gender for at least two years.
While this debate is often portrayed as a clash between the hard-won rights of women and the advancement of trans rights, the reality of the situation simply does not support that argument. In 2020, polling by YouGov found that 57% of women supported trans people being able to self-ID, and just 21% opposed. There is simply no contradiction between being a feminist and a trans ally. I am therefore keen to reject the culture war that some are all too happy to stir up, because to engage with it ignores the very real human element of the issue.
Trans people are not a political football; they do not want to be the defining cultural issue of our time, and they are tired of their very right to exist being debated. They simply want to live their lives without barriers, discrimination or abuse. Is that really too much to ask?
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), the city of my alma mater. I enjoyed her contribution about listening before taking part in these difficult debates. I pay huge tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his tone when opening the debate. It was an important lesson in how to conduct these difficult conversations.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price); over the last two years I have spent many hours with her discussing these issues, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT+) rights. We tried to put together a common position in the group that could be agreed by all LGBT groups of all the major political parties, to understand all the reasonable concerns coming from people who are described as gender critical, and to meet those anxieties with all the reasonable reassurances that people ought to be able to expect. It is a great shame and pity that we did not manage to convince the Government to adopt that position within a wider statement of reform of the Gender Recognition Act. I urge the Minister to revisit that statement—it is still absolutely valid and is sitting on the website of the all-party parliamentary group. I urge him to look at it as a basis of how to move forward and find reassurance on the side issues around the Gender Recognition Act.
What we need is for the heat to be taken out of this debate and to let the light in. As many Members have pointed out, what a gender recognition certificate does is very limited. It simply allows a trans person to record their gender accurately on their birth certificate, and to be fitted into the appropriate actuarial models for pension provision and apply for a job or university degree without fear of being outed by default. They do not have any legal bearing on provisions around single-sex spaces, which are governed by the provisions of the Equality Act. These problems are in large part technical, but they have an outsized impact on an individual trans person’s rights to privacy and dignity. As a Conservative committed to protecting the rights and freedoms of the individual, I would like to see this process improved so that it can best serve the people it is meant to protect.
The current system is byzantine and bureaucratic, and contains provisions that, after 26 years—as others have said—seem to border on the cruel. In particular, I highlight the requirement to live in one’s new gender for two years, and the spousal veto. I am not sure that I can imagine a universally satisfactory benchmark of masculinity or femininity. Without any agreed definition, how can it be reasonable or fair to expect any person to live within such poorly circumscribed limits? I do not envy the members of the Gender Recognition Panel who have to hack their way through this Gordian knot of legal ambiguity and cultural stereotyping to implement their decisions.
As a gay man who was married to, and is now separated from, a woman with whom I have two children and am still friends, I know all too well that coming out as an LGBT+ person can have significant effects on a marriage. It is also clear that the current system serves only to make very personal decisions even more difficult, and giving one partner extraordinary control over another’s autonomy does not seem right today. I recognise that in certain circumstances, one partner’s transition may affect the integrity of a marriage, and I agree with the Women and Equalities Committee’s report that it would be sensible to offer more streamlined routes to annulment in this instance.
Ultimately, the failures of the system as it currently stands are evidenced by the minuscule take-up of the gender recognition certificate. Only 4,910 certificates had ever been issued at the time of the 2018 consultation—as little as 1% to 3% of the UK trans population. That is despite the fact that when surveyed, the vast majority of trans people declare an interest in obtaining a gender recognition certificate. It is patent that the process is not fit for purpose and does not adequately serve the population it is meant to protect, and none of the changes introduced in 2020 have changed that at all.
The recent appointment of Lord Herbert as the Government’s special envoy on LGBT rights, and my hon. Friend the Minister joining the equalities team and responding to this debate, are a happy harbinger of this Government’s renewed commitment to the dignity and rights of trans people. Reform of the GRA would not only bring the UK in line with other western countries such as Ireland, Denmark, France and Greece, but would bring the technical aspects of the law governed by the GRA in line with other aspects of UK law today.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most egregious parts of the current process is that there is no right to appeal, which completely goes against the principles of natural justice in almost every other part of our statute book? That is one aspect that is not planned to be changed.
The hon. Lady has made her point extremely well and succinctly.
Changing the gender recorded on one’s passport or driving licence does not require a gender recognition certificate. Changing the gender on one’s bank account or medical and employment records does not require a gender recognition certificate, and changing one’s name does not require a gender recognition certificate. I can see no logical reason as to why the gender marker on the fundamental document that gives entitlement to one’s nationality and from which every other piece of one’s identity flows should be subject to more prohibitive regulation than any of those other documents and processes, but the fundamental importance of the birth certificate means that there needs to be a gender recognition certificate process. To continue to enshrine that inconsistency within British equality law only exposes trans people to the threat of discrimination.
Reform of the GRA would form a simple and natural component of the Government’s agenda to harmonise equality law and implement a practical and purposeful policy to make a tangible change to the lives of trans people. Some 137,000 putting their name to the petition we are debating today ought to give the Government pause for thought. That is as many people as took part in a massive consultation on the GRA in the first place. This issue matters; it is not an enormous change and we should make it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George.
As has been said very eloquently by previous speakers, having a gender recognition certificate or GRC actually helps in only a handful of legal situations, such as those related to marriage, taxes and deaths. That is it—it is nothing to do with prisons. A GRC is not required to update the sex on someone’s passport or driving licence; it is not required to use single-sex spaces, such as toilets or changing rooms. What we do know is that the current process is deeply invasive, traumatising, unnecessary and dehumanising.
In the last decade, 17 countries have passed reform of some kind relating to their own Gender Recognition Act or equivalent, and there have been no complaints. There is no sound argument for this legislative change to be delayed any more. Yet, if people watch the media, we are constantly bombarded with this idea that there are legitimate concerns. That is fair; I do not doubt that there are legitimate concerns out there. However, the answers are also out there.
Whenever I have tried to pin down someone as to what the legitimate concern is, it always seems to relate back to this concept of self-identification, or self-ID. So, first, let me say that self-ID is not a new concept; it is the right that all of us have to identify who we are. Every time someone fills in a form, they are self-identifying their nationality, their sexual orientation and their religion. Every time someone goes to pee, they are self-identifying which toilet facility best suits their needs: “Do I need baby facilities? Do I need the disabled toilet? Male or female? Is there a unisex toilet?”
The Equality Act 2010 made it explicit that trans people also have the right to self-ID and it laid out exemptions for single-sex providers if any issues were ever to arise. Reforms to the GRA do not affect the Equality Act 2010 or the exemptions within it, so that is not a reason to delay reform.
We hear claims that women’s rights are being threatened; we have heard that today. Well, I am a woman and I do not feel threatened; if anything, the thing that makes me feel most threatened is quite often the very aggressive and often male anonymous accounts that proclaim to be defending me from something. If we look at what most experienced women’s organisations and female service providers are saying about GRA reform, we see their overwhelming support for it. We see acceptance and active campaigning, not just for GRA reform but for the trans community more broadly, because those organisations and providers have been dealing with these issues long before the Equality Act 2010 was even written.
We have had three public consultations showing overwhelming support for reform, particularly and consistently among women. Women’s rights are unaffected by GRA reform and the majority of women know that. However, the truth is that GRA reform has only been delayed because it has become a battleground for a proxy war, or culture war; it has become a breeding ground of disinformation, radicalisation and the rollback of already established LGBT+ rights.
The rest of the world is watching right now as Britain is in the full grasp of a moral panic. The fact that Britain has been internationally identified as having a problem with transphobia has not come out of thin air. Despite expert opinion, despite mountains of evidence, despite knowing the lived experiences of trans and non-binary people, and despite numerous consultations and debates, five years on we are still dragging our heels.
As I said at the start, as legislators we have a responsibility to educate ourselves about this stuff. I think that five years is more than long enough to do that. As legislators, we have allowed disinformation and confusion to run rife. We have created an environment that allows transphobia and ignorance to thrive. So, when we see that hate crimes against LGBT+ people and self-harm in the trans community have both risen, can we really go home and say that we are completely blameless?
Let me make the situation as clear as I can. If someone does not support self-ID, their issue is not with the GRA; it is with the Equality Act 2010. If someone wants to start removing established rights formed over a decade ago under the Equality Act, at least be honest about that. Tell people that that is what you are campaigning for—say it with your chest, but do not dare say that you are doing it in the name of defending women, because that just does not stick. If we do not pursue the reforms, all I can say is that I hope history judges us as harshly as we deserve.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Sir George. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for introducing the debate so clearly.
I am a trans ally. I believe strongly that trans men are men, that trans women are women and that being non-binary is valid. I am proud to be Plymouth’s first out Member of Parliament. I think that gives me not just a platform, but a responsibility to talk about LGBT rights. I am proud to be the first person to get “massive gay” in Hansard, speaking in a Westminster Hall debate, because for me it makes it authentically Luke, something I can look at and go, “Well, that is me.”
The debate needs a lot more authenticity in it, and for a lot more of the lived experience and actual reality for trans and non-binary people to be present in it. If we had that, yes, we would have more discussion of hate crimes and fear, but we would also have more laughter, more honesty, more love and compassion, and more authenticity from people who are able to be themselves. We could revel in and celebrate people being able to be themselves, free from fear—a fear of not being who they are—and from the pain that prevents them from being who they genuinely are.
I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman says, but is it not also important to listen to the fear of women? I am not one who will stoke the fear of women, but is it not important to give that space to women at least to express what they fear?
I thank the hon. Member for agreeing that I am a massive gay. I appreciate that. There is a place and a need to listen to groups who feel that they are not being heard in the debate, and I will come to that in one moment.
We need to look at the specifics of what we are debating today. My speech could talk about trans rights in the wider sense. I could talk about hate crime and about a whole range of things, but the petition does not talk about those things. The petition is specific; it talks about updating a broken and bureaucratic system that is not working and that is costly to the taxpayer and to the person going through that system. In that space, we should all agree that it is broken and that it should be fixed.
The agreement that we are so painfully trying to avoid is what we should pull out of the debate: the GRA should be reformed. It is a broken system. It does not deliver what we need and it incurs massive cost—not just through the pounds, shillings and pence spent by people applying to go through the GRA process and amassing the documents, but through the mental health crises that frequently follow the experience of going through that process. There is a cost in the lost opportunities, the jobs not taken and the taxes not accrued. We need to look at the lost opportunities, which is why it is so important to look at the issue.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) that self-ID is a problematical term. It is. It is difficult. It has opened up people’s ability to attach things to the debate that are not in it. If we attach more and more things to the debate, we lose sight of what we all agree on. We agree on lots in this space, and disagree on less. If we put the focus on where we disagree, rather than on where we agree, we find ways to throw stones at each other, which I do not believe to be right, and we find ways to use unhelpful language. I am not abnormal because I have a boyfriend. My trans friends are not abnormal because they are trans. We should be clear about that. It is not suitable to have the word “but” at the end when we say something; we need to recognise the innate human value in each of us along the way.
In particular, I want us to look at the process through which the GRA causes difficulty. I share the concerns expressed more eloquently than I can about the difficulty of amassing the documents, the delays, the lack of a right of appeal, the confusion, and the fear for many trans people of having a panel of people they do not know deciding on their lives. That is humiliating and dehumanising for lots of people. If we had that process to access any other public service in any other walk of life, we would all, regardless of our party, say that it was inefficient and uncaring and call for its reform. Let us focus on that part to make sure it can be there.
When I asked my trans friends in Plymouth what they wanted, they agreed that the GRA process was not working—those who have tried to participate in it are very clear on that—but what they most want us to do is to focus on getting through this debate, and then to talk about healthcare and their difficulties in accessing it. We need to be clear that just as justice delayed is justice denied, healthcare delayed is healthcare denied.
One thing that has not been mentioned is the regional inequality that sometimes comes with this. Much of the debate around trans healthcare has a metropolitan flavour to it. People tend to talk about London, Manchester or even Brighton, but not about Plymouth or the experience in the south-west. The incredibly long waiting lists are not always talked about. The waiting list at the West of England Specialist Gender Identity Clinic stands at five years and seven months. That is not a waiting list to be proud of; it is a waiting list to shame us. That is why we need to look at what it is possible to change.
We also need to look at the reason for the delay. I turn to the Minister, who I hope will be able to speed this through the Government processes. There are three questions worth looking at today. Why has there been a delay in the first place, and why has it taken the machinery of government so long to come through? It is because the delay is deliberate, not accidental. It is a deliberate space that has been created to weaponise the debate and cause division, and the consequences of that space—the increase in hate crime, abuse and assaults, and in online and in-person hate—do not bother the people who have caused it.
What is the cost of the delay? It is people’s lives, experiences and interactions. Allowing someone to change their birth certificate does not deal with the question of choosing which toilet to go to. We need to get over this. Everyone pees, and everyone should have the right to pee.
Who benefits from the delay? We can look at the cost, but what is the benefit? There is no benefit, unless the objective is to create a culture war. In the narrow debate based on the petition, and in the narrow changes on the birth certificate to afford pension rights, there is no logistical or administrative benefit to the taxpayer or the Government. We must ensure that there is no benefit politically for anyone—in my party or anyone else’s—who chooses to benefit from increased hate, assaults and abuse towards a marginalised group.
My final point is this. The struggle for equality is a long and difficult one, and we must all keep fighting for equality along the way. Some of us will use decent arguments, some of us will use lived experience and some of us will attempt to use humour, but we must keep it up. We know from the experience of equality movements to date that we do not win by bashing one protected group with the rights of another protected group. That is not how we create equality; that is how we create the opposite. I hope the Minister will speed up the process and reform the GRA so that we can get to other issues that matter to the trans community.
I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, where I am listed as a member of the advisory group of the not-for-profit organisation Sex Matters. I am also a supporter of the LGB Alliance, and proud to be so.
The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) says that he is a massive gay. Well, I am a massive lesbian—rather more massive than I was in my younger years. I want to challenge everyone who has said in the debate that they want a respectful debate on reform of the GRA. I want to challenge them to live up to their words and listen to the concerns that are held by many women and same-sex-attracted people about the dangers of conflating sex with gender. Like them, I share the view that the introduction of self-identification of sex would negatively impact on existing provisions under the Equality Act. That view is valid and well-founded and has been supported by the recent intervention of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Their concerns centre on the potential consequences for individuals and society of extending the ability to change legal sex from a small defined group who have demonstrated their commitment and ability to live in their acquired gender to a much wider group who identify as the opposite gender at a given point. It is not a modest reform; it is a reform with potential consequences, including those relating to the collection and use of data, to participation and drug testing in competitive sport, to measures to address discrimination barriers facing women and to practices within the criminal justice system.
Reform of the Gender Recognition Act is proposed in Scotland and supported by my party. Last year, our manifesto for the Scottish election stated that
“we will work with trans people, women, equality groups, legal and human rights experts to identify the best and most effective way to improve and simplify the process by which a trans person can obtain legal recognition, so that the trauma associated with that process is reduced.”
Our manifesto also stated:
“We will ensure that these changes do not affect the rights or protections that women currently have under the Equality Act.”
I was content to support that policy, which did not commit the SNP to a policy of self-ID. What I have to say today is in line with my party’s promise to work with women, equality groups and legal and human rights experts and to ensure that reforms to the GRA do not affect the rights or protections that women currently have under the Equality Act.
Under the Equality Act, there are a number of protected characteristics, including sex, sexual orientation and belief. We now know, thanks to the employment appeal tribunal, that belief includes gender critical beliefs such as I hold. The Equality Act also protects people who are at any stage of a personal journey of transition or, indeed, de-transition. So widely accepted are those protected characteristics that when my party was trying to win the independence referendum in Scotland in 2014, our current First Minister, then Deputy First Minister, produced a draft constitution for an independent Scotland that would have enshrined those personal characteristics in the fundamental law of an independent Scotland, alongside the human rights protected by the European Court of Human Rights.
I just want to correct something that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said. There are laws about who can use which toilet, and women should not be expected to share their intimate spaces with men. Under the Equality Act, security staff, school supervisors and so on are allowed to set and enforce single-sex rules. The Equality Act exceptions allow that. It is not a matter of criminal law; it is a matter of civil law. It is important to be clear about these things, because if we lose clarity over what the words “male” and “female” mean, it will make it more difficult to set and enforce clear and simple rules for female-only services and women’s sports.
[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
Some people have been very critical of the Equality and Human Rights Commission for seeming to have modified its position on self-identification for trans people and reform of the Gender Recognition Act, but Baroness Falkner has been very clear that it has done so because new evidence about the tension between trans and women’s rights has emerged. I remind those who have sought to impugn the Equality and Human Rights Commission and Baroness Falkner that her appointment was unanimously approved by the Women and Equalities Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights after an evidential hearing in this Parliament.
There is ample evidence that the concerns of the Equality and Human Rights Commission are well founded. Only last week in Scotland, we had two major legal decisions seemingly in conflict about the meaning of sex in law. Fortunately, because of the appellate system, we know that the appellate court’s decision will take precedence, and the appellate court in Scotland was very clear that as our law stands under the Equality Act, sex is not interchangeable with gender. There is a protected characteristic of sex, but not one of gender. There is a protected characteristic of gender reassignment, but the appeal court in Scotland was very clear that sex means male or female in law, based on biological sex. That is the highest interpretation of the Equality Act in our law at present. The word “women” in the Equality Act does not include males who self-identify as women.
To find out what the general populace thinks about self-ID, we can look at some recent polling. We have had two big opinion polls in Scotland in the past month, and also a BBC survey, which have shown that while the majority of Scots support equal rights for trans people—as, for the avoidance of doubt, do I—they are unhappy about the implications of a system of self-ID of sex without a gatekeeper. That is not because it will discriminate against trans people, but because it opens up self-identification of sex to a much wider group than just trans people—to anyone. Many of the groups, such as the LGB Alliance, which has tried to promote a respectful dialogue around such matters, have not had the sort of reception that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) has suggested they should. They have been vilified, sometimes by Members of this House. That is not right.
We need to have a respectful debate. By all means, let us reform the 2004 Act, but let us do it in a way that respects the protected characteristics that are enshrined in our Equality Act and takes into account the legitimate concerns of many women and same-sex-attracted people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his excellent opening remarks and his tightrope walk through an incredibly difficult issue. He did an outstanding job.
On a wet and windy winter evening in around about 2013, I made my way across to Edinburgh for a consultation that was being run by the Equality Network in Scotland. It was on the choice of campaign activity, following the successful equal marriage campaign. I was the only politician to turn up. It was myself and a room full of trans men and women. We had a fantastic discussion about how important it was to improve visibility, acceptance and inclusion, and I gave that process my full support that evening.
I have been campaigning for LGBT rights all my adult life. I have lived my life in the open. I was out at work before it was trendy, and I have faced down prejudice and the usual tropes in the workplace. I remember one particularly challenging story where somebody referred to a paedophile, who was being sentenced on the television, and said, “Well, it’s just the same as you.” That involved quite a lengthy conversation, basically about how consent is an important, distinct difference, as well as about the many other issues. I have dealt with all of these tropes. I have faced up to them. I marched against section 28. I marched and even performed one year at Pride.
However, since 2019, I have mistakenly thought that my experience of safeguarding in the NHS, my years of activism in response to the HIV and AIDS crisis and my recent role as the chair of Fife Pride would help me bridge the gap between trans rights activists and women’s groups. In bringing to the fore questions that hitherto would have been routine to any policy development, I was targeted and quite wrongly labelled among many other things as a “transphobe”. The reason was that I would not submit unquestioningly to gender ideology.
What I have witnessed has been horrific. People who call themselves straight allies or queer-identifying straight people have quite literally pushed gay men and lesbians out of our own movement. I can think of no clearer an example than Alexander Bramham, a gay man who was bullied out of Manchester Pride by a straight woman. In all the years I have been out, the worst homophobia I have experienced has been in the last two years, and much of it has happened in this place. Despite my formally raising those concerns, it has not been taken seriously, and it was simply not addressed.
Homophobia is back, and after all the years we spent battering down those barriers, it is back at the behest of Stonewall, and it is draped in a Pride flag. If we remove sex, there can be no homosexual. Sex matters. It is a defining characteristic of who I am. Just saying that has seen me branded a hate figure, targeted for harassment and referred to by an hon. Member in this place as a homophobic b-blank-blank. I will let Members fill that in themselves.
One of the most contentious issues centres on how the word “woman” is defined in law. Does it mean human, adult female, or should it be broader than that and include natal males who decide to live as women and transition? Clarity on that carries significance for how we understand other protected characteristics within the Equality Act, including being same-sex-attracted, and for whether a trans woman who is attracted to a natal female is indeed a lesbian. The ruling from the inner house of the Court of Session last week was unequivocal. For the purposes of the protected characteristic of sex in the 2010 Act, a woman is a natal female of any age, a man in a natal male of any age, and the rights and protections of the trans community are rightly provided under the discrete protected characteristic of gender reassignment. How that decision interacts with GRA reform in Scotland remains to be seen, but as sex and gender are now considered very separate terms that may require further legal attention.
Those issues matter, and that legal clarity is of enormous significance. I pay tribute to Marion, Trina, Susan and everyone at For Women Scotland for their courage, determination and success. I have demonstrated my resilience against outrageous behaviour over the past two years. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), chair of the all-party parliamentary group against antisemitism, and Danny Stone, the chief executive of the Antisemitism Policy Trust, for their confidence, support and guidance.
The impacts ripple well beyond me. Women are being targeted on social media and in the workplace for holding a view that is now an established point of law. They have been told by the First Minister of Scotland that that view is invalid. I hold a deep sadness about the fact that people I have worked closely with have used their influence as LGBT campaigners and politicians to bully, harass and silence women. It is now clear that that is a breach of equality legislation, and it must cease.
For all the years I marched, cared for sick and dying friends, and raised awareness in the workplace, in schools and in my community, my greatest allies have always been women: my mum, my friend Lynn, my friend Fi, my friends Ann and Susan, and many others. They stood by me through thick and thin and I will not abandon them. Now that we have legal clarity over the meaning of sex, we must find a way to tackle the matter, improve the lives of trans people and reform the GRA. As both Baroness Falkner, the current chair of the EHRC, and Trevor Phillips, the founding chair, have made clear in recent days, however, equality is a matter of mutual respect, balance and compromise; it is not something that can be dictated by loud, uncompromising voices. The era of no debate is firmly over. It is time to heal deep wounds and focus on a policy that delivers meaningful improvements to the lives and safety of the trans population, while respecting the rights of others.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss the petition on behalf of more than 250 constituents of mine who signed it. The Government state, in their reply to the petition:
“We will make the gender recognition certificate process kinder and more straightforward.”
If I understand the Government’s response correctly, they recognise that the current process can be distressing and humiliating, and that more should be done to streamline what can feel like a torturous administrative process. I will therefore use the time that I have to ask what concrete steps the Government are taking to ease that burden. For example, the Government said that they would
“reduce the fee from £140 to a nominal amount.”
The fee has now been reduced to £5, and that is a step in the right direction. There is still a cost attached to acquiring all the documentation required, but the reduction in the fee itself should be welcomed.
The Government also say that they
“will streamline the administrative process and cut bureaucracy by enabling applications via gov.uk”.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), I question whether enabling applications to be made online can seriously be considered streamlining the process. That does not remove a requirement or reduce the number of boxes that an applicant needs to tick; instead, it adds the need to find a scanner and upload all the same evidence and documentation. It is disingenuous to imply that digitising the process is somehow streamlining it. We must also ensure that we do not exclude those who do not have access to the necessary technology. What other steps are the Government taking to make the process kinder and more straightforward?
As we know, the current system requires people to be a certain age, to live in the acquired gender for two years and to obtain two medical reports, one of which must confirm a diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Applicants must make a statutory declaration that they intend to live as that gender for the rest of their life, and submit their application to a gender recognition panel that they never get to meet. Reams of evidence need to be provided to the panel to prove their case. The current requirements are prohibitive, as evidenced by the tiny number of trans people currently in possession of a GRC.
In order to streamline the process, are the Government considering removing the need for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria? That requirement implies that being trans is an illness. In September 2020, the British Medical Association called for trans people to be recognised for who they are, without a medical diagnosis. The requirement is also out of step with definitions provided by the NHS and the Department of Health and Social Care, neither of which see gender dysphoria as a mental illness.
Then there is the opaqueness of the panel itself. Applicants get no explanation if they are rejected, and the rejection is made by a panel that never meets them and does not have to provide any real justification for its decision.
Another barrier is the requirement for spousal consent, as acknowledged by the Women and Equalities Committee in its report published on 21 December last year. That report recommended that the Government should bring back an action plan for reform to the GRA within 12 weeks, specifically in relation to the spousal consent provision, the requirement to live in the acquired gender and the diagnosis of gender dysphoria. We are now nine weeks into that 12-week timeframe, so I ask the Minister what progress has been made on an action plan and on making this process kinder.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for setting such a positive scene. I also thank the 438 Liverpool, Riverside constituents who took the time to sign the petition.
As a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, I have heard significant evidence about the failures of the Gender Recognition Act to support trans and non-binary people in their legal transitions. Instead, those individuals are faced with highly intrusive medicalised and stigmatising procedures. I am proud to have played a role in the report, with the amendments I proposed to reaffirm the principles of inclusion and diversity in our spaces and services, demanding clear guidance and best practice examples around how to prevent and challenge discrimination against trans and gender non-conforming people. These changes and the guidance are long overdue. In response, the Government must take decisive action now to change their destructive approach around trans rights. They are whipping up a culture war between the safety, security and support of females and that of trans and gender non-conforming people, when one can never really be achieved without the other.
In the 13 years since the GRA was first introduced, very few people have applied for a gender recognition certificate and fewer than 5,000 have completed the process successfully, although estimates of the UK trans and non-binary population vary between 200,000 and 500,000 people. There are clearly significant barriers for people navigating the gender recognition process. Several other countries, including Denmark, Ireland and Norway, have brought in a statutory gender recognition process, based on self-declaration, that has been recognised as best practice by a number of our own trade unions and prominent trans rights campaigners here in the UK. Labour will implement that process once in Government.
Such a process would be far quicker, more transparent and more accessible than our current processes. Over 80% of the 100,000 submissions to the Government’s GRA consultation called the requirement for a medical report as part of the current gender recognition process “intrusive”, “costly” and “humiliating”. In 2019, the World Health Organisation announced that it no longer considers gender dysphoria to be a mental health issue. There is a groundswell of support for reform along these lines, even among the most polarised groups, as we heard time and again during the Women and Equalities Committee inquiry.
As an absolute bare minimum, the Government must take immediate steps to remove from the gender recognition process the requirement to live in the acquired gender for a set period of time, the medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and the spousal consent provision. There is overwhelming support for the removal of those matters from the process of obtaining a gender recognition certificate, and that would go a huge way towards removing some of the most stigmatising, humiliating and disempowering barriers to people legally changing their gender.
It is absolutely damning that the Government have done nothing but dither and delay and have so far refused to engage with those simple and practical steps, four years after their own consultation. As the Women and Equalities Committee’s report detailed, their reluctance to engage and their behaviour in whipping up a culture war has caused an immense amount of damage. It is highly concerning that recent reports have shown the EHRC politically interfering in Scottish reform of legislation relating to trans rights, and the commission has reportedly met privately with anti-trans groups. Employees have quit the organisation, citing its anti-LGBT culture.
Although I am proud that the Committee made such strong recommendations in our inquiry, they are worth the paper they are written on only if we have bold and meaningful commitments from the Government and the EHRC to take them forward. Given the behaviour of the Government and the EHRC so far, it is clear that we have a long way to go. It is also clear that the tide of popular opinion is against them. Trans rights are human rights, and we must continue to fight for the rights of trans and gender non-conforming people to ensure that they live and thrive in dignity.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Christopher, and to hear so many Members speak with passion on both sides of the debate.
In 2015, the Oireachtas—for those who do not know what that is, it is the Parliament of Ireland—enacted the Gender Recognition Act for Ireland and subsequently sought review of that same Act, which was published in 2018. I am reminded of the words of the chair of the review, Moninne Griffith:
“Equal recognition sends a strong message to LGBTI+ people that we are equal citizens, we are valued, and we belong. As well as equal status, it also addresses the practical realities of citizens’ lives such as protections for families and access to identification.”
It is clear from all sides of the debate that there is a necessity to reform gender recognition. First, at least for me, the pathologising of trans people is an outdated medical practice that seeks to preserve trans identity as a mental illness that requires medical intervention. Secondly, it determines that the body of a trans person requires medical and surgical change—change that needs extensive medical evidence—when in reality it is not required. Thirdly, the present situation fails to meet internationally recognised standards that so many other states, some of which have been profoundly socially conservative, have embraced. I am mindful not only of Ireland but of Malta.
We must also accept that there are no new rights being introduced for trans men and women. For example, gender recognition reform does not affect sports competitions. From my perspective, at least, the Equality Act and the Gender Recognition Act provide that to ensure safe and fair competition in gender-segregated sports, governing bodies can set their own restrictions on participation by trans people, regardless of the trans person’s legal gender recognition status. Gender recognition does not give a person the right to compete in sports that apply that restriction. This will not change.
The gender reform legislation does not affect any NHS clinical decision-making process about minimum age and other criteria for approving a trans person receiving any medical interventions, including hormone blockers, cross-sex hormones or any surgeries. Those criteria are based on international clinical best practice and are set out, at least from a Scottish perspective—the Minister might want to look them up—in the NHS Scotland gender reassignment protocol. Decisions are taken by doctors together with the person based on clinical judgment.
Gender recognition reform does not affect the criminal justice system, at least from my perspective. As I think the Minister will agree, the placement and management of trans people in custody is based on careful risk-assessed decision making. A gender recognition certificate does not give a prisoner the right to move to accommodation for the other sex. Provision will continue to exist for prisoners who are legally female, whether trans or not, to be held in the male estate if necessary for the safety of other prisoners or for their own safety. I see the Minister nodding their head.
Not do I believe that gender recognition affects women’s rights or trans people’s rights under the Equality Act. The Act sets out when services can lawfully be single-sex only. I think we have heard that point put forward and argued on both sides of the debate. The Act also states that the general rule is that trans people should be allowed to access the single-sex services matching the gender they live in, except that they can be treated differently where that is a proportionate means to a legitimate aim, or excluded in exceptional circumstances. Whether or not the trans person has gender recognition is not part of the rule. None of this will change.
It is clear that much of the debate regarding gender reform has, sadly, been hijacked by a range of extremes, from the politics of biology to the inability to hear the concerns of those who, for various reasons, may be opposed to elements of the reform being considered or to its entirety. That does not lessen the concern, worry and fear of trans men and women who seek only to live as their true self, exercising their own individual self-determination.
We also need to recognise the appalling misogyny that many women, including many in this Parliament, face from those who use the gender recognition debate to ridicule and marginalise the trans community, notably via the politics of biology. I must say to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) that I am mindful of the words of Norman Cohn, who takes the question of nature and the politics of biology head on. Norman reminds us:
“Nature demands inequality, hierarchy, subordination of the inferior to the superior—but human history”
“a series of revolts against this natural order, leading to ever greater egalitarianism.”
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not. [Interruption.] Actually, I will give way to the hon. Lady. She is taking up my time, though.
I would be interested to know how the hon. Gentleman thinks politics and biology interact.
I think the hon. Lady acquainted herself with her notion of politics and biology in her own speech.
My only hope is that the UK Government will recognise that by embracing greater egalitarianism, they will reap the benefits of a society that is more capable of supporting the marginalised and more capable of combating misogyny and transphobia, and that they will for once recognise that the greatest threat to our society is not trans men or women but those who see the world as binary and limited: a narrow society in which the lived experience of the elite dominates the diverse and complex lives of the many.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
As many have said already, the discussion and debate around trans rights has become divisive and fractious. It is really important that we state that it absolutely should not be. It should be rooted in evidence, yes, but also in compassion and—others have used this word, and I could not agree more—love. That means love for those on all sides, including people I do not necessarily agree with.
In my surgeries, I have spoken to constituents from the trans community, to parents of trans children, and to those who describe themselves as gender critical. In fact, I spent many hours in a Zoom room with someone from the gender-critical community and someone who is non-binary—I am also from the LGBT community. We sat and we chewed it out. We spoke about everything and tried to get to the bottom of where we agreed, which was on most of it, and where we did not. That, I am afraid, is where some of the rub lies. One thing we understood was that our understanding of the words “gender” and “sex” differed. For those on the gender-critical side, the two were different words. For me, frankly, they are synonyms; it is just that one was used more recently. It could well have been replaced in the 2004 Act.
We need to appreciate that those on the gender-critical side are valid; they are entirely allowed their point of view. However, I will put it on the record that I profoundly disagree with much of the gender-critical point of view and especially with those arguments that in any way imply that trans people are a danger to society and women, because they are not.
Drawing false equivalence between trans people and predatory sex offenders, which I have to say is where a lot of the arguments have ended up over the years that I have been debating this, does not do justice to many people who have sincerely held views around same-sex spaces or whatever. That is not where those people want the debate to go, but there are some people who draw those inferences. We need to call that out as just wrong.
The Gender Recognition Act is not fit for purpose. I am glad that the Government seem to recognise that in the modest reforms that they intend to make. Rather than getting bogged down in the legalese and the what-aboutery, I wanted to give whatever time I had today over to the voices of trans people and their families, so I contacted some of my constituents and said, “Right, you’ve got 150 words. What do you want to say?” I want to make it clear that I have not changed a single word of what they have written.
The first, a mother of a trans child, said:
“The bullying and harassment my child suffered at school took over our lives for a year and a half. I was constantly attending hearings, talking to the school, and making arrangements to move schools.
But I would have gone to any lengths necessary to protect my child. I have a background in education and knew what I could do to make the school listen. It worries me that there are young trans people who don’t have supportive adults to help them through.
Current legislation means young trans people have no legal protection from being outed or harassed. I don’t understand what good reason anyone could have for failing to protect a vulnerable minority in this way.
For my child, once they turned 18 and were able to get a GRC, it gave them the chance to go through life without the fear of being outed. That means having a reasonable chance to live free from discrimination and harassment.”
Many have asked, “What is the point of a GRC?” Well, for that child, it was everything.
Another constituent, a trans woman, told me:
“I knew when I was 4 years old that I was trans. I grew up during Section 28, believed it was not okay to come out, and that I would be bullied if I did. I began to medically transition 9 years ago and still don’t have a Gender Recognition Certificate.
The bureaucracy, money, and invasiveness are significant barriers. I don’t think changing your legal gender needs to be as simple as changing your address at a bank. I understand there are processes that need to be in place. But there is a balance to be struck.
And we cannot ignore non-binary people simply because they don’t fit into our current structures.
I work with young trans people in my youth groups and the real issues for them are mental health and access to gender identity services.
Earlier this year I lost one of my young people to suicide.
We need reform of the GRA, but also understand that transitioning isn’t just about changing your name on a bank statement.
The government needs to listen to the trans community, and reform services to make sure we don’t lose any more of our young people.”
Reforming the Gender Recognition Act will not solve all these problems—it will not reduce waiting times for gender identity services, lessen the impact of gender dysphoria or eliminate discrimination and prejudice—but it will make it easier for a person to apply for legal recognition of their gender. The current process is long, medicalised and intrusive. Improving the process builds a legal framework that respects trans people and acknowledges their lived experience.
My desire as a liberal is for every person in our country, whoever they are, to feel not just accepted but celebrated and supported by society to live a fulfilled and productive life. However, the fact is that for far too many trans people, this country is moving in the wrong direction. Let us properly reform the Gender Recognition Act rather than just tinkering around the edges, which is the Government’s current plan. It is a broken system, it needs fixing, and I simply urge the Government to think again.
Thank you, Sir Christopher—I thank Sir George, too—for chairing this debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn). He commented that he needed to be brave to bring forward the debate, or words to that effect, and I appreciate that he chose to do so—it was indeed a brave thing to do.
This is a really important issue. We must make change, especially for the around 500,000 trans people in the UK and their friends and family. What is proposed is a small administrative reform that will have a huge and lasting impact on the lives of trans people in the UK. Clearly, there are differences in the system to obtain a GRC in Scotland—not least that we do not have the spousal veto—but the problems with the two current systems are largely the same, and the changes that need to happen are therefore broadly similar. In Scotland we are undertaking reform, and legislation will be brought forward very soon.
As I stand here making this speech, I am acutely aware of my privilege. I will do my best to amplify the voices and concerns of those I have had the privilege to listen to over the last few years, but that is not a substitute for hearing trans voices directly. We do not have trans people in Parliament. As was mentioned, some of our MPs are unaware of ever having met a trans person. They most certainly have; they are just unaware of it. People who have never met, spoken to or heard from a trans person are not the right people to be making decisions about how gender reform should work. Trans voices are significantly outnumbered in the media on any issue relating to trans rights. That must change, but until it does, it is incumbent on those of us with platforms to make the case for reform on behalf of our constituents and other trans people across the UK.
The current system for obtaining a gender recognition certificate is a failure. The UK Government estimate that there are 200,000 to 500,000 trans people living in the UK, but fewer than 6,000 of them have obtained a gender recognition certificate. Those who have managed to have had to jump through unreasonable hoops in order to get a GRC, and they are in the tiniest minority. The process is bureaucratic, takes too long and includes many outdated and unreasonable requirements. People have to put in reams and reams of paper to do it.
It was said that the reason for those statistics might be that people do not want a gender recognition certificate. That is not the case. I have a passport because I recognise the rights that the passport gives me. I applied for that passport because I did not have to give a detailed description of my genitals in order to get the rights that come along with it. The intrusiveness of the procedure for getting a gender recognition certificate puts off a significant number of people, as do the bureaucracy and the fact there is no appeal process and no ability to find out what has gone wrong if an application is rejected.
Changing the system has no impact on the ability of trans people to correct their gender on their passport or their driving licence; it simply and exclusively applies to birth certificates and issues with pensions. Although it is a small change, it is important for the human rights and the dignity of a significant minority of our population. Birth certificates have an impact on death certificates and marriage certificates. Imagine approaching the end of your life knowing that your death certificate would have the wrong gender on it and that your friends and family would have to live with that, and spending the last moments of your life worrying about that death certificate being incorrect. We need change for that reason alone, let alone the other compelling reasons we have heard.
We have heard about the number of systems with self-ID. I want to talk about the growing number of individuals identifying as non-binary, because it is specifically mentioned in the petition. Like most feminists, I have always been bothered by gender stereotypes and gendered expectations. I can entirely understand how and why people come to the conclusion that they do not comfortably fit in either a male or a female box. None of the Government proposals I have seen go far enough, or sometimes even acknowledge the existence of non-binary people. That has to change. If we want the legislation to be fit for the future, we need to consider the needs of future generations. Many more young people are uncomfortable with established gender stereotypes and moulds. We must therefore allow non-binary people to identify as non-binary.
The extreme level of misinformation and lies pedalled about GRA reform has created an incredibly fertile ground for hate and abuse. The increase in the number of hate crimes with a trans aggravator neatly illustrates that. We must be more honest. We must not allow those in positions of power to mislead the public about the impact of the proposed reforms. The reforms will only affect birth certificates and pensions—not access to spaces, not passports, not names, not driving licences, not access to surgical interventions, not swimming pool changing rooms, not prisons, not hospital wards and not sports. All those are dealt with under the Equality Act or other Acts. I do not understand why people keep going on about swimming pools. I have been in so many swimming pools with my kids, and almost all of them have mixed changing rooms. That is already a thing. They all have cubicles as well.
In the past week I have been approached by three 50-plus women who wished to speak to me about trans rights. They approached me about the issue; it was not an issue that I had raised with them. All three of them had read about the proposed changes, and all three were baffled by the extreme reaction to a simple administrative change. One of them, who has daughters, said to me, “People should be allowed to live their lives. It makes no difference to me what it says on someone’s birth certificate.” That is the reality.
I want to end on a quote that makes it clear why we need change. This was Mr Elliot’s submission to the Women and Equalities Committee when it called for evidence:
“I had to send several private documents to a group of strangers, at the cost of £140, to let them decide whether I am man enough to marry as a husband, be declared a father to my future children or simply die with the respect of being remembered as a man. I was a boy, and I am now a man, and for six years I have been living that truth outwardly and proud with no rejection of this fact from my loved ones, yet I could still be denied my truth by strangers.”
We need change. The Gender Recognition Act needs to be reformed.
If we have 15 minutes for the SNP spokesman and 15 minutes for the official Opposition spokesman, that will give us a little more than 15 minutes for the Minister and the short response to the debate. I call Kirsten Oswald.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher, and to take part in this important debate. I am grateful to everybody who signed the petition, including those in my constituency, and to everyone who has taken the time to engage with this issue.
I wondered how this debate would go—I suspect all of us did—and it has gone the way that I thought it would. It has been a mixed bag, but I do not think that any of us would disagree with what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) set out at the beginning. It seems that too often there is far too much heat and precious little light on issues such as GRA reform, and that does not do anyone any good, which is a real shame. People who are directly impacted by the issue and those who are concerned with it deserve to have us conduct ourselves with dignity and respect.
The petition does not ask for much. It asks for a simplified and more dignified process, allowing people to get on with their lives, as the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said. The process now is degrading, intrusive and traumatic. Indeed, it seems from its response that the UK Government Equalities Office accepts the need for the process to be “kinder and more straightforward”. The reality is that its plans are not going to achieve a process that is particularly kinder or more straightforward, and what the UK Government describe, somewhat mysteriously, as “balance” could charitably be described as a fudge at best.
What we are looking at is a necessary change to make the lives of trans people that little bit easier. It would be a real missed opportunity, and difficult to fathom, if that opportunity were avoided or fudged. That matters because at the heart of this is the issue of trans rights—the rights of a minority group who we have heard today have experienced a surge in hate crime, up more than 76% over the last couple of years, and live with the knowledge of an increasingly hostile narrative in many places. Everyone, whatever their views on this issue, loses out because of that.
Like the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), whose speech I very much enjoyed, I am a feminist—a middle-aged feminist, so I have been around the houses a few times—and I am really focused on the rights of women, the wrongs done to women, and the need to always stand up for women. For me, those things are non-negotiable, but so is my support, and my party’s support, for trans rights. That in no way diminishes my commitment to always stand up for women. It certainly does not conflict with continued strong commitments to uphold the rights and protections that women and girls have under the Equality Act 2010. In fact, if we look at the world beyond this place, it has never been more important for all of us to stand up for equality, fair treatment and human rights. Indeed, Engender, Scotland’s feminist policy organisation, has also been clear that making the process easier will not impinge negatively on women’s rights.
I say all that because I want to be clear that I absolutely support the need to do better in supporting what the trans community needs to happen. However, I do appreciate and understand that some people have a sincerely held view that is different from mine, and I will always listen carefully and respectfully to views expressed carefully and respectfully. That is a really important principle. Indeed, the Scottish Government have engaged in listening via the extensive consultations that have been undertaken, and to a greater extent on this particular issue than on any other that I can think of. That is important because we must get this right; we must deliver a system of gender recognition that both complies with international human rights laws and delivers a fairer, more straightforward means of gaining legal recognition.
I note that the Women and Equalities Committee said about the proposed changes in Scotland that
“this could be a move in the right direction.”
That is absolutely true. However, before we get there, the situation as it stands, and the reason that people are concerned with this, bears some reflection. There is obviously no requirement for anyone to have a gender recognition certificate, but it is surely easy to understand why someone would want one. At the moment, only between 1% and 3% of trans people in the UK have a GRC. Those statistics tell us that the current approach, with its focus on medicalisation, very burdensome bureaucracy and very opaque guidelines, is not working.
The responses to both the UK Government and the Scottish Government consultations tell us that people recognise that and support the need for reform. The recent Savanta ComRes poll in Scotland also found majority support, including among women and among under-54s. Perhaps that is no wonder, because who among us would want to deal with life events that necessarily come with admin—things such as marriage, new jobs, pensions, and even death, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) eloquently set out—with the knowledge that our paperwork could be wrong? Even describing it that way seems an inadequate way of explaining the worry and distress that that could cause.
The petitioners’ desire for the system to be simplified is understandable, and when we start to drill down, it becomes even more so. I spoke recently to someone who had had to produce paperwork in quantities that would fill a whole box, making the UK Government’s suggested solution of an online system somewhat difficult to comprehend. That is without even getting into the England and Wales requirement for what is known as a spousal declaration. In what other area of our lives would that possibly be even remotely acceptable?
The UK Government have said that they will reduce costs, which is welcome, but the reality is that the cost of the reports and so on that would be required would put those costs right back up and more, so they are not making it more accessible at all. That is before we even start to look into the difficult issues of medical processes, medicalisation, personal upheaval, social challenges, the significant financial burden—and then someone is faced with the arbitrary decision of a panel of strangers potentially telling them, in essence, “You don’t know who you are.” On any examination, the present system is not working, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) said. It is unnecessarily medicalised, it is bureaucratic, it is traumatic, and it is simply not fair. That is why a move to a more straightforward self-declaratory system is needed and makes sense.
Again, to be clear—like others, I have read some statements, particularly online, that are simply false—this reform would not allow anyone to simply get up one day and decide to be a different gender for some nefarious purpose, and then revert. That is just not true. The proposals laid out by the Scottish Government mean that obtaining a gender recognition certificate will remain a serious and lifelong commitment. They include a period of three months living in your chosen gender, a statutory declaration and a further three-month period of reflection, and applicants would still be subject to criminal proceedings for making a false declaration and application. It is not something anyone could enter into lightly. By way of comparison, we could reflect on the experiences of places such as Ireland, Malta, Norway, Denmark and many more, where the process works without any drama and life is just more straightforward.
As the Scottish Government’s plans progress, I hope that people can hear the reality of what is planned and that that will be helpful. They will also hear that the Scottish Government’s draft Bill does not include any new rights for trans people and that the changes will not affect the rights or protections that women currently have under the Equality Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) explained clearly. All of those rights—of both women and trans people—must be protected, including the protection of women’s safe spaces.
I say that because, unfortunately, the issue beneath a great deal of the heat in this discussion is the fact that predatory men who attack women exist. Bitter experience shows us that they do not need a gender recognition certificate to do that: they can attack women now, and they do. The problem is predatory men and criminals, not trans people. By conflating those groups and allowing ourselves to be diverted from this reform, we do everyone a disservice.
Doing so also encourages what is already an increasing intolerance in some quarters. It is a narrative that makes me very uncomfortable and takes me back to being a teenager in the 1980s. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) spoke very eloquently about this: the public conversation around homosexuality back then was poisonous, corrosive and damaging. We need to be very clear that we cannot and will not go back there on trans issues.
One of the most important points today was made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). It is important that we are having this debate and I very much welcome it. However, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there are no trans people participating in this debate. We need to reflect on that. It would be very helpful if we could hear the lived experience and voices of trans people as part of this respectful dialogue.
I close by saying that whatever our different views and opinions, we are all the better for being more open and inclusive and for appreciating that all our rights are important. It is no surprise, perhaps, that I see this issue through the prism of how the country could be better. The better country that I know is coming in Scotland will be more open, inclusive, tolerant and equal: a country where no one’s identity is up for debate and where all of our rights matter. It is time for that change.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Christopher. It is also a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for leading it. I also thank all of those who signed the petition, including 400 of my constituents in Oxford East.
We all have to recognise that these topics are very sensitive and important, and that they need to be discussed with respect and compassion. Solutions will be found through people working together, not through threats or intimidation in any direction. As my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) rightly said, solutions will be found through learning, not lecturing.
I have to say that I do not like describing these topics as a debate, because that suggests to trans people that the fact they are trans is somehow part of a debate, which is not right. It also suggests that there are two sides that are at it hammer and tongs with nothing in common, and that we cannot find those solutions. I do not believe that that is right. I have the optimism of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). Where there has been disagreement, very often that relates to assumptions around the impact of different measures. My experience is similar to that of my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran): that once those assumptions are unpacked, we can get into the nuts and bolts of the implications of different forms of legislative change. That is surely what we need to be doing in this discussion.
The Labour party is committed to ensuring that trans people, who face persistent and growing discrimination in society as we have heard, can live their lives with equality, dignity and respect, and that everyone can do so. We will resist attempts to roll back hard-won rights. This discussion must take place based on the evidence. I have felt at certain points that we slid a bit away from that evidence in the discussion. There already is accompanying material to the Equality Act. There already is a code of practice produced by the EHRC about how the single-sex exemptions should work. That was produced with the GRA already in existence, so that corpus is already there—it is important that we recognise that.
It is important that we do not conflate gender with sex. We did slide into that quite a number of times during the discussion. We must not conflate gender reassignment with sexuality—it also felt like that took place at certain points. When we have that discussion based on the evidence, the way forward is clear. We need reform of the Gender Recognition Act. It must include a process of self-identification, and we must continue to support the implementation of the Equality Act, including the single-sex exemptions. My party is proud of the Equality Act. It was passed by the last Labour Government. We stand by it, including the provisions on the protected characteristics of gender reassignment and sex, and those single-sex exemptions.
The Equality Act, as is clear from the accompanying material, from the code of practice and so forth, assumes the inclusion of trans people with or without a GRC, as we have been talking about, and protects them from discrimination while allowing for specific circumstances where the single-sex exemption is applied. That is the right approach, and it is the one that my party supports. We believe that the Gender Recognition Act does need reform, and that reform is a narrow issue. I could not agree more with what my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) said in that regard.
As the Government’s own consultation recognised, the current process is
“too bureaucratic, too expensive and too intrusive”.
That must change, and that is why the Act needs to be updated. It has been more than three years since Ministers said they would make it easier for trans people to achieve legal gender recognition and that they would make that process less intrusive. However, as we have discussed, all we have seen are these very limited changes that do not make that difference. I could not have agreed more with the description provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) about the Government’s approach. They promised that there would be change, but after many years they have simply not delivered on that promise. I ask the Minister directly whether he genuinely believes there is no case for additional reform.
When the Minister for Women and Equalities announced that there would be no further reform of the GRA, she said she believed in
“individual liberty and in the humanity and dignity of every person.”
Can the Minister tell us how leaving a system in place where a trans person still requires the consent of their spouse to obtain a certificate in 2022 is giving that person individual liberty and dignity? The words of the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) about how dehumanising that is were incredibly powerful. I would also like to hear the Minister’s response to the situations described by my hon. Friends the Members for Wallasey and for Brighton, Kemptown—the Kafkaesque situations that people land in when trying to obtain certificates. Can he tell the House how he thinks the minimal changes introduced by the Government will make that transitioning process substantively less intrusive?
In fact, have those minimal changes even begun? Eighteen months on from the promise to digitise this process, it is not clear that anything has actually happened. There does not seem to have been any change. Of course, this is in the context of slow action and even reverses in a number of other areas. When there is cross-party agreement, it is important to acknowledge that. The Government’s LGBT+ action plan included many measures that the Opposition strongly agreed with, but when the Minister for Women and Equalities was asked last May to explain why there had not been any progress updates since it was announced, she suggested that the plan had just been abandoned:
“It is probably because there is a new Government in place under the leadership of Boris Johnson.”
Is that plan still there, or is it not? Of course, the plan covers many of the issues we have been talking about today: healthcare, discrimination, hate crime and conversion therapy, where a huge loophole has been introduced by the Government around consent.
This has been an important discussion, and I thank everybody in the House and beyond it who has entered into it in good faith and in the spirit of trying to find solutions. We believe that there is a clear solution when it comes to reform of the GRA, as I have just set out, but amid all this talk about legislative reform, systems and processes, we should never lose sight of the fact that we are talking about people: their rights, their lives, and their very sense of who they are. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) made that very clear in his comments. We are talking about people who are transitioning to a different gender, and people who have suffered domestic abuse and need somewhere safe to process that. We are always talking about people. As my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) said, we must not pit different groups against each other, but sadly, we are seeing far too much of that when it comes to these critical issues. We need compassion, and we need a Government who put compassion at the heart of their response. That is what my party is determined to do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Christopher, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his tone: I expected nothing less. He is known for his thoughtful and gentle approach to many thorny issues.
Today’s debate has been a reminder of the strength of feeling around this issue. Since I took up this post, I have been increasingly perplexed by why we cannot focus on people. I have said from day one that I am tired of debate about body parts, because it dehumanises individuals: it dehumanises people who are going through what is not an easy decision, and is most certainly not an easy process. To be absolutely clear, this Government firmly believe that LGBT+ people—I reiterate the T—should be free to live and prosper in modern Britain, and we are committed to ensuring that they can do so. We want people to live their life free from discrimination, prejudice and hate, and to ensure that everyone has the same opportunities in life.
I cannot necessarily address all the issues that have been raised, but I have been making copious notes, and while we may not agree on some of the fundamental reforms that the petition seeks, I have heard loud and clear the many issues—particularly on process—that we need to address. One of the issues that I have committed to taking up since I came into the LGBT+ equalities brief is ensuring that we lift up the bonnet, as it were, and find out where the process is not working. It cannot be right that people have to wait three to five years for an appointment at a gender identity clinic, let alone then wait to go through any form of surgical intervention, if that is what they choose to do, or wait for mental health support or access to hormones from GPs. It cannot be right that we have some GPs refusing to issue hormones on the NHS because of what they believe to be concerns. Those are some of the issues that we can address.
We may not be able to agree on a fundamental reform of the GRA down to what is known as self-identification—many Members have talked about how that is a misnomer and how people do not understand what it means. However, to make the whole process kinder and gentler, and more supportive and patient-led—I hate the word “patient” as well; or client-led, or whatever term we use—it needs to put the trans person at the heart of getting this right. That is one of the things that I am committed to getting right, as much as I possibly can.
I thank the Minister for giving way on that point, and I agree with his approach of using kindness. The Government have said that they will not take away the requirement for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria—a mental illness—given by two doctors. How on earth, given what he has said today, can that be a kind process?
I think the hon. Lady jumped to the bottom of the page, because the Government recognise that the reference to “disorder” in the Act is outdated and dehumanising, and it will be removed.
I want to ensure that we remember the people involved. Many Members have talked about the people who are impacted by our debate, and again the conversation has become too toxic. Bizarrely, I have been described as a misogynistic self-hating gay because I support trans rights. The ability to have a rational conversation about some of these issues has passed too many people by. We have a responsibility to ensure that we make our decisions based on fact.
I am sorry that I am digressing, but I do feel quite passionately. I must correct this completely wrong view that a trans woman can be placed in a prison of her choice. That is simply not true. Three years ago, the Ministry of Justice changed the rules, and now a prisoner will be placed in the estate that is most suited to their position—what their status is on the transition journey, their treatment and what their physicality is like. It is not just simply: “Hello, I’m a woman and I’d like to be in a woman’s prison, please.” That simply is not true. It is important not to minimise the concerns that people have about what has happened in the past, but it is equally right that we make sure that we base our arguments on fact.
I welcome what my hon. Friend has just said, but is not the critical point that the Ministry of Justice has a framework in place for risk assessing each individual who identifies as the opposite gender? By using that risk assessment tool, people can be allocated to the correct prison that suits their needs and the needs of their fellow prisoners. Does that not get to the heart of what we really ought to be getting to here, which is for service providers to have sensible policies to manage any inherent tension in what they are delivering?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I will perhaps come on to some of the guidance in a few minutes. However, I wanted to put on the record that some of what is misinterpreted as going on in prisons simply does not occur. The rules have changed, I think three years ago. For reference, I refer colleagues to the answer given at the last Women and Equalities questions by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge).
To return the previous point, we are taking steps to amend a specific reference to “disorder” in the Act via a remedial order as soon as possible. In my view, trans people deserve the dignity of being known as their true selves, which for some will include a very personal decision of accessing a robust legal gender recognition certificate system.
It is important to remember that changing legal sex is only one part of the picture. Trans people can and do go about their daily lives as their true selves, including with documents that match their acquired gender, without needing to apply for a GRC. For some, a GRC will be a necessary next step—if they wish to get married in their acquired gender, for example—but that will not be the route for everyone. We often get caught up in focusing on the Gender Recognition Act.
On the subject of the GRA, the 2018 consultation was extensive and it received more than 100,000 responses. We looked carefully at all the issues raised in the consultation. It remains the Government’s view now, as in September 2020 when we responded formally to the consultation, that the balance struck in the legislation is correct: the system provides proper checks and balances, while supporting people who want to change their legal sex. The system is sound. The system is robust. It works in a balanced way for all parties. But that does not mean—as I said at the outset—that we cannot work on ensuring that the process, with all the issues that many Members have raised, is addressed and resolved. That does not mean that we are not working to make things better.
The system can be streamlined to make it more straightforward. People have poked fun about the cost being reduced, but that was an important step. It was something we were able to do quickly because it did not require primary legislation. Members commented on the digitisation process, and all our feedback from beta testing—that is where it is, at the beta testing phase—is that the process is much improved and that those who have used it found it more straightforward and helpful.
I accept, however, the views of Members about the intrusive nature of the information that might have to be required for a panel. I will take that away and look at exactly what has to be provided to see whether it is still relevant. As with many things in Government, we tend to bolt things on and rarely take them away. Perhaps it is time to look at what we are asking for and to see whether it is still relevant.
Numerous Members commented on spousal veto. We will address many of the issues raised today in the formal response to the Women and Equalities Committee report. That response will be published shortly. I understand, however, that the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020, which is to come into effect imminently, will remove what is known as spousal veto. I am sure that, if I have got that wrong, officials will quickly give me a kicking.
I turn to single-sex spaces. I assure colleagues that we will not be changing the Equality Act. For many years, trans people have used single-sex spaces in their gender without issue. The Government have no interest in curtailing that. It is also important that we maintain existing provisions that allow organisations to provide single-sex spaces. The Equality Act already allows service providers to restrict access to services on the basis of sex and gender reassignment, where that is justified.
A lot of media attention has been given to the Equality and Human Rights Commission and its work to provide clarity to service providers on the provision of single-sex services, which has long been called for. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington said that it might be time to ensure that there is more clarity about what the Equality Act allows. I have spoken to the chair of the EHRC. We had a fruitful, if frank, conversation about how we are not seeking to change the Act, while recognising that for some people—as many have said today—clarity about its provisions might be welcomed. The EHRC is of course independent of the Government, which the Equality Act 2006 provides for. However, I am happy to reiterate our commitment to maintaining the existing provisions under the Equality Act 2010.
I will now turn to some wider issues that impact on the LGBT community. Trans lives are impacted not just by legal recognition. I know from my conversations with trans people and organisations that more needs to be done to improve the health and safety of trans people. Since I took up this role, I have gone out of my way to engage with stakeholders in the trans community and I saw for myself, when I visited CliniQ and met service users and the dedicated staff and volunteers, exactly the level of support that is needed and provided by the amazing team of clinicians and volunteers.
As numerous Members have said and as far as I am aware, no one in this Chamber is a trans person and therefore we cannot speak from personal experience. It was important in my role to ensure that I heard from trans people themselves. However, I also want to put on the record my personal commitment that the proposals in the Conversion Therapy (Prohibition) Bill—I realise we may have some differences to overcome on particular provisions—will include protecting the trans community.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He said that there are no trans Members of Parliament, which is absolutely the case. Nevertheless, it is great that we are having this debate and raising these issues. There are children of MPs who are trans and also non-binary. I wanted to make that point, to ensure that they are heard and so that people can be confident and feel that they have the support of this Parliament.
I appreciate that the hon. Lady was not here for the bulk of the debate, but I am very conscious that some Members have trans children and trans siblings. I know from my own experience in the debate about equal marriage that what changed the whole tone of that debate was MPs standing up in the main Chamber and talking about their personal experiences as a gay man or as a lesbian woman, unable to get married. However, it is a very personal decision for a Member to stand up and talk about their personal life; some people are comfortable doing it and some people are not.
So although I firmly recognise that many Members, many members of staff and many House officials will have trans siblings and trans children, it must be the individual’s decision whether they come forward to help change the debate. I urge them to do so; I would love them to do so, because it changes the whole tone of a debate when people can visualise and personalise, rather than hearing some abstract policy about what a trans person might be. However, that is a very personal decision.
I accept all the criticisms that I have heard today that we have not always got the tone right. That is absolutely true. I am sorry if I get a thick ear from some of my ministerial colleagues for saying so, but it is true that we have not always got the tone right. This is sometimes an emotive issue where we sometimes get it wrong. However, I can tell Members that the Secretary of State is absolutely committed to ensuring that trans rights are firmly embedded in our programme. That is why I and Lord Herbert of South Downs have joined the team, and it is also why we have Iain Anderson as the LGBT+ business adviser.
An amazing addition to our team and the work we do is Dr Michael Brady, as national adviser for LGBT health. If anyone has in any doubt as to what we need to do, they should spend time with Dr Brady and go to the clinics that he works in, because the work that he and his team do is truly amazing. If anyone has any doubts, any fears or any worries about what the trans community are, they should go and see for themselves, and talk to Dr Brady and his team.
I will bring the Minister back to a point he made earlier, when he said the Government would remove the gender dysphoria language. Can he give a bit more explanation, based on the advice that he is getting from Dr Brady and others, about what they will replace that language with concretely? Will it just be a different word, or will there be a slightly different process that trans people will need to go through with their doctors? Will those doctors only be specialists, or will there be an ability for people to go to general practitioners and so on? Answering those questions might provide some movement that would be welcome.
The hon. Gentleman asks quite a complex question, so, as he would expect, I do not have the answer now, but I will write to him. I can say that the word “disorder” will be removed; regarding exactly what it will be replaced with and how that will be implemented, I will write to him to give a full answer.
I will just mention the issue about some of the processes we have talked about. On trans health, progress is being made on adult gender identity services. Five pilots in a variety of settings have been developed, and these will be evaluated to give an insight on improving delivery. As I said at the outset, the fact that people have to wait three to five years to access services is simply unacceptable, and we are committed to ensuring that the whole client/patient—whatever term we want to use— process is streamlined and made faster, more effective and client-led.
In Scotland, we have committed to bringing gender identity healthcare into line with national waiting time standards, which we have put in place. I know it is slightly outside his remit, but will the Minister consider bringing in waiting time standards for healthcare?
I am in the enviable position of being able to promise lots because I do not actually have to deliver it—I am not the Health Minister. I can commit to having conversations with colleagues across Government to deliver all the changes in the bits of Government and processes that impact LGBT people. That issue is firmly on my agenda, and I will take away that specific request and discuss it with my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care.
The issue of under-18s is often where people have the most concern, but I want to stress that it is the Government’s view that the under-18s are properly supported in line with their age and decision-making capabilities. That is why Dr Hilary Cass is leading an independent review into gender identity services for children and young people. We will receive the interim recommendations soon. I have met Dr Cass and her team to discuss their work, which is rightly independent of Government. I believe that many concerns that Members and the public have about services for under-18s, which are firmly an NHS responsibility, will be addressed by the interim report by Dr Cass.
I wonder if it is the Minister’s opinion that older teenagers under the age of 18 have the capacity to guide their own pathways—just as with the Gillick responsibility.
The decision-making rules on under-18s will remain as they are. That decision making has to be informed by the client, clinician and the wider support framework, and all parties must have a voice.
To conclude, discussion around the previous consultation has been, rightly, intense, and issues raised today are fraught. The shadow Minister called it a Gordian knot, and I think we will struggle to address some of the issues. However, I share her view that we actually agree on many issues. With a lot of good will, we can address many of the issues that have been raised today. We have to remember who we are doing this for. It is to ensure that the trans community are supported with kindness, which is a word that I hate, because it sounds patronising, but the trans community must be supported as they go through what is an incredibly difficult process.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way so late in his speech. I wonder if he could briefly mention non-binary people. It is a part of the debate, and has been discussed so far, but often non-binary people are erased in debates by virtue of being forgotten. Could the Minister remember them in his final words in the debate?
I am aware of the issue and it is something I am working on with officials, but I cannot give any specific commitments today. I can, however, tell the House that the team and I are committed to ensuring that LGBT people can live their lives as safely and freely as they wish, with respect and dignity. I intend to do all I can to address the issues that are making the process and their lives difficult, cumbersome or bureaucratic.
These are emotive issues. I thank all colleagues for their contributions today. Although it is a subject that sometimes generates more heat than light, the way in which this debate has been conducted has proved that we can put our minds together and address some very difficult issues.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I join the Minister in thanking colleagues across the House and on both sides of the discussion for their participation today, and particularly for having the bravery to come to this Chamber and speak on this topic. I would be shocked—I am prepared to bet with any Member in or outside of this room—if every single person who has contributed today, on either side of the debate, does not receive abuse. That is appalling and a shame.
I agree with the Minister that today we have managed to conduct ourselves better, frankly, than I expected— [Interruption.] It’s true. As I said in my opening speech, when the Petitions Committee was presented with this petition and tasked with scheduling it for debate, the look of fear on colleagues’ faces as we were deciding who would take it forward was genuine. I do not make light of that, but I am glad that we have managed to come to this position and have this conversation. I particularly welcome that it is this Minister who is in his place today, as I do not doubt his personal commitment to the issue one iota, and he has spoken incredibly well. I really feel that he is someone with whom we can have real and genuine conversations on both sides of the issue, and be sure that our voices will be heard; I am grateful that he has come here to respond to the debate.
I was interested to hear that the Government intend to remove the words “gender dysphoria” from the requirements set out in the Act.
Yes, sorry. I appreciate that the Minister cannot give any more details here, but he knows my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, as well as I do, and I am sure that he will definitely be asked to come back to the Committee to give more details on that point.
The Minister also mentioned that the spousal veto will be removed in a divorce measure. That just leaves living in the acquired gender for two years as the last bit of the equation. It sounds as if the Government are already moving in the direction that the petition is asking them to. I know that we will want to flesh out some of the detail in the Women and Equalities Committee and in Women and Equalities questions, but if the Government are already minded to remove the words “gender dysphoria” and the spousal veto, that just leaves living in the acquired gender for two years.
I need to correct my hon. Friend. It is “disorder” that will be removed.
I thank the Minister for that clarification. I look forward to having more discussions with him on that in the Women and Equalities Committee.
I reiterate what everyone has said throughout the debate: we have to remember that at the heart of this matter are people who are just trying to live their everyday lives. If we can conduct ourselves with the respect and tolerance that we are showing each other in this room today, we can successfully take the heat out of the debate, have those discussions with one another and find those answers, because they are there and they are fixable. I am sure that this will be the first of many conversations. I thank all Members for coming today; it is one of the most well attended Petitions Committee debates that I have taken part in, and that can give us faith in the petitions system.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 327108, relating to reform of the Gender Recognition Act.