Transgender Equality Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Transgender Equality

Maria Miller Excerpts
Thursday 1st December 2016

(7 years, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House notes the UK’s status as a pioneer in legislating for equality for LGBT people; welcomes the Government’s announcement of a new trans equality action plan; and calls on the Government to review its response to the recommendations of the Women and Equalities Committee’s report on Transgender Equality to ensure that the UK leads the world on trans equality rights, in particular by giving unequivocal commitments to changing the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in line with the principles of gender self-declaration and replacing confusing and inadequate language regarding trans people in the Equality Act 2010 by creating a new protected characteristic of gender identity.

The motion stands in my name, those of the hon. Members for Lanark and Hamilton East (Angela Crawley) and for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) and many other hon. Members. I know many wanted to speak here today, but their other commitments in the House have precluded them from doing so. Their names are listed on the Order Paper.

The Backbench Business Committee has been most generous in allocating the time for this debate, which was inspired by the transgender report published by the Women and Equalities Select Committee in December 2015. I would like to thank, too, the hundreds of people and organisations who gave written and oral evidence to the Committee—evidence from more than 250 people and organisations. We were fortunate in having our specialist advisers, Stephen Whittle and Claire McCann to advise us. Indeed, we had an incredible Select Committee staff, particularly David Turner, Gosia McBride, Sharmini Selvarajah and Helena Ali. I also thank my fellow Select Committee members, particularly those in their places today to speak in the debate.

This is a first—the first ever debate on the Floor of the House on transgender issues. The report published by the Women and Equalities Select Committee was the first ever parliamentary inquiry into transgender issues. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, the Select Committee itself is the first ever such Committee charged with scrutinising the Government’s policies on equality issues. It was established by the House because of the pivotal role that these matters must play in creating a fairer society for us.

When we published our first report and chose to focus on transgender, a few people said to me, “Why are you choosing to focus on that above all other issues? Why use such an important platform to tackle the issues faced by such a small group? Surely there are issues that are higher on the list of priorities.” Others said that they had never met a trans person, and were not aware that they had any trans constituents. Well, it is estimated that more than 650,000 people in this country can identify with being trans: it equates to 1,000 people in every constituency, and that is probably a gross underestimate.

The evidence that the Select Committee received gave us an opportunity to gain some sort of insight into the prejudice, discrimination and ignorance that trans people endure every single day of their lives, but also the great joy that they experience when they are able to be recognised by the gender with which they identify. That is why this debate is important.

Caroline Flint Portrait Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab)
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I welcome the debate, because it is vital for us to consider the issue of transgender rights, but should we not also be wary of creating gender-neutral environments that may prove more of a risk to women themselves? A recent case involving my old university, the University of East Anglia, which has gender-neutral toilets, revealed that a man had been using those facilities to harass women. He was charged and convicted. How does the right hon. Lady think we can protect women from male violence in gender-neutral environments?

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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That point is often raised when we debate the rights of trans people, but it is not a zero sum game. Giving rights to one group, or enforcing those rights, does not mean that rights must be taken away from another group. We must be careful in this place not to appear to undermine the rights of trans people to enjoy the protections that they are afforded under the Equality Act 2010. As for gender-neutral toilets, many organisations have had them for a great many years. An aeroplane does not have a men’s and a ladies’, and we do not see any significant problems on aeroplanes. We must ensure that people do not use, or perhaps misinterpret, the serious problem of threats to women in environments of that kind to undermine—even, perhaps, inadvertently—the rights of transgender people, which are important and which we, as parliamentarians, should uphold.

John Nicolson Portrait John Nicolson (East Dunbartonshire) (SNP)
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Does the right hon. Lady not agree that the point raised by the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) is a matter for criminal law, and has nothing whatsoever to do with transgender equality?

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, but I think the right hon. Member for Don Valley has the right to make the assertion that she did. I know that some organisations may be at risk of misinterpreting the rights that transgender people have, in the belief that they somehow undermine the rights of women. We need to get the balance right. As the hon. Gentleman says, if criminal behaviour is taking place, it should be dealt with by the criminal law.

This debate is important because it is our job to stamp out prejudice wherever it lies, and to ensure that, as a nation, we are fair to everyone. I think we should judge our success as a Parliament by the way in which we treat the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in society, and, given the issues with which transgender people must deal, they certainly fall into one of those groups. In striving for the recognition of equality rights that trans people need to enjoy, we reject prejudice, and by doing that, we improve the ability of all who are struggling to be treated equally to achieve their aim.

Attitudes are not static. I think it incumbent on us in Parliament to continually re-evaluate what equality means—what it means to have a free and fair society that gives everyone the opportunity to succeed. If attitudes towards equality were static I would not be standing here today, and the hon. Ladies on our green Benches would not be sitting here today; the civil rights movement in the US would not, in the year I was born, have outlawed segregation in schools and public places; Nelson Mandela would not have been democratically elected in South Africa; homosexuality would not have been decriminalised here in the UK in 1967; and we would not have equal marriage for same-sex couples. We need to continually challenge these norms and things that might be accepted, so we can be sure that equality evolves over time.

Trans people have not been dealt with fairly in this country—they have been marginalised. We know that is wrong, and the motion challenges us to consider what we can do better in the future.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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The right hon. Lady is making a strong speech, and I wholeheartedly support it. Will she join me in praising the work of many public sector organisations, including South Wales Police and the British Army, which has been praised for its work with trans communities and the wider LGBT community? It is by showing leadership in the public sector and through such organisations that we can deliver real equality.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely good point, and our Select Committee inquiry report looks carefully and closely at the challenges that public sector organisations face. I have to say that we found some were able to cope with them better than others. I particularly have been impressed by the way in which the Ministry of Justice has accepted the challenge around trans prisoners. I note the comments the hon. Gentleman makes about the police as well, and I hope other police authorities are able to follow suit.

The Select Committee report covered a huge range of issues, because that is what was required of us, making recommendations on hate crime, gender markings, prisoners and probation, media representation, schools and social care. I welcome the Government’s very positive responses to our report. Perhaps the Minister in her response today can indicate whether the Government have been able to look further at the issues on which the responses were perhaps a little less positive, because Committee members felt very strongly that every single one of the recommendations we put forward had merit and needed to be looked at, although there was a large number of recommendations—more than 70—so it was clearly difficult for the Departments to respond to them all in the time available.

Today is about looking at progress, so I will focus particularly on the strategic and legislative aspects of the Select Committee report, in the full knowledge that the great number of other Members here today will pick up on progress on the recommendations made for the NHS, child protection, offender management and schools.

The Government have committed to a new trans equality action plan to include a review of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 and a cross-Government review of removing unnecessary requests for gender information. All these steps are hugely welcome, but particularly the undertaking to look at training for specialist NHS staff to work in gender identity services, and tackling harassment and bullying of transgender people in education.

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
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The right hon. Lady mentions health, and the constituents who have contacted me felt that was an area of great inequality. Does she think it is a disgrace and very worrying that 54% of trans people have been told by their GPs that they do not know enough about trans-related healthcare to even provide it?

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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One of the problems we uncovered through the evidence we gathered was that many doctors felt as disempowered as the hon. Lady implies, owing to a lack of training and, perhaps, continuous professional development in this area. However, I should say in response to her intervention that there were also some people who said that whenever they went to the doctor, even if it was somebody who had just a little knowledge, their transgender identity was always at the heart of the response they got from the NHS. We need to make sure that doctors understand the health issues transgender people have to deal with, but also acknowledge that not every health condition they have will be related to their trans identity. That is an important point to make at this juncture.

Mike Weir Portrait Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP)
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A constituent of mine came across a particular problem because she had reassignment surgery before the Gender Recognition Act 2004 came into effect. Fifteen years later, when she tried to get a gender reassignment certificate, she was asked for a great deal of information that was no longer available. The surgeon who had performed the operation was dead, the records were no longer available, and she had a terrible time trying to get the information. Surely that is unfair.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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The hon. Gentleman highlights one of many problems with the Gender Recognition Act. That is why our Committee asked for an urgent review of it, and I am heartened to note that the Government have indicated they understand the sort of problem he outlined, and many others as well, and the very medicalised nature of the process people are asked to go through. That process is talking about something very personal, which is an individual’s identity. It is not something I would particularly like to be discussed by medics and lawyers in some room and in a very technical and quasi-judicial way. One of the recommendations of our report was self-declaration in that respect.

The other part of the Government’s response that I was heartened to read, as it is important for us in terms of planning for the future, was about the need to get the data right in this regard by better measuring the number of trans people in the UK, and also better monitoring people’s attitudes. If we are really going to tackle inequality in this area and really ensure trans people are able to enjoy the equality we all voted for in the Equality Act 2010, we need to make sure that we take the public with us and that there is the cultural change that is needed.

Perhaps today in her response, the Minister—who has been extremely generous with her time, thinking about these issues and talking to the Committee about them—will tell the House what issues in the 2011 action plan remain unaddressed, and what the status of the new plan is—when will it be published and how will the Government monitor its implementation? If we start to see this sort of certainty, trans people will have more confidence in the fact that not just the Government but public services are starting to get to grips with the issues they have to tackle on a daily basis.

The Gender Recognition Act was pioneering in its time. We criticised it slightly a few moments ago, but it was put on a pedestal as being pioneering—albeit a little late for the constituent of the hon. Member for Angus (Mike Weir). Now it needs updating, however. In particular, concern was voiced to us about the medicalised, quasi-judicial application process that is used. The Government have undertaken to conduct a review of the Act, and perhaps to de-medicalise the process and, as the previous Equalities Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), said, to

“overturn an outdated system and ensure the transgender person’s needs are at the heart of the process.”

Again, I was very heartened by that very positive response from the then Equalities Minister in July of this year.

Where is that review at the moment? Has the process been streamlined and de-medicalised, as indicated in the response to our report? Will the Government be considering again the Committee’s recommendations around the principle of self-declaration, which I believe would again put this country at the forefront of trans rights on the global stage, so that again we will be leading, as I believe we would like to as a country, on all LGBT rights?

Finally, I want to talk about primary legislation underpinning the rights of trans people. In our report, the Select Committee made the simple recommendation to change the terminology in the Equality Act by making the protected characteristic “gender identity” rather than “gender reassignment”. The Committee was concerned that, based on the evidence and on the legal advice that we took, the current wording does not adequately protect wider categories of people. It provides for trans people in the process of undergoing gender reassignment, but not the many people who may not have clear legal protection—those who do not live full-time in their preferred gender, non-binary or intersex people, or perhaps children whose gender identity is less well-developed than that of an adult.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has recommended that a broader definition would be clearer and give more certainty. The current wording is outdated and confusing, and we believe that our proposed change would be in line with the Yogyakarta principles and with resolution 2048 of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The Government have not yet accepted this recommendation, but the Minister has undertaken to keep it under review. Will she update the House today and look carefully at the Bill that I have just presented to the House with the support of other hon. Members?

To get things right, we need the right laws, the right strategy and the right culture. The report we published in December 2015 revealed serious shortcomings in legal protection for trans people and in the delivery of public services. We need to have a clear direction of travel. Our Committee has set out more than 70 recommendations, and the Government have undertaken a considerable body of work as a result of that. I hope that today’s debate will give a flavour of their direction of travel, in order to provide clear optimism for trans people in this country. I hope that it will also remind Ministers of the human cost of not taking the actions that are needed.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
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I also thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this debate—the first on trans issues in this Chamber. It was a privilege to have been a member of the Women and Equalities Committee for the inquiry, although I subsequently stood down due to my Front-Bench role.

Many of us have been strong supporters of LGBT rights for many years, but until the Committee’s inquiry I knew relatively little of the extent of the issues facing transgender people. We heard moving accounts of people’s transitions and subsequent experiences and also from parents who have supported their children through the process of transition. It was also helpful to hear from service providers, academics and health specialists and from those providing representative and advocacy work within and for the trans community. I thank all of them for providing extensive evidence and for responding to our questions.

A cultural shift is going on in this country around issues of gender. There is greater acceptance of gender differences among young people. Our report identified the need for changes in the law and significant cultural, policy and process shifts in the fields of health, criminal justice, education and others. It also revealed that individuals experience high levels of harassment on a daily basis. That harassment can undermine careers, family life, incomes, living standards, access to services, quality of life and physical and mental health. It is no secret that a disproportionally high number of trans people have reported attempting suicide—an extremely sobering and distressing fact. The sooner we advance trans equality through legislative, policy and cultural change in our public institutions, the sooner there will be fewer trans people in the position of wanting to take their life because they are not getting the necessary care and support and the respect they deserve.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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Does the hon. Lady share the concern I felt when I read that the number of hate crimes against trans people has trebled over the past five years? Does she, like me, hope that more will be done on education to ensure that that intolerance is stamped out?

Ruth Cadbury Portrait Ruth Cadbury
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The right hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is an awfully long way to go in the recognition of trans people’s rights. Education is an important part of that. On that issue and others, the Committee discussed the need for adequate, high quality, universal, age-appropriate sex and relationship education in all our schools.

We have seen some progress in trans equality over the past few years. Trans and non-binary characters are actually being played by trans and non-binary actors.

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Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller
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This has been an historic debate and I thank everyone who has taken part for making it such a positive one. Better protecting trans people does not mean diminishing the protections in place for women. It is not a zero-sum game and we should not allow those who attempt to paint it as such, and who try to undermine the position and legitimate rights of trans people, to succeed.

The debate has given the House and the whole country an opportunity to hear about the progress that the Government are making on the treatment of prisoners; on passport gender identification, on which Britain leads the way; and on reducing waiting times for NHS services. My hon. Friend the Minister, a fellow Hampshire Member of Parliament, is to be applauded for the energy, action and positive approach she brings. I look forward to continuing to watch her work unfold, but I also look forward to continuing to press her in the Select Committee on the recommendations.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House notes the UK’s status as a pioneer in legislating for equality for LGBT people; welcomes the Government’s announcement of a new trans equality action plan; and calls on the Government to review its response to the recommendations of the Women and Equalities Committee’s report on Transgender Equality to ensure that the UK leads the world on trans equality rights, in particular by giving unequivocal commitments to changing the Gender Recognition Act 2004 in line with the principles of gender self-declaration and replacing confusing and inadequate language regarding trans people in the Equality Act 2010 by creating a new protected characteristic of gender identity.