Commit to not amending the Equality Act's definition of sex

It has been reported that the Government may amend the Equality Act to "make it clear that sex means biological sex rather than gender." The Government has previously committed to not remove legal protections for trans people, an already marginalised group, but this change would do so.

This petition closed on 15 May 2023 with 138,886 signatures


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Currently, the Act protects trans people from discrimination on the basis of both sex and “gender reassignment”, regardless of whether they have undergone medical transition or hold a Gender Recognition Certificate. It can allow trans people to access single-sex spaces such as DV shelters, bathrooms and hospital wards.

The proposed change would remove a legal protection for trans people and encourage discrimination. We ask the Government to refuse this change to the Equality Act 2010.


Petition Signatures over time

Debate - Monday 12th June 2023

Legislative Definition of Sex

Monday 12th June 2023

(10 months, 1 week ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
16:30
Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Before I call the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) to open the debate, I wish to make a short statement about the sub judice resolution. I have been advised that petitions being debated indirectly relate to two ongoing legal cases in the Scottish courts. Those cases are ongoing and are therefore open to sub judice. Mr Speaker, however, has agreed to exercise the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the sub judice resolution to allow reference to the cases, given the issues of national importance that are raised. I also remind Members that this debate will be conducted with courtesy and respect.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
- Hansard - Excerpts

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 623243 and 627984, relating to the definition of sex in the Equality Act 2010.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I am pleased to open the debate on the petitions on behalf of the Petitions Committee. One petition calls on the Government to update the Equality Act 2010 to make the characteristic of sex refer to biological sex, and the other petition calls on the Government to commit to not amending the Act’s definition of sex.

Opinions about the relationship between biological sex, gender identity and the law divide organisations, political parties, and even family and friends. Many people have told me that this is something that they are afraid to speak of, and some say it should not be discussed at all. Others have told me of how they are relieved and happy that we are finally discussing it in Parliament.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD)
- Hansard - Excerpts

I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way so early on. On her point about people being scared to talk about the subject, is she also aware of people like my constituents, who have written to me to say that they are scared that it is going to be talked about? Whenever such things are spoken about in Parliament, there is then a rise in hatred and violence. I thank you, Mrs Cummins, for your words about being courteous, but does the hon. Member understand the worry there is in some communities that the debate is happening, and would she urge other Members to stay compassionate and open minded?

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
- Hansard - Excerpts

When the hon. Member listens to my speech, I think she will understand the compassion with which I speak. She will also understand that we are in a difficult position: we are legislators, and where there is something that needs to be addressed, as there is in these two petitions, it is down to us to stand up and make that change and have the conversation. It goes with the job, I am afraid.

Members from all parts of the House can model the respectful, adult conversations that are needed across society. We can demonstrate, here at Westminster, that we can freely express and listen to different opinions. This is a set of issues on which views are held profoundly and with good intentions. The nature of this debate means that those views differ across the House, and even within our own respective parties.

I was in education for 20 years before coming to this place. My priority has always been the wellbeing of those in my care, be they adults or children. I am afraid that asking probing and difficult questions to get through issues and problems is in my nature. I will not be cowed when looking out for my constituents, be they lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. The conversations that I get the most out of are the ones where I explore, learn and am able to disagree agreeably.

It is a mark of adult politics not to pretend that we are in perfect agreement on every issue, and Westminster Hall debates like this offer the opportunity for us to explore issues, free from the usual pressures of votes and the instructions of the Whips. This is a debate that will explore the difficult interrelationships that exist between rights, and it will mark the difficult lines between which individuals’ and collective rights are drawn. However, it is for the House to decide the way those rights are formed and how they are interpreted. We are holding this debate on behalf of individual people facing discrimination, and in support of service providers and public servants who have a deep commitment to reducing discrimination and to providing safe and welcoming environments. Our task is to make decisions on the boundary of rights and to take responsibility, rather than passing it on. We may draw different conclusions from historic debates on the legislation, but our responsibility is to make our decisions on what would be the right law to have now.

In order to prepare for the debate, the Committee Clerks arranged for me to meet the petitioners and organisations supporting these two petitions. I thank them all for their time and input. The House of Commons Library has also produced a debate pack that covers the complexity of the legal issues behind the two petitions. I am most grateful to everyone who has spoken to me, because there are two broad positions. Those who support the petition to update the Equality Act say that the law should be clear about the two sexes, and that it was never the intention of the Act to make it difficult or impossible to have sports that are for biological females only; to protect services that are for women, such as domestic violence refuges; to assure an elderly woman or a woman getting a smear test that, when she asks for a female carer or nurse, she has the right to be treated by a biological woman; to provide single-sex spaces where women are undressing and washing; for same-sex-attracted people to have opportunities to associate with each other; and for the public sector equality duty to consider the needs of women separately from those of trans women.

Kate Barker from the LGB Alliance and Julie Bindel and Tamara Burrows from the Lesbian Project, who support the clarification of the Equality Act, explained to me that the protected characteristic of sexual orientation is contingent on the definition of sex as biological, and that the Act did not intend to remove the rights of association for same-sex-attracted lesbians. I heard how, for the lesbians I met, biological sex is fundamental to understanding their rights as same-sex-attracted people, so the grey area that we have is creating ongoing problems for lesbians. If we do not say that “sex” in the Equality Act means biological sex, we may as well scrap the protection of sexual orientation. They said that the protected characteristic of gender reassignment exists. Trans people are able to hold their own separate groups under the protected characteristic and can also associate with lesbian groups already open to them; so the question posed was: why cannot lesbians organise lesbian-only spaces?

The Lesbian Project is an organisation that wants to research and study lesbian lives and survey lesbians. If trans women are included, it renders the research meaningless and pointless. This is not, I was told, about being anti-trans; it was about the bedrock of being a lesbian, and a lesbian is a female attracted to females. It was highlighted that there must be protections for trans people, but not at the expense of women’s rights. It is becoming a barrier to lesbians in coming out, which is a huge problem for them. The question for many is: should women be allowed female-only associations? Should it be easy and straightforward for women to be able to undress, shower and use a toilet in female-only spaces?

Those who want the Equality Act to stay as it is say that trans people are already using services for the opposite sex without concerns, regardless of whether they have a gender recognition certificate or not, and that not allowing them to do so would be harmful and detrimental to their human rights. It is therefore the responsibility of society and lawmakers to ensure that people are able to access opposite-sex facilities, services and sports. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Finn McKay, Robin Moira White, Dr Paul Martin and Nancy Kelley for taking the time to speak to me and to explain the situation for that petition. Where this causes a problem is likely to be very rare, and a transgender person may be excluded on an individualised, case-by-case basis. Some of those arguing for no change to the Equality Act believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, and that therefore—

16:40
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
17:05
On resuming
Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

The debate can now continue up to 7.55 pm.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
- Hansard - Excerpts

Some of those arguing that there should be no change to the Equality Act 2010 believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, and therefore that the protected characteristic of sex includes those who identify as the opposite sex. Some also feel that it is an attack on trans people to think or express disagreement with this belief.

In support of this petition, Nancy Kelley from Stonewall said that she is proud of the Equality Act 2010, that it works really well as “legal sex”, and that it works well to operate trans-inclusive or not spaces, and emphasised how inclusion should be the norm. Defining legal sex as observed at birth would see exclusion rather than inclusion.

I have also had the opportunity to talk to barrister Robin Moira White, who explained to me how this amendment was a blunt instrument; in fact, it was called a sledgehammer that was being presented as a simple solution. Robin told me that, to move forward, there was no need to change the law, but that there was a need for less toxicity and also that this amendment did not consider the anomalous position of a pregnant trans man.

I also spoke to Dr Finn Mackay, who told me about the impact that this change in the law would have on gender non-conforming people. Finn said that she would like to see more case studies from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on single-sex spaces, and she agreed with the Government position and said that the current rhetoric is dangerous. We also need to have better public amenities that work for all people, with inclusion as the default.

Both petitions received over 100,000 signatures, and we will all have constituents who are passionately engaged on either side, as well as service providers that say they badly need clarity about the law, and others who say the current situation is okay for them. It is important that we are having this debate today.

As well as supporters of both petitions, I spoke to the EHRC, whose job it is to protect everyone’s rights and to explain the Equality Act. The EHRC said that the law can be hard to implement—and don’t we know it? Its letter to the Minister for Women and Equalities states:

“A change to the Equality Act 2010 so that the protected characteristic of ‘sex’ means biological sex could bring clarity in a number of areas but potential ambiguity in others.”

Both the Government and the Opposition welcomed the EHRC statement that the current situation merits further consideration and exploration of possible solutions. The EHRC said that

“there is a clear need to move the public debate on issues of sex and gender to a more informed and constructive basis.”

I was told—and I know—that this issue had been bubbling away for many years and was not anything new. In 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee asked the EHRC to create statutory guidance on single-sex spaces, which it published much later, in 2022. However, the guidance placed a large onus on service providers to exclude people who are legal women. It was when this escalated in 2018 that the UK Government and the Scottish Government started talking about proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which started the debate about self ID. They said that the landscape since the Equality Act had changed significantly. There are more gender identities—

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
- Hansard - Excerpts

My hon. Friend is making a good and balanced speech so far. Does she recognise that when the Equality Act was being passed, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman at that time asked our Minister from the Labour party if it was the first step to understanding self-ID and moving towards that? That was in Hansard. This issue was thought about when the Equality Act was being created, and the affirmative response was given to that question at that time.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
- Hansard - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution.

At the moment, there are more gender identities and more trans people who have no intention of getting gender recognition certificates. The Government also said that the situation for people who identify as non-binary is very unclear, and that a change to the legislation would provide clarity and a framework for moving forward. They said, however, that the Government would need to scrutinise how trans people would feel about the change. They also identified the following key areas of concern for the public: NHS and medical treatment, toilets, sport, sport in schools, children’s rights and women’s domestic abuse shelters.

I am talking about a way forward. It has been said that the debate needs to be more informed and constructive. Akua Reindorf said that we need some shared facts in the debate. Baroness Kishwer said that the Government should publish their proposals, and then set up a Joint Committee to look at them first and ask all the questions. She said that would be a sensible approach. She also said that she hoped people would not shoot the messenger. The EHRC provided analysis for the Government, and it is up to parliamentarians to make decisions.

I will move on to the petitioners. One of them, who wished to remain nameless, said to me:

“We want legal protections. We want the conversative government to stop using us a distraction to pull hate away from their failures. But our hopes are not confined to the Equality Act. The main struggle most trans people face is not what legal protections we are afforded post-transition, but access to the means to transition in the first place.”

Maya Forstater, who was also a petition creator, said that the reason she is now trying to clarify the law is so that the law is made clear that sex discrimination and discrimination against transgender people are two different strands of equality protection. That way, employers and service providers will be able to protect individuals against both kinds of discrimination and treat everyone with respect.

In that spirit, I am proud to open this debate. I urge my colleagues to speak openly, fearlessly, and with respect for each other and for the different experiences of people in this country who are looking to us as legislators to take responsibility. I hope that we will have a constructive debate about how the needs and interests of everyone impacted by the Equality Act should be reconciled in legislation.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
- Hansard

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Order. I remind hon. Members that they should bob if they wish to be called. Also, those who wish to speak should have been present when the debate was opened.

00:03
Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Con)
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for opening the debate.

As I see it, the debate on women’s rights is much too important to be left to social media alone. I am a father with two young daughters, so this issue is very close to my heart. I think it is the job of Parliament to ensure that laws are clear and fair; it is our duty. We have an opportunity to protect children, uphold women’s rights, and bring about the beginning of the end, I hope, of the shouting matches and hyperbole, replacing them with some calm and common sense on the issues raised by the petitions.

I know that not everyone will agree with what I am about to say, but that is the point of Parliament. We should all be able to air our views freely and fairly, and the Government should act accordingly. One petition is about a very specific point of law, but the point is widely felt. The legal definition of sex matters in so many areas of life: schools, sports, health, crime and prisons. I want the rules of our society to be safe, clear and fair, for my daughters as much as for women and girls across Britain.

A Policy Exchange report, “Asleep at the Wheel”, found that 60% of schools are not maintaining single-sex sport, 19% of schools are not maintaining single-sex changing rooms, and 28% are not maintaining single-sex lavatories. Such provision at school is essential for the privacy, dignity and safety of pupils. A further Policy Exchange report, “Gender Identity Ideology in the NHS”, found that North Bristol NHS Trust was not willing to guarantee same-sex intimate care or same-sex accommodation to patients, stating:

“These arrangements meet all national standards relating to single sex accommodation.”

That is despite the trust’s biggest hospital recording up to 30 alleged instances of sexual assault against females having taken place on hospital property.

The way I see it is that we need to ask ourselves three questions. Do we want women and girls to be forced or shamed into sharing loos, changing rooms and dormitories with biological men and boys? Do we want women and girls to lose female-only sports, even though we know that the physical advantages of being male relate to sex and not gender identity? Do we want some of the most vulnerable people in our society—children in care homes, patients in hospitals, and women in homeless shelters, rape crisis centres or even prisons—to have the dignity, safety and privacy of single-sex spaces stolen from them?

I say no. But that is what happens if the law is ambiguous about the meaning of sex. I do not want schools, doctors, hospitals to have to lie to me or to other parents because they have been bullied or shamed into thinking that it is bigoted to use clear words. I just want to make a plea for a return to everyday, common-sense language. To be clear, that does not take away from the rights of anyone to live as they choose. The words for people who were born male are men and boys. The words for people who were born female are women and girls. Biologically, males cannot become females and vice versa. That is true whatever pronouns people want to use for themselves, whether they wish to take hormones or have surgery. These are plain, biological facts, but they have become controversial.

Many people tell me that you have to be brave to say those facts. That is wrong; everyone should be able to. But if it is anyone’s job, I believe that it is our job to harness this place to speak out and speak the truth and to stand up for everyone’s rights. That means using clear, accurate, unambiguous words both in our speeches and in the law. Surely no one here wants to take away from anyone’s ability to express themselves as they wish, identify as they feel is right or to live their own life. I do not, but rights come with responsibilities. That is why we must be clear about what it is we are legislating for.

That brings me to the specifics of the proposed amendment in the petition. It concerns the Equality Act, which is the law about discrimination—sex discrimination, age discrimination, religious discrimination and so on. The amendment is primarily about one strand: sex discrimination. The petition asks the Government to clarify in law, for the avoidance of doubt, that the term “sex discrimination” in the Equality Act means what it always has: discrimination because of the sex someone is, male or female. Having a gender recognition certificate does not make biological males female or biological females male, so it does not make a difference when it comes to sex discrimination. That is it. We are just making sure that the Equality Act aligns with reality.

This is not a new principle. It is not about what is said on social media or in the so-called culture wars. In 1597, Edward Coke, the Attorney General, told Parliament that the law cannot do the impossible. The example he used was the law cannot make a man into a woman. I believe that he was right then and that he is right now. Let me be crystal clear: to agree to this amendment does not take away any rights from anyone else. There is already a separate protected characteristic of gender reassignment. Someone covered by that already, rightly, has protection against losing their job or being refused a tenancy or service because of being transgender.

I remember that when my first daughter was born we did not find out the sex before, so there was a 50:50 chance. That is basic biology. We all know what the two sexes are. We all know what sex we are and what sex our children are.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran
- Hansard - Excerpts

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that intersex people exist?

Ranil Jayawardena Portrait Mr Jayawardena
- Hansard - Excerpts

I am sure that the hon. Lady will deal with that in her comments and that she will be staying for the whole debate. I will conclude my remarks so that other Members can have their say. I want to talk about the fact that we all know which sex we are and what sex our children are. We know that the two sexes—male and female—are fundamental to our very existence.

So much has changed for women and girls from the time of Edward Coke 400 years ago, and from even 50 years ago, when sex discrimination was first made unlawful in the United Kingdom. I ask the Minister to ensure that the law does not try and do the impossible. It is up to us. Let us not go backwards. I urge the Government to act now to protect the lives of women and girls.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
- Hansard

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Order. I ask Members to limit their speeches to around five minutes so that everybody can get in.

17:21
Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Mrs Cummins. I am supporting the prayer of the first petition, which is about restoring clarity to the law by specifying that the terms “sex”, “male”, “female”, “man” and “woman” in the Equality Act refer to biological sex and not sex as modified by a gender recognition certificate. My constituency of Edinburgh South West was one of the five constituencies with the highest number of signatories on that petition. The other four were the remaining four Edinburgh constituencies, which indicates the level of concern in Scotland’s capital city about the lack of clarity in the law as it stands, particularly in the light of the debate about self-identification in Scotland.

Given that I have only five minutes, I am going to concentrate on one topic. The petition that I support is not about changing the Equality Act, but about clarifying the Act. The second petition wants to leave the law muddled, and that is in nobody’s interests. The Equality Act attempted to strike reasonable balances between the rights of people with nine different protected characteristics, including sex, sexual orientation and gender reassignment. The protected characteristic of gender reassignment is widely drawn—and rightly so. It is rightly not confined to those who have undergone medical treatment or those who have a GRC. All transgender people are protected against discrimination on the grounds of gender reassignment. That is right, and there is no intention to remove that protection. I would not support any petition that did that.

There is a need for the law to be clarified. That is shown by two recent court cases in Scotland that have gone in opposite directions. The first, which was a decision of the Scottish appeal court, found that the provisions in favour of women by definition exclude those who are biologically male. Another decision of a lower court found that sex is not limited to biological or birth sex, but includes those in possession of a gender recognition certificate. The second decision is not binding on any of the law courts, and is under appeal at the moment. I do not see, however, why women should have to crowdfund to clarify the law that protects them when the Government can use the power built into the Gender Recognition Act by section 23 to resolve the issue and protect everyone’s rights.

Before I go any further, I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. I am on the advisory group of Sex Matters. I do believe that sex matters, and many people agree with me. The Equality and Human Rights Commission agrees with me. The consultation for its strategic plan revealed that out of all protected characteristics, sex was important to the highest proportion of respondents.

Interestingly, last week when the Scottish Government’s independent “Violence Against Women and Girls: Strategic Review of Funding and Commissioning of Services” was published, it recommended that single-sex provision should remain as part of a range of services. One of its interlocutors said

“it is possible to be pro-woman and not anti-anyone else”.

In the short time I have, I want to focus on the right of lesbians and gay men to be same-sex and not same-gender identity attracted, and on our right to freedom of association. The protected characteristic of sexual orientation is contingent on the definition of sex as meaning biological sex. Lesbians, gay men and bisexual people all experience same-sex attraction—that is, attraction based on biological sex, not gender identity. As a lesbian, I think I can speak with some authority on this issue. Gender identity is not relevant to sexual attraction.

In recent years, Stonewall has quietly modified its definition of homosexuality to centre around gender identity and not sex. That was done without the permission of many gay people across the UK. Now that it explicitly includes cross-dressers within the definition of transgender, this means that many males now self-define as lesbians. Under this climate, it is impossible for lesbians to meet and gather openly without men wishing to join us or disrupt our events. In the words of Anne Lister, lesbians

“love and only love the fairer sex”.

It is unacceptable that we should be forced to include men in our groups and our dating pool. Indeed, it is outright homophobia, as lesbians’ sexual orientation is exclusive of males, as it is based on biological sex. I spoke about this during the debate in LGBT History Month and said what a problem this is for lesbians. I quoted my constituent Sally Wainwright, who wrote at length about this in The Times.

I want to say something to hon. Members who will perhaps be influenced by the Equality Network’s briefing in support of the second petition. In Scotland, the Equality Network has lobbied Scottish parliamentarians for self-identification of sex, saying that it has nothing to do with the Equality Act. However, today it is lobbying Members of this Parliament for a position that would annihilate the ability of women to have any clubs or associations that cannot exclude all male people. The Equality Network has in the past lobbied this Parliament to remove the very exemptions in the Equality Act upon which it is relying today.

Members should be aware that while the Equality Network may have a grand, inclusive-sounding name, on this issue it advocates a position based on an extreme interpretation of gender identity theory and not in the interest of same-sex-attracted women like me and my constituent Sally, or indeed women full stop. As my friend Allison Bailey has said, the rights of lesbians are not contingent on us accepting gender identity theory.

It is time that lesbians and the protected characteristic of sexual orientation regained the voice they once had in this Parliament. I am proud to be that voice. I would like to thank the organisations LGB Alliance, Lesbian Labour, the Lesbian Project, and the Women’s Rights Network for supporting me to be that voice. I support the first petition.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
- Hansard

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Order. Before I call Miriam Cates, I have to tell Members that will we have a time limit of five minutes.

17:28
Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)
- Hansard - Excerpts

When the Equality Act was passed in 2010, few doubted that Parliament’s intention was that sex should mean biological sex: either male or female, recorded at birth—an immutable characteristic. However, uncertainty has since arisen, specifically as to whether or not a person with a gender recognition certificate has legally changed their sex for the purposes of the Equality Act. Whatever the law actually says, the extent of the confusion is such that many people now believe that when someone expresses a desire to live as the opposite sex, that person then has a legal right to be treated as if they have changed sex.

This is not an academic argument. It has significant practical and safeguarding implications, as the outstanding work of Policy Exchange’s Biology Matters unit continues to reveal. Take the example of a tribunal brought against Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust last year. A male catering employee known as V, who identified as a trans woman, was given permission to use female changing rooms. When female staff complained about being forced to undress with V—in particular, seeing him naked from the waist down—the issue was raised with V by a female manager. In response, V brought a harassment case against the trust and, unbelievably, won.

Instead of considering whether the manager acted reasonably in being concerned about the exposure of male genitals in the ladies’ changing room, the judge decided that V had been treated differently from another woman. The judge treated V as though his sex was female when the issue was the fact that his body was male. Of course, the women who complained about V were not discriminating against him because of his trans identity, but because he was male, and such discrimination is of course—

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Order. Can I check that this is a concluded case, please?

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is a concluded case.

The women were discriminating against him because he was male, and such discrimination is perfectly within the Equality Act if it is

“a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim”,

which in this case was to protect the integrity of single-sex spaces.

I have nothing but compassion for people whose biological sex is a source of distress; they should of course receive the best evidence-based treatments for gender dysphoria. But while a small number of people rightly have the protected characteristic of gender reassignment, everyone, including trans people, has the protected characteristic of sex—male or female. Where those protected characteristics collide, we must ensure that everyone is protected according to their sex and that proportionate accommodations are made to assist those who do not wish to use the facilities of their sex.

We must clarify the Equality Act to make it clear that sex means biological sex and to ensure that the providers of single-sex services and facilities understand and protect the single-sex nature of the provisions. It is extraordinary that in 2023—a time of unprecedented knowledge—we are arguing about the definition of something that has been known since the dawn of time. The most contentious question of our day has famously become “What is a woman?”—a question that no previous society has felt the need to answer.

Despite the semantic acrobatics employed by some to dodge the question, we all know, instinctively and intrinsically, what a woman is. The sex binary—the biological state of being either male or female—evolved hundreds of millions years ago, before we humans walked the earth. Being able to tell the difference between a man and a woman is not a matter of acquired knowledge. It is as instinctive as being able to tell up from down. Indeed, our survival as a species depends on it; if we want to reproduce, and to protect ourselves and our children, we had better know the difference between a man and a woman.

Men and women are different physically, psychologically, sexually and socially. All civilisations are built on an understanding of these differences, creating structures, rules and boundaries to protect women and children from male violence and to preserve the dignity of both sexes. There is nothing more destabilising to society than to dismantle the legal, social and cultural guardrails that protect women and children by pretending that males become females and vice versa, and allowing that to creep into our law.

While academic elites cave in to aggressive and misogynistic trans activism, ordinary women are frightened to go to hospital, ordinary men fear for the safety of their daughters in public toilets, ordinary children are subjected to a psychological experiment in which they are told they can choose their gender, and ordinary toddlers are used to satisfy the sexual fetish of adult men dressed as eroticised women. Understanding the difference between male and female underpins society, safety and security. We must clarify the Equality Act, and give ordinary people the certainty that our laws can be trusted to protect women and children and that sex means sex.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP)
- Hansard - Excerpts

On a point of order, Mrs Cummins. I feel it is incumbent on me to make a point of order on the fact that trans people are being characterised as predators, and that is deeply undemocratic and deeply worrying. That is not what this debate is about. For the Member to be using such language is unparliamentary. I seek your guidance, Mrs Cummins.

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

That is not a point of order because it is not a matter for the Chair.

Miriam Cates Portrait Miriam Cates
- Hansard - Excerpts

Further to that point of order, Mrs Cummins. In response to the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), I was making the point that the vast majority of sexual predation is by men on women and children. That is what society has evolved to protect against.

Judith Cummins Portrait Judith Cummins (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Lady, but that is not a matter for the Chair. I call Dame Angela Eagle.

00:04
Angela Eagle Portrait Dame Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab)
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is important that we try to detoxify this debate. I do not think the last contribution did so at all. In fact, it was deliberately provocative. I do not recognise anywhere in the Equality Act that there is a mandate on anyone’s dating pool and who should be in it. If people are worried about the law saying who they can date, they are not across the UK legislative system, which has no laws on who they can fancy and who should be in their dating pool. They can trawl wide or narrow across all—

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
- Hansard - Excerpts

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Angela Eagle Portrait Dame Angela Eagle
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No, I will not give way. I have only four minutes. Some Members are putting together things that are deliberately provocative.

I rise to speak in favour of e-petition 627984, which asks the Government to confirm that the Equality Act’s current definition of sex should remain unchanged. I believe that the move to redefine sex as purely biological rather than legal would reduce rather than enhance current protections and create incoherence in the legislation. Paradoxically—perhaps even deliberately—the change would mandate exclusion and discrimination against all trans people, while worsening protections for women and girls. It would practically disapply important parts of the Gender Recognition Act and be in breach of our international human rights obligations. It would take away rights that have been enjoyed for almost 20 years by the small minority of our population who are trans.

Some 7,000 people have a gender recognition certificate. That is who we are afraid of in all this. A change to the Equality Act’s definition of sex to biological sex would have a huge effect on all trans people by effectively mandating their exclusion from public spaces unless they use facilities in their so-called birth gender, which would be humiliating and damaging to them. It would lead to the policing of women’s spaces, which would problematise non-gender-conforming women and girls who are not trans. That is happening now with all the hostility.

The hysterical media coverage that has accompanied this deliberately provoked war on woke has already led to increased policing in public toilets and harassment of non-gender-conforming women by those questioning their right to be there. I have spent my whole political life and my entire time in Parliament working to create greater equality for all and to reduce bigotry and prejudice, and I have always been a committed feminist. The safety of women and the opening up of economic opportunities to them on an equal basis to that for men has always been one of my priorities in politics.

I am also a lesbian. I was only the second out lesbian ever to sit in this place, and the first ever out lesbian Government Minister, so I have had some experience of bigotry, prejudice, misogyny and homophobia—and I recognise a politically induced moral panic when I see one. I also recognise a discredited Government unleashing a culture war for their own divisive ends when I see it. Those seeking to weaponise anti-trans fear for their own purposes have other issues in their sights: principally, inclusive sex education and women’s abortion rights, as we have seen in the USA, where over 400 anti-LGBTQ+ pieces of legislation have been introduced in state legislatures already this year.

The attack on trans people’s rights to exist and to live with respect and dignity in an accepting society is designed as a wedge issue that will open up the others. It is a gateway to wider homophobia, as the steady rise in hostility to LGBTQ+ people in the street attests to. I was around when it happened before in the 1980s with the enactment of section 28, which sought successfully to scapegoat LGBT+ young people and drive them into hiding. It caused untold misery for narrow political ends, wrecking the lives of LGBT+ people for generations. We should not be contemplating doing it again.

The Equality Act is an all-encompassing piece of legislation. It was enacted to advance, consolidate and update the protections of equality law, and it is working very well, but it works by making a blanket presumption against discrimination and exclusion. It specifies some circumstances in which discrimination is lawful so long as the action taken is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. That is a very pragmatic way of deciding on a complex range of issues in each case. If we change the definition, it would upend the Act and mandate exclusion for trans people, which I think is inhumane and unacceptable.

17:37
Angela Richardson Portrait Angela Richardson (Guildford) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. I rise to speak in support of the petition to make the Equality Act clear, and I will start by saying why. It is because I believe that trans people’s rights are human rights and women’s rights are human rights. It is possible to protect both groups in law, and I believe that that is what the Equality Act sets out to do, but one unintended consequence of pulling together a lot of equality and anti-discrimination law into one place is that it is unclear in places, and that lack of clarity is harming people’s rights. We are discussing how to restore clarity in order to uphold the rights of everyone. I have huge respect and sympathy for people who suffer from gender dysphoria or feel they have been born in the wrong body. It is right that the law protects such people from discrimination in employment and in the provision of services under the heading of gender reassignment. It is also right that the law protects everyone, whether or not they have a trans identity, from discrimination in employment and in the provision of services on the basis of their sex.

Gender reassignment and sex are two different characteristics—both important in their own ways, and separately protected. The census suggests there may be more than 100,000 people in the country who identify as transgender, compared with around 5,000 who hold a gender recognition certificate. All those transgender people are protected in the same way on the basis of gender reassignment, which is widely drawn. They have the same protected characteristics, which includes people who are at the start of their personal transition and people who have identified as trans for decades; people who have taken cross-sex hormones and had surgery, and people who have not or do not intend to; and people who pass as the other sex in some situations and people who do not. All of these people are protected equally. None has more or less rights than any of the others.

In today’s debate, it is important that we remember what the Equality Act is and what it is not. It is the law that gives recourse to anyone who is treated unfairly by employers and service providers of all sorts because of their protected characteristics, and it is the law when it is reasonable and right for employers and service providers to treat people differently on the basis of their protected characteristics. Those employers and service providers—from pubs and gyms to hospitals and shops—cannot operate without clear rules and policies that accommodate all sorts of different people fairly and to the greatest extent they can. They need to be able to explain their rules on their signs and websites, on the phone and to staff. That means being clear about where there are sex-based rules and where a service is provided for both sexes together.

The protected characteristic of gender reassignment does not give someone the right to use opposite-sex facilities or services. It requires service providers to consider how they can properly accommodate trans people—not just trans people with a gender recognition certificate, but all trans people: all those who are covered by gender reassignment. They cannot do this fairly by treating trans people with and without a gender recognition certificate differently. Anyway, it is not practical and, in some cases, it is not even lawful to ask if someone has a GRC. In simple terms, the law needs to facilitate: that employers and service providers offer separate facilities for male and female people in situations where sex matters, like toilets, changing rooms, dormitories and so on; and that they do their level best to accommodate people who do not feel comfortable in communal facilities for their own sex, without undermining the privacy and dignity of people of the opposite sex. That usually means a third unisex option. At this point, I must say that it does not mean converting the ladies’ loos, for instance, into unisex and leaving the number of men’s loos intact, as I have seen happen.

Being a trans woman is a very specific experience and it brings some challenges. Likewise, being born a woman is a very specific experience that also brings challenges. Both groups need and deserve fair and appropriate support and provisions, and protections against discrimination on the basis of their protected characteristics. That means being clear—being clear about what sex means and being clear that it is not the same as gender reassignment or having a transgender identity. That is the right and compassionate way to ensure fairness and dignity for everyone.

17:43
Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips (Birmingham, Yardley) (Lab)
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The status quo is not working. People who are speaking in the debate probably feel anxious about doing so, and that is not a status quo that I recognise—for those of us on either side, if we have to have sides.

Sex and gender are different. I have never met a trans person who denied that over the years of having robust debate with them. In my life, the discrimination I have suffered at the hands of establishments, rather than just everyday sexism, has always been exclusively because of my biology. The obvious examples I could give are related to pregnancy. I was told not to bother to turn up for interviews because of pregnancy scan appointments, and that I was too young to decide whether I wanted to be sterilised at the age of 28, whereas my husband, just three years older than me, was allowed to make that decision without anyone batting an eyelid. I had to get two doctors to sign a thing to say that I could have an abortion. My biology really matters to me, and I have been treated poorly because of it. However, after making that point, I stress that my remarks will be about the issue of single-sex spaces and the safety of women. I am probably alone in this room as being somebody who has run single-sex spaces and used the part of the Equality Act that we are here to debate.

We all know that men’s violence against women and girls happens to women. Of course violence happens to men and, frankly, if someone needs services because they are a victim of domestic or sexual violence, I do not care which category they fall into—they are 100% entitled to expect access to those services. But the Equality Act has to allow for the fact that we need different kinds of services for different people’s needs, understandably. The Equality Act is a carefully balanced piece of legislation that recognises that women and men—let us be honest, it is less men—need protection from sex discrimination. As part of that, women need to be able to have separate services, associations, charities and sports.

The majority of victims of domestic violence are women, and they are much more likely to be seriously hurt or killed. We must be really careful to protect our intricate and finely balanced services for women. I am already seeing again and again that specialist women’s services are being decommissioned in favour of generic support services that have an all-or-nothing approach. This has almost nothing to do with trans people initially; it is entirely to do with the fact that they are expected to support men’s services as well. Services are being decommissioned, and there are situations where perpetrator and victim are in the same service. That is happening across the country. It is utterly devastating, and the Government should be looking at commissioning women-only spaces in the Procurement Bill, which we are debating tomorrow. I look forward to hearing everybody who stands up and fights for women-only services today saying the same thing and that they do not want the free hand of the market to decide. They should say that they want specialist women-only services, because the Government refused to put the word “woman” in the Domestic Abuse Bill and the Online Safety Bill—it is funny how they are keen on it now. I shall be pushing everybody who speaks in this debate to vote on that basis tomorrow.

Organisations are afraid of not getting funding and of authorities thinking that they have to have an all-or-nothing approach. It is a reality that we are already seeing. Part of the problem is the confusion and fear about the law. Believe me, it is our role as parliamentarians to sort that out, no matter how hard it might be. It cannot be left to the courts, and it cannot be left to individual women’s services to muddle through and fight legal battles. Believe me when I say this happens, because it happened to my organisation when we refused to interview a man for a job. These are small organisations with very little in the way of support.

The public service equality duty is one of the most important parts of the Equality Act, and it requires public service providers to consider the needs of different groups. When I was a commissioner of services on Birmingham City Council, I insisted on the commissioning of domestic abuse services for LGBT victims, and on having specialist services for south Asian women where I live. I think we should have specialist services for disabled people, because they have specific needs. At the moment, I feel that we are leaving some smaller organisations in a difficult situation. Along with Women’s Aid nationally, I believe that we should be able to provide sex-only services and that other services must be available.

17:49
Peter Bottomley Portrait Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)
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I have learned a lot from most of the speeches, especially the last one. Anyone who has missed the annual reading of the list of women killed by men should attend it.

I am indebted to two authors. One is Helen Joyce, who wrote the book “Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality”. People are mistaken if they think that those of us speaking in favour of clarity in the law are in any sense transphobic, or that any word or sentence in this book is that.

The second book is by Kathleen Stock, who was a professor at the University of Sussex, the county that my constituency is in. She wrote “Material Girls: Why Reality Matters for Feminism”. I first became conscious of her dilemmas when I read a remark by a man called Liam Hackett, who accused her publicly of being a “dangerous extremist”. There is not a sentence in the book that can be regarded as transphobic.

Liam Hackett was given an honorary degree by the University of Sussex in his 20s. He created and ran—and, as far as I know, still does—an anti-bullying charity called Ditch the Label, yet he is publicly a bully of a fine academic who should be supported, not condemned. I could, of course, have brought along one of J. K. Rowling’s books too, but in five minutes I cannot give a full literary review.

Chapter 8 at the end of Kathleen Stock’s book is called “A Better Activism in Future”. She recommends being more non-binary; that people stop changing the subject when these discussions come up; being more intersectional; and having less theory, and more data—or, to expand on that, she says:

“Use less academic (high) theory, more academic data”.

She gives a whole list of issues on which we ought to have information.

Kathleen Stock was writing her book when the questions were being created for the 2021 census, which brought in something on trans identity. The question was written in such a way that the place where there seemed to be most trans people was east London, but the question was misunderstood. It is ludicrous that although we search for data, we cannot have proper data.

First, we ought to recognise that no one I know is transphobic. Secondly, having gender questions matters. Discussing trans issues matters. When sex and gender clash, sex should be dominant.

I end with two examples that are well known to everybody. Why should a cyclist who is the 500th fastest in his age group or category be allowed to declare themselves a woman, and win a women’s cycling race? There is no justification for that. There never was, and there never will be.

The second issue, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) pointed out, is that in prisons, hospitals and refuges, and when it comes to personal care, people should have the opportunity for, and an expectation of, same-sex services.

For most things, of course, sex does not matter; it does not come into it. My pronouns—the ones I normally use—are you, we, I. We do not have to go around saying, “I am he and him” the whole time. I answer to “Hi!” or any loud cry.

I hope that this debate will help to illuminate the fact that Parliament is taking the issue seriously. One or two people who have intervened have given the impression that those who speak as I do are in some way against trans people. That is not so.

17:53
Rosie Duffield Portrait Rosie Duffield (Canterbury) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I rise to speak in favour of clarifying the Equality Act 2010; that will not exactly be a shock to anyone here. The debate over trans rights and women’s rights has become toxic in recent years, partly because the law as it stands is not clear. In fact, without doubt, this is one of the most toxic issues that politicians and campaigners will ever have been involved in. I experienced some pretty terrible online abuse at the height of the antisemitism crisis in the Labour party, but I almost look back on those days fondly, given the spite, vitriol, constant attacks, name calling, trolling and defamation that I face personally every single day, along with women’s groups and my friends whose names are in the media.

If you talk to ordinary people—elected politicians do so most days—they will tell you that women as a group need protection in law, and trans women also need protection, but these are not the same groups. That was recognised in the Equality Act when it was passed. The Act was one of the last measures of the last Labour Government, of course. It was the outcome of 14 years of campaigning by equality and human rights organisations. It is carefully balanced, and it had cross-party support for nearly all its provisions. It is something that we can be rightly proud of as a country, and it is a law that protects against sex discrimination and transgender discrimination—separately, because they are not the same thing.

We know that one in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner. Forty-one per cent of women provide care for their children, grandchildren or older and disabled people, compared with 25% of men. Around 90% of single parents are women. Men are almost twice as likely to be a manager, director or senior official than women, and only one third of MPs are women despite us making up over 51% of the UK’s population.

Because of those and other differences in men’s and women’s lives, we need to be able to monitor sex discrimination and provide for the needs of women and girls, particularly when they are most vulnerable. The Equality Act is the law that allows for that, but confusion within and about the Act has led to a toxic debate where people have become terrified even to talk about women’s rights—but not all people.

Since I started speaking up, I have had so many women and men write to me to say thank you. Many have written to say that they are frightened to speak up for women’s rights. They include women and men who work in jobs where it is extremely important that they are able to be clear about the difference between male and female, and about who women are and who men are. They include people whose jobs involve safeguarding children—headteachers, teachers and social workers. They include people who work in healthcare—nurses, told that they should ensure that hospital accommodation is in single-sex bays for men and women, but also that they should allow people to choose which sex they want to be housed as. They include women who work in domestic violence shelters, who are terrified of being sued or losing their job if they make it clear that those are female-only spaces. They include female athletes who want their sport to be fair but are afraid to speak up because of the response that they will get.

This was not the world that the Equality Act was meant to create. It was meant to continue from the Sex Discrimination Act 1975, to ensure that men and women were treated equally while single-sex services, sports, associations and charities could be safeguarded. Instead, it is being used to stop people talking about sex—not gender—and sex discrimination.

The Equality Act was also meant to ensure that organisations should treat trans people fairly and with sensitivity as employees and customers. But that did not mean requiring other people to pretend that they believe that being trans—for example, being born male and perhaps changing name and clothes, and maybe taking hormones or even having some physical surgery—is the same as being a woman.

The Gender Recognition Act was passed to allow trans people to obtain legal status to marry in their acquired gender and to be treated as male or female for the purpose of pensions. It was not, however, intended to provide an access-all-areas pass to single-sex services, associations, schools, colleges, sports or charities.

We really need to offer clarity on the law. It is the only way. Clarity would mean that we could treat all people with respect. The UK has led the way on equality law, and it can do so again by finding a grown-up way through this debate on trans rights and women’s rights. Until we do so, I will continue to speak up, death threats or not.

17:57
Nick Fletcher Portrait Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. As we have heard, the petitioners want to make a simple amendment to clarify the Equality Act with regard to the interpretation of the word “sex”. That clarification would prevent serious problems from continuing. We are in a position where some biological males believe that they have a right to enter single-sex spaces—female changing rooms. I suspect that when many think of that they think of a grown man—a trans woman—entering a grown woman’s space. That to me is obviously wrong, but my real concern is what happens when a six-year-old girl is in that changing room—somebody’s daughter, somebody’s granddaughter, somebody’s niece. It just is not right.

[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]

I want to make an aside—hon. Members will see where I am going with it. I worked in construction most of my life. Health and safety has taken a real turn for the better over the last 30 years. We now report near misses—where an accident could have happened, but luckily did not. A tripping hazard may have been seen, or an oil spill. We do that to learn, and to prevent accidents from taking place. We put items only in designated areas, and prevent the spill or have spill kits on hand. That does not mean that everyone was going to trip or slip, but some might have. We learn from near misses and prevent accidents. I think we would all agree that that is wise.

While our construction sites are getting safer—well done to those in the Opposition for bringing in health and safety legislation—our single-sex spaces are not. Let us do what we need to do to clarify the Equality Act and ensure that no biological male can enter that six-year-old girl’s changing room. To me, that would be excellent legislation, and a must—a near miss reported to stop tragedy happening. That does not mean every biological male going into a female changing room is a danger, like not everyone was going to trip or slip, but some might be, so we should say no and prevent the possibility of something bad happening. That is why I support the petition and hope the Government will, too.

We can also use the analogy of a near miss when it comes to women’s sport. If we do not make this change right now, we could quite easily end up with no women’s sport. Many young girls will see what is happening—biological males winning in female sports, or perhaps a woman or girl being injured—and think, “What’s the point in trying?” Let us sort out the Equality Act right now and protect our women’s sport for good.

If we can stop the use of new gender pronouns in schools, we will stop many issues for our young people later in life, too. I am glad that we have been able to discuss this near miss today. I hope we can learn from it and prevent the tragedies that could follow if we do not.

Let me assure all those who think it is unfair that I believe we need to help and support those with gender dysphoria and treat them with respect, too. But we need to do so while respecting other rights, and I feel that I have to stand up for the six-year-old girl in the changing room confronted with a 50-year-old male who is going through a tough time. I am standing up for the nine-year-old who wants to stand in first place at the Olympics but thinks, “What’s the point?” when a biological man will be there in her place.

I am standing up for the 12-year-old allowed to use pronouns at school who is being sold a story that she can be something that she never can. I am thinking of her after her transition, when she wakes up one morning when she is 25 and realises that she can no longer have children. She is growing facial hair, her health is generally poor, her bone density is down, her voice has broken, she has no real friends, and she has probably fallen out with mum, who is now broken for letting her take those puberty blockers and hormone replacement tablets. I am thinking of that girl sold a lie by the influencers who have now moved on to another ideology to make them money. No—in this place, we have to make the hard decisions to protect the vulnerable. I know the Government will make the right decision and clarify the Equality Act.

18:03
Nia Griffith Portrait Dame Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab)
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The Equality Act 2010 protects against direct and indirect discrimination, but there has always been provision in the Act for different treatment where it is a proportionate means to a legitimate aim—that is, different provision for those whose sex is assigned at birth and those whose legal sex has been acquired through a gender recognition certificate.

For example, although I know of one rape crisis service that has been providing women-only services for 30-years, and uses trans-inclusive language and has been trans-inclusive for 30 years, many other organisations providing services for those who have suffered domestic violence use the current provision in the Equality Act to provide exclusive services for those whose sex at birth was female.

Decisions about who can compete in sports can be made by sporting bodies as appropriate for the sport, and I do not understand why so many Members do not seem to have understood that. Obviously, rugby is totally different from chess. Those decisions are made by the appropriate bodies.

The Gender Recognition Act 2004, in combination with the Equality Act, currently defines someone’s legal sex as either the sex they were assigned at birth or the sex they have acquired through having a gender recognition certificate under the GRA. As I have illustrated, the Equality Act allows for different treatment of people whose legal sex has been acquired through a gender recognition certificate and people whose sex is assigned at birth, as long as the action is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.

If there is a change, as has been suggested, from the current definition in the 2010 Act to a definition based on biological sex, that would create a blanket ban on trans people from services that they had previously enjoyed without concern or complaint, even when it cannot be said to be a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. The change would remove the current protection from discrimination for people in possession of a gender recognition certificate and undermine the Gender Recognition Act, leading to people being treated as if they had not changed their sex.

Unfortunately, this debate has often been portrayed as a matter of whether trans women should be allowed to use women’s toilets. First, we have had the GRA since 2004, and trans women have been using women’s toilets without complaint. Most of us have probably never even noticed. As we know, we have individual cubicles, so everyone has their privacy.

Even more unfortunately, there has been a conflation, even by Members in this debate, of a trans woman and somebody who is a criminal. We know perfectly well that there are police who are criminals and carry out heinous acts, but that does not mean that all police officers are criminals. It is exactly the same. Someone could impersonate a meter reader or a council worker, say, and go to a house to try to gain entry by false means. Why the idea that someone can dress up as a woman and therefore carry out whatever criminal act they intend to should determine how we decide to treat trans women is absolutely indecipherable to me.

To those people who genuinely feel that they do not want to discriminate against trans people, I want to make it clear just how hurtful that suggestion is to many trans people. They feel that they will be completely obliterated—that they will no longer exist, that they will no longer have the right to recognition. They have so many challenges in life—challenges with their family, challenges at work, challenges with their social life—

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell
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I commend the hon. Lady for making a passionate and common-sense contribution to the debate. I am sure she agrees that some of what we have heard today is just feeding into the moral panic; some of the arguments are just cut and pasted from what gay and lesbian people faced decades ago. Does she agree, as a lesbian, that trans people do not threaten us? In fact, they enhance our existence.

Nia Griffith Portrait Dame Nia Griffith
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Absolutely. As a fellow lesbian, I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady; they are absolutely not a threat. More importantly than that, they need our support now more than ever.

18:07
Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer (Northampton South) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir George.

I want to talk about a specific situation in which clarity about the meaning of “sex” is utterly essential—a situation in which it is vital that everybody knows what the words “male” and “female” mean, and in which it is vital that those words have their natural meanings: the immutable binary characteristic that all humans, and indeed all mammals, possess from the beginning of their life to the end of it.

Kerry McCarthy Portrait Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab)
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer
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I will follow the example of the hon. Lady’s colleague, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle), and not give way.

I also want to talk about the consequences when there is a lack of clarity and about what happens when our laws mix up material, concrete, physical realities with words and claims about identity. The reason I want to do that is because the consequences can be horrific. When legislators make a mistake, it is ordinary people who suffer. Our laws have to be clear. In situations where sex matters, it is sex that matters.

People can identify however they like, so long as claims about their identity do not injure other people. But injuring other people is what is happening now, because our laws have drifted away from reality and in the process have got muddled. It is well past time to return to clarity and reality, and doing that means clarifying that when the Equality Act says “sex”, it really means sex. We are at a juncture where we have to draw a line in the sand of competing claims.

I ask my honourable colleagues to think of a stark but perfectly commonplace example of a situation where sex matters—that of a woman who is having a gynaecological procedure. Perhaps she is having a cervical smear test, or she needs an hysteroscopy, in which a camera is passed through her vagina and cervix into her uterus. For such procedures, she must take her clothes off from the waist down and be touched intimately. Many, many women are unwilling to go through such procedures except with female health workers. Some women have specific reasons; they are survivors of sexual assaults, or their religion requires them to avoid intimate contact with any man except their husband. Others are simply setting their own boundaries on the basis of what is comfortable for them, and their feelings about privacy and dignity are perfectly normal and a sound basis for them to grant or withhold consent. Here is the stark question in clear language: is a man who identifies as a woman a satisfactory person to provide care to a female patient who has stated that she is willing to undergo such a procedure only at the hands of another woman?

Here is what the NHS Confederation said in guidance sent around the country last week: despite the express wishes of the patient, that man is a suitable person to provide care to that woman. His feelings about his identity override the material reality of intimate contact with her body. They override her privacy, her dignity, her boundaries and her consent, and if she complains, she is transphobic and may be asked to leave the hospital or surgery. If her relatives speak up for her, they may be removed. All of that is dressed up in the language of gender identity. The patient has no rights to know the health worker’s gender identity. It is not the identity of this man, however, that the woman is concerned about; it is his sex.

The NHS Confederation is not an outlier. The British Medical Association, which regulates doctors, says that patients have no rights to be told a healthcare worker’s assigned sex at birth. However, sex is not assigned at birth: sex is observed at birth, as determined by conception. Moreover, if a patient has asked for a carer of the same sex as them, according to the BMA it is the comfort of the staff member that should be prioritised.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer
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No—yes, sorry.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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Does the hon. Member agree that the guidance he is reading out is simply wrong in law, and that to force a woman to accept a male-bodied person to carry out her intimate care is a breach not just of the Equality Act but of that woman’s rights under articles 8 and 3 of the Human Rights Act 1998?

Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer
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That is exactly right, and it is why this clarity is needed. Here is another quote from BMA guidance:

“A patient does not have a right to know if a healthcare worker has a gender different to the sex they were assigned at birth.”

In other words, the patient has no right to know whether the person treating them is the same sex as them. That is heartless beyond words. We are talking about a woman who may be worrying about serious illness and is feeling exposed and vulnerable. Professional bodies are instructing healthcare providers to gaslight her. They are saying that it is perfectly fine for a man to touch her unclothed private parts when she has refused that, because of how he identifies. As the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said, it is more than heartless, it is illegal. If a man provides such care to a woman who says that she is only willing to receive it from another woman, it is a sexual assault.

Have we reached the point where medical associations are instructing care providers to sexually assault women in the name of inclusion? That is why it is essential that the meaning of sex in the Equality Act is made much clearer, in order to end this and save lives.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
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Order. The hon. Gentleman has exceeded the time limit. Can he give one line by way of a conclusion before I move to the next speaker?

Andrew Lewer Portrait Andrew Lewer
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I have finished.

18:13
Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
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In the spirit of calm and cool debate, I will say clearly my view on this matter, just as those opposite have: trans men are men, trans women are women, and being non-binary is valid. I am proud to be Plymouth’s first out Member of Parliament; I am probably not Plymouth’s first gay Member of Parliament, but I am certainly the first one to proudly say so before they put themselves forward for election. That gives me a special responsibility to speak up for those people whose voices are not always heard in this place.

Changing the Equality Act is unnecessary, unworkable and unfair. When we talk about biological sex, we are talking about the sex assigned at birth. That means that there is a real complication and a potential assault on people with intrusive medical tests to look at their biological sex at birth rather than where they are today. As mentioned earlier, it also ignores intersex people, who make up a substantial portion of our population.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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Will the hon. Member give way?

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
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I will carry on if I may. Single-sex services can and do exclude trans women at the moment, using the law as it stands. Changing the definition of sex is unnecessary to achieve that policy aim. Indeed, the majority of the examples used around the room in this debate so far are already covered by the Equality Act. I am worried that the debate and the direction of travel in which this can take us could lead to a roll-back of hard-won rights for the LGBT+ community and will potentially exclude more trans people from public spaces and allow discrimination to go unchallenged.

I want to hear more trans voices in the debate and I would like us to spend as much time talking about trans people’s access to healthcare as we spend talking about trans people’s rights to use a toilet. In the south-west at the moment, the waiting list to access trans healthcare is seven years—it is seven years. That is a disgraceful amount of time. I challenge all those people who spend so much time focusing on toilets to spend as much time focusing on healthcare and the delays in the system in order to achieve a fair place for us all. Let me say this clearly: the carefully crafted words that suggest that trans people accessing the toilets or changing rooms that they are legally allowed to access makes them a sexual predator are disgusting and wrong. What that does is contribute to a rise in hate against people. One of my friends, who describes herself as a butch lesbian, has been asked to leave toilets countless times. All she wants to do is go for a wee. But she has been asked to leave toilets countless times because of a rise in hate. She was born a girl; she is now a proud woman—a proud lesbian. But the rise in hate in the debate and around our country means that she worries about going to the toilet because of what other people may think of her. That is not right.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
- Hansard - Excerpts

I will carry on if I may, because I am running out of time. It is important that we defend the Equality Act, because there are so many examples that are already covered by the Equality Act; it is important that we all look carefully at it. I appreciate that some MPs have wanted to have this debate for quite some time—wanted to have a debate about biological sex. But what I hope we can all agree on is that the right of trans people to exist, to be authentically themselves and to thrive should not be up for debate. This is why we have to be careful. We need to ensure that the debate in this country does not go down the path of how we are seeing the debate develop in America. What happened in America—we can see this—is that first they came for trans people; then they came for the rest of the LGBT+ community. As we see from the 400 pieces of legislation—

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
- Hansard - Excerpts

Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
- Hansard - Excerpts

I will carry on if I may. We need to be very cautious: that is not to say that everyone in the debate here has made that case, but that is the direction of travel, especially when hate is bubbling in our environment.

The final thing I want to say is that for the trans and non-binary people watching this debate, it is important that one of us says, “I see them. I hear them. They should be loved and supported. They should be protected in law. And there is a way through to make sure that that can happen sensibly”—

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
- Hansard - Excerpts

What about the women?

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard
- Hansard - Excerpts

Well, there are trans and non-binary women and trans and non-binary men and trans and non-binary folks as well, and shockingly there are women and men in the LGBT wider community, so let us ensure that we are embracing inclusion in this, because the truth is that rising hate and discrimination makes all our lives worse, but in particular it makes the lived experience of trans and non-binary people much worse through attacks, discrimination and hate.

18:18
Tim Loughton Portrait Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
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I think many people find it extraordinary that we are having a debate on having to redefine sex in the Equality Act, but people will find it even more extraordinary that some speakers have warned us against having this debate in this place—supposedly, people are frightened about having this debate. There is a problem. That problem has been due to the conflation of sex and gender, and it is this place that rightfully needs to put it right. It is up to us as parliamentarians to speak out—as the opening speaker said, openly, fearlessly and respectfully, and, I hope, also without fear of being cancelled, of appearing in an Oxfam cartoon or of being described as weaponising this important subject.

There is currently confusion about how the Equality Act operates in relation to sex. That is jeopardising the provision of single-sex and separate-sex services allowed for by the Act, including in hospital wards, care provision, sports and schools, as we have heard. Amending the Act to ensure that references to “sex” mean biological sex would resolve that confusion for everyone concerned. It is about clarification, not change. It does not remove the rights of transgender people. They are protected from discrimination on the basis of gender reassignment, which comes under a protected characteristic in the same Act.

The clarification would make it simpler to provide single-sex services and accommodation. It would provide clarity for single-sex associations, including charities, women’s refuges and sports associations. It would also provide clarity to schools, which is increasingly becoming an issue. All of that can be done using section 23 of the GRA without the need for new primary legislation.

I support the first petition to make the Equality Act clearer for several reasons. I echo what other hon. Members have said, but I will talk about one particular application of the Act, which is to allow clear and fair women’s sport, and to ensure it gets the support that it needs. It is just over a decade since London hosted the world’s greatest sporting spectacle, the Olympics, when Team GB did us proud. Since then, one sport after another has allowed male-born athletes who later identify as women to compete as women. Around 60 governing bodies have opened up the female category to male athletes, who benefit from all the physical advantages of testosterone during puberty. Incredibly, that includes some combat sports such as wrestling and judo, which are very physical.

The entire purpose of competitive women’s sport is to allow girls and women to compete fairly, like against like, and to recognise and reward female excellence. That is why we have separate Paralympic games, and separate categories within them to reflect the abilities of certain people. We also do not hear much about transgender men competing in male sport. We know that males are bigger, stronger, faster. During puberty, testosterone broadens their shoulders, and makes their bones and muscles larger and far stronger. There is no way to undo those changes. They are so advantageous in sport that in every single track and field event, the women’s world record has been surpassed many times not just by elite male athletes but by teenage boys.

UK law allows women’s sport to be restricted to females. Even transgender males who have a gender recognition certificate stating that their sex is female can lawfully be excluded from women’s sport, as recently confirmed by the EHRC. However, sporting regulators have said they worry that even with the law behind them, they risk vexatious, costly legal actions and being dragged on social media for being transphobic and exclusionary. A legal opinion commissioned by UK Athletics alerted the body to those risks; it wants to exclude all males from female sports but worries that it will get sued. Sports organisations also worry that they might not be covered by the exclusion that relates to competition when it comes to other parts of sport: training, handing out funding, running recreational sports and providing facilities such as changing rooms.

Last year, the UK sports councils looked at the science, and concluded that it is categorically unfair to allow males into female sport. However, the campaign group Fair Play for Women still knows of men competing in women’s events. In English football, there are around 50 such males. A 30-something male was selected as goalkeeper for the British universities team. In individual sports such as cycling and running, women have lost medals and prizes to males identifying as female.

This is an issue not just for elite sports, but at the junior level. Parents worry that their daughters will get injured on the field playing with bigger, stronger, heavier boys who identify as girls. Faced with such unfairness and risk, women and girls vote with their feet. A measure that is described as “inclusive” actually means that girls and women are excluded from their own competition. This week we have heard about the English women’s angling team. In swimming, many women, including those who have had breast cancer and Muslim women, want female-only sessions, but now they can find a male “woman” in the changing room and in the pool with them. I pay tribute to Sharron Davies for all her work in this area.

It is not fair on women and girls who spend years training in their sport, only to have it snatched away by competing against somebody who is biologically different. We owe it to the amazing women of Team GB to sort out this issue, and we owe it to every girl who dreams of being on the podium one day, like the women who are their sporting heroes. I support the first petition.

00:05
Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is always difficult to talk about these sensitive issues. By and large, apart from some exceptions, we have managed to do it in a calm manner today. I have not always been the calmest on this issue, because it is difficult when we are talking about people’s lives from all sides. Last time I spoke in this Chamber about some of these issues, people who were in the room then spread lies about me wanting to teach BDSM to children and so on. They were horrible, pernicious lies that were put on Twitter and caused a lot of hate. I think it is important to note that there has been a lot of hate and angst outside of this room directed at politicians on all sides of the debate. It is totally unhelpful. It is also probably unhelpful to say, “It’s just me, your honour”, because all of us have had really horrible times. I think it is important to start by saying that. We need to defuse that, and I will try to take the lead and do that myself.

What we have heard today is a set of cherry-picked case studies of examples and exceptions. Each one of them will have been very complex cases that need complex answers. People are not simple. People are not just binary. Biology is not as simple as that, as I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) will attest to.

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Absolutely. There is a risk in this House of us talking about GCSE biology rather than actually biology. The aneuploidies XXX occurs in one in 1,000 women, and XXY occurs in one in 500 men. These are very common biological differences that do complicate the matter—and those are not intersex individuals, to be clear.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle
- Hansard - Excerpts

I appreciate that, and coming from a biologist that is important to note. People are complex. That is why flexibility in the current law is important. By defining things too much, what we suddenly do is assume that everyone lives in these easy, binary boxes. The current principle of the law, as my hon. Friends have mentioned previously, is that general and specific discrimination should not happen, but there are a number of exceptions for people with protected characteristics where discrimination can happen to provide specific spaces. We know that this can be on sex, race, disability and on gender reassignment.

However, the ability to have flexibility on one’s determination, such as in an organisation or on a specific place-by-place basis, is important. Survivors’ Network in my constituency, the predominant organisation supporting survivors of abuse, has for over 30 years decided to take a trans-inclusive approach to how it treats women’s spaces. That has been done through working out what the local need is for the service provision. The majority of providers in Britain choose to draw the line on biological sex. Both are legal. Because of the flexibility in the law, both can be determined.

What would happen if we then made a strict rule that the discrimination could only happen according to biological sex? Survivors’ Network would be barred from the flexibility that was dreadfully important in providing its inclusive service in our city. Moreover, we would have a legal provision that would prevent a trans man going to use male changing room facilities. I believe that in many respects we should try to find accommodation. A lovely new swimming pool has opened up in my constituency. It has fantastic changing facilities, with all individualised cubicles and individualised facilities. Gender is not an issue.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
- Hansard - Excerpts

I have seen it come about that we now have non-gendered areas, and I have to say that I think there is a bit of a red herring. Lots and lots of women would still like to have a women’s changing area, but I have seen the solution to the issue being non-gendered areas.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman resumes, there is a Division. We will suspend the sitting for 15 minutes.

18:29
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
18:44
On resuming
George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Before Lloyd Russell-Moyle resumes, I should say that, because of the Divisions, the debate will now conclude by nine minutes past 8 and the wind-ups will begin no later than 7.39 pm. Could hon. Members bear that in mind?

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle
- Hansard - Excerpts

I want the flexibility for these things to be locally determined—proportional means for legitimate ends. The current law works. Of course there will be examples that are wrong and need correcting, but that is why we need the Government to give greater guidelines. The problem is that the trans community do not have trust that those guidelines will be fair and balanced.

For me, the real issue—the injustice—is about the woman who will turn up tonight at Brighton, be told that there are no spaces in the refuge and be put into hostel accommodation with rapists down the corridor who have only just come out of prison. The real tragedy will be the young trans person tonight who cannot get access to mental health services. The real tragedy is 12 years of austerity and cuts from the Conservative Government, not some dog whistle about whether there should be clarity or not. There is. The law is clear. What we need are services.

18:45
Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con)
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I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on her balanced approach at the start and on listening to all sides of the debate.

I start by making it very clear that no one here is looking for some sort of culture war, despite what some may think. No one here is trying to pit different people against each other; in fact, I firmly believe that both women and the trans community have the right to be protected. They are already well protected under many existing laws, including the Equality Act, the Gender Recognition Act and the Human Rights Act. There are plenty of laws in place. If we are being asked to clarify the law—not change, but clarify it—this Parliament has the right to do so as long as the majority vote for that.

I speak passionately about this issue. I have someone in my life—a woman—who fled domestic violence and found a refuge with her young daughter. She would have been terrified to have been near anyone, whether male or a trans woman, in that system, because of the abuse, rape and torture that they had both suffered. This is about them having the safety of a women’s refuge, to be around other female survivors. I regularly commend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) for being such a passionate champion of the cause.

Having lived with the woman I have described and heard about all the tragedy that she has had to go through, I understand why it is so important that women should have the protection of single-sex spaces and why it is wholly appropriate that we should clarify that law if we need to—to say that sex is defined by biology. Someone is not assigned their gender at birth; they are born male or female. A man is an adult human male and a woman is an adult human female. We should not be disputing those facts in the 21st century—these are the basics of biology that we talk about in our classrooms. I used to be a teacher. As head of year, I had responsibility for the safeguarding and welfare of children; I taught in an only-girls school as well as mixed-sex schools. I understand the challenges that come with some households and young individuals.

The issue is about making sure that women and girls feel protected and that the trans community have their rights and protections as well. It is befuddling to people in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke that this debate should even have to happen—to them it is obvious that in the Equality Act “sex” was talking about the biological definitions of men and women. Of course, they also accept that if there needs to be clarity, we should get on with giving it.

I want my daughter to grow up looking to heroines such as the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) and J. K. Rowling, who have been brave and bold enough to stand up for what they believe is important. Their rights should not be eroded because of an extremist minority shouting very loudly on social media and pursuing a very hard-line agenda that is not in keeping with the majority opinion, as we have seen during the national debate.

Sadly, women are being persecuted and facing abuse simply for speaking out, just as much as those in the trans community. The people who made money off J.K. Rowling’s hard work refused to stand beside her—they sit there in their multi-million-pound mansions, taking their private flights and trading on their position as actors and actresses because of her work. They had the gall to cancel her from being present at the show about the books that she herself wrote. It is extraordinary that we live in such times and that those individuals can be so cold and callous. That is why it is so important that we have this debate, which is about making sure that women feel and are safe and have their protections.

Nia Griffith Portrait Dame Nia Griffith
- Hansard - Excerpts

Would the hon. Member like to clarify his understanding of the definition in the Equality Act? As I understand it, the Equality Act defines someone’s legal sex as being either the sex they were assigned at birth or the sex that they have acquired through having a gender recognition certificate. I do not think that that is what he has said in his speech.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis
- Hansard - Excerpts

I want to make it perfectly clear: sex is not assigned at birth. You are born a man or you are born a woman. Those are indisputable facts. You have XY chromosomes or XX chromosomes. Again, that is not up for debate or discussion. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Olivia Blake) talked about XXY chromosomes, but as the NHS website points out, Klinefelter syndrome is caused by an abnormal amount of chromosomes. It does not relate to the separate debate about self-identification. Those two things are separate.

To finish, it is biologically clear that a male has XY chromosomes and a female has XX chromosomes. This is a scientific truth that should not be conflated with any constructed truth. William of Occam had it right that the simplistic approach is the best. Let us keep the Equality Act simple in order to protect the rights of everyone in a civil society. The problem with the debate we are having is that it is set in the context of a postmodern society that thinks that it can get away with dictating to those with universal convictions of truth that they must abandon them in favour of the nonsensical versions of their truth. Although the Algerian philosopher Jacques Derrida once pointed out that society is in a state of flux, he did not say that science is in a state of flux.

18:51
Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba)
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I have an observation to make before I turn to my remarks. I have worked in clinical practice for 25 years and it is absolutely anathema to me that any clinical member of staff would seek to allow their feelings to trump the privacy, dignity and rights of any patient in their care.

The one thing that I hope all sides can agree on in this debate is that the principle of equality is one that we should all embrace, cherish and protect. Our understanding of what that means and how it is achieved is the nub of this debate, as is our willingness or otherwise to accommodate each other.

I want to consider that foundation first. The notion of equality and its role in law is not new. Going back millennia, Aristotle argued:

“Equals should be treated equally, and unequals treated unequally.”

That enduring principle of equality requires that individuals should be treated the same, unless, of course, they differ in ways that are relevant for consideration to maximise their equality before the law. Understanding how we differ requires a shared and clear language to delineate and apply those considerations effectively. As in the days of Aristotle, sex, who is male and who is female has been the bedrock on which we have accommodated fundamental differences.

As a same-sex-attracted male, my sex and the sex of my partner is a primary defining characteristic of my identity and my protection in law. If sex were to mean anything other than the biological category of natal male, it would no longer be possible for me to delineate or describe who I am within the law, or for other gay men like me to be protected. That is true of other protected characteristics in the Equality Act, including the protection of the trans population, under the characteristic of gender reassignment.

I remember when I was first asked whether I believed that trans women were women. I was puzzled by the question, as it implied the need to subvert and subsume the meaning of “woman” as it is commonly understood. But it was not just that, because I see absolutely nothing controversial in calling a trans woman a trans woman, and a trans man a trans man. These are necessary biological categories for society and the Equality Act to accommodate, value and protect.

To deny that a trans woman is a trans woman suggests that there is something less, something other, about a trans identity—something to be hidden away in someone else’s identity. I reject that suggestion entirely. Now, as then, I value trans people and respect those who have chosen to make such a profound change to their lives in search of inner peace. But the act of subsuming rights or clouding language around equality goes far beyond those considerations. Without a stable, codified language, the whole meaning of protected characteristics, hitherto based on sex, comes tumbling down, which risks ushering in a chaotic and anarchic approach where equality legislation based on Aristotle’s fundamental principle becomes utterly impossible. Everyone suffers.

Children should be free to be their own individual, carefree, special selves, without adults imposing their gendered stereotypes on them. Telling children there is something intrinsically wrong with them is absolutely unforgivable. But if equalities legislation is to protect anyone, it must be able to effectively describe everyone.

18:55
Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on ably leading the debate. Some 263 of my Darlington constituents have signed the petitions we are debating, but these issues are important to us all.

At the outset, I want to say this: trans people matter to me—trans people matter to me as a member of the LGBT community myself, trans people matter to me as members of my family and, most importantly, trans people matter to me as members of the community I represent.

This whole debate prompts strong feelings on all sides, and it is important that we in this place are careful to avoid fanning the flames of an already inflammatory backdrop. By and large, the Equality Act 2010 is clearly drafted and effective legislation, and I speak in favour of the status quo petition. In her recent response to the Government, Baroness Falkner said of changing the definition of sex that it

“could bring clarity in a number of areas”

but also “ambiguity in others.” This place should always be willing to consider clarifications to our legislation where ambiguity exists, but doing that as a knee-jerk reaction does not strike me as good law making.

My overriding fear is that the change suggested in respect of further definitions of sex would run the risk of excluding trans people from effective protection by the Equality Act. By restricting the definition of sex to sex assigned at birth, we could have a situation whereby protection from discrimination created a two-tier system. Trans people who are perceived to be cisgender would have more protection under the law than trans people who are not perceived to be cisgender. Changing the definition of sex in the Equality Act runs the risk of creating an environment of unintended consequences for people who do not conform to gender stereotypes, but nevertheless are cisgender. We must not make it easier to exclude, and safer to discriminate against, people who are part of one of the most vulnerable communities in society.

When looking at what these petitions call for, it is important that we note that changing the statutory definition of a protected characteristic is not “modifying” or “clarifying” the Equality Act; it is in fact changing it, and changing it in a way that alters its original intention and that could throw into question over 10 years of case law. The Gender Recognition Act 2004 establishes that a trans person with a gender recognition certificate is recognised in their legal sex for all purposes. It is already possible to exclude trans people from single-sex settings and services, where that exclusion is proportionate and has a legitimate aim. Many services already operate on that basis. What purpose would changing the definition of sex in the Equality Act serve, aside from allowing it to become even easier for people to discriminate against trans people?

As we have already heard, the population of trans people in the UK is small, with only a few hundred gender recognition certificates issued each year. Reducing trans people’s protections in law, and increasing the level of risk and uncertainty that they have in managing their day-today lives, should not be the goal of any Government or Parliament committed to LGBT equality.

I am determined that everyone in the UK should be free to live their life and fulfil their potential, regardless of their sex, gender identity, race or disability. I am clear that transgender people should be free to prosper in Britain. Our country has come a long, long way on LGBT issues—further than I could have ever imagined as a young man. We must not turn that progress back.

19:00
Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
- Hansard - Excerpts

I thank the petitioners who brought the petitions forward and the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who introduced them. I agree with the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who started off by saying that being non-binary or trans is valid. I will start off with that. I am going to offer a tiny bit of rebuttal in terms of the debate that has been had, but mostly I want to give voice to my trans constituents and the trans people who have contacted me about their concerns. I reject wholeheartedly any rhetoric that there has been in this room that has painted trans people as potential predators. There are potential predators, but to lump all trans people together as potential predators is to completely demonise a protected group.

I want to pick up on the fact that a number of Members have used the phrase “ordinary people”, when they mean “non-trans people”. There are an awful lot of people in my constituency who would consider themselves to be entirely ordinary, and who also happen to be trans. They are also extraordinary in their own ways, I am sure, but “ordinary people” is an exclusionary phrase when it is used as it has been by some Members in this debate.

Before I move on to discuss what my constituents have said, I want to say that I will be incredibly annoyed if I get a whole load of abuse on social media after this debate suggesting that I do not know what I am talking about because I am a straight woman, because it is entirely up to me what my sexual orientation is. For people to continually call me “straight” on social media is immensely frustrating, and I wish that it would stop.

We have talked about biological sex a number of times, but not one person has been able to explain what it is. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) gave a good stab at it, talking about XX and XY chromosomes. I have no idea what my chromosomes are. I assume that they are probably XY, but I do not know—I have not got a clue what they are. I have a fair idea of what my genitals look like and how they compare with how other people’s look, but if we are talking about biological sex there needs to be a definition that everybody in this room can agree with. Nobody has been able to provide such a definition.

We continue to fail trans people, and we continue to fail women. Legislators continue to fail both groups, who are considered and treated as somewhat lesser in society. That is the case. We are a room of cis people debating trans people once again, and hatred and bile causes further risk for trans people. What will the impact be on trans people?

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
- Hansard - Excerpts

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
- Hansard - Excerpts

No.

We already have a situation where people are gatekept for going to the toilet. We already have a situation where people are attacked for the way they choose to present themselves.

I have constituents who came to me separately in relation to this issue. One of them said, “I’m not a danger. I just want to get on with my life and be able to go to the loo when I’m shopping.” Surely that is something we should want for everybody. Everybody should feel comfortable and able to access services. People should not have their two teenage daughters told that they cannot go into a loo because they have short hair and wear trousers rather than skirts, as happened to one of my friends. If we have a situation where people can tell what someone’s biological sex is, clearly they are gatekeeping the wrong people. Why are they continuing to do that if biological sex is so completely obvious to everyone?

Another trans person came to me. They were not the first to come to me with concerns of this nature. I will paraphrase what they said. When they heard about biological sex being included in the Equality Act and this change being made, they said, “What hope is left? Should I just kill myself now and be done with it?”

They will not rest until trans people are excluded from public life. This is what is happening as a result of this dog-whistle politics to try to demonise my constituents, who just want to get on with their lives, live in peace and go shopping in peace.

19:05
Caroline Ansell Portrait Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Con)
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. It is rather ironic speaking so late in the debate because the point I wanted to make and the argument I wanted to win were made and won before the debate started, when your predecessor in the Chair counselled Members that there were two live court cases associated with this subject. My point is that we are allowing individuals to operate in this seeming legal grey space, rather than us direct in Parliament. Those individuals and organisations are forced to run the legal gauntlet case by case, isolated and alone, and sometimes at very great cost to their reputation, to their career and to their health.

In common with many colleagues here, I rise to support the petition to clarify—not change—the Equality Act. The hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) seemingly endorsed that change when she said we are currently failing trans people and failing women. Change is an imperative, because we must be very clear with trans people what the law can and cannot do. Equally, we must safeguard the rights of women to those same-sex spaces.

It would be indefensible if Parliament, seeing the outworkings of this conflation and confusion, did not act. It is a highly relevant point that the lead petitioner, Maya Forstater, spent nearly two years and £100,000 just to determine that she was indeed covered in the Equality Act by the protected characteristic of belief, and her case was won. The judgment of the employment tribunal in 2021 made it clear that the law could only mean that a GRC changes a person’s sex for certain legal purposes; it could not force other people to change their belief, and therefore their perception, of that person’s sex. Yet individuals continue to face complaints and investigations in every corner of the land and in every sector for asserting the protections they have under the Act.

Just last week, a young woman with the pseudonym of Maria told her story to the press of being investigated and driven out of her employment at Oxfam simply for defending J. K. Rowling against being called transphobic. Closer to home, as a Sussex MP, I saw with horror how Professor Kathleen Stock was hounded from her post and chased off the university campus simply for saying the truth: that male people and female people are two different groups. A woman who remains anonymous under the name “Sarah Surviving” is suing Brighton’s rape crisis centre for discrimination because it refused to provide a women-only peer support group. I would hope that my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), would speak with equal passion in her defence too.

When we look at each of these legal cases, a commonality we see is not only that the women concerned have to put themselves on the line to try to clarify the law, but that the judges invariably say how poorly suited the subject matter is for determination by the courts, as compared with Parliament. They caveat their judgments by saying that they are not pronouncing on broad debates on trans rights and women’s rights. The confusion in terms and in rights and responsibilities is souring the cultures of businesses and charities alike as they wrestle with what is required of them. The EHRC has fallen out with itself over this challenge. The debate in society is increasingly toxic.

I started my own consideration of this complex and sensitive issue some months back, when I knocked on a door in Eastbourne. After a chat, a grandad shared with me his dismay and heartache. His grandson aged five had come home from school and said, “We were learning if we were in the wrong body.” That is of course a serious question to be answered, but what was really chilling was that he said he was too scared to speak up, so I promised him that I would. It is our duty to speak up, so I commend clarity in the Act.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Order. It is worth reminding Members that there is some concern about sub judice. When my co-Chair opened the debate, she stated that Mr Speaker has agreed to exercise the discretion given to the Chair in respect of the resolution on matters sub judice to allow reference to the cases, given the issues of national importance that are raised. I call Anna Firth.

19:10
Anna Firth Portrait Anna Firth (Southend West) (Con)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I rise to support the first petition to make the Equality Act clear, but I want to use my short time this afternoon to focus on the importance of protecting single-sex spaces and services.

I might be going back to the beginning, but, after such a long debate, that is not a bad thing. I want to begin by saying that people who are transgender must be supported to play a full part in society and public life. They should not be harassed or discriminated against. We in this place must be very careful not to stoke hatred of any kind towards them or any other section of society.

However, this debate is not about trans people or, more formally, people with the protected characteristic of gender reassignment. Their rights remain, quite properly, protected and unchanged. The issue is whether the 6,000 or so trans people who have a gender recognition certificate count for the purposes of equality and sex discrimination law as members of their own sex or of the opposite sex. Clarifying the Equality Act as suggested would make it clear that having a gender recognition certificate does not give male people the right to compete in women’s sports, undress or shower with women and girls, or be employed in a job that involves intimate contact with women, such as the example so very well described by my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), in hospitals or women’s prisons.

Families, women and children in Southend West want to know that when the sign on the door says or indicates female, that is not up for negotiation. The only people who should be in that space are biological women. Biological males or trans women or non-binary people should simply not be in those spaces.

Like the common law, legislation regarding equalities and sex discrimination has evolved over time and it can be very complicated, but what we are talking about this afternoon is a very simple clarification. When we talk about sex discrimination in the Equality Act, we are talking about biological sex—nothing more and nothing less. We know that it is important that the law is clarified because we know there are exceptions throughout the Equality Act that allow for single-sex services, including, as we have talked about, specialist services such as women’s refuges, women’s prisons, women’s health services, and also everyday services such as public toilets and showers at gyms.

As well as making it clear that where the Equality Act refers to sex, that means biological sex, we must also be clear that the definition of a woman is someone who was born female and the definition of a man is someone who was born male. Of course people should be able to express themselves, but the simple fact is that someone who was born male, if they gain a gender recognition certificate, is not the same as someone who was born female, and they should not be accessing as of right female-only spaces and services.

Quite simply, as has already been said, if the Equality Act is not clarified, it will be impossible for service providers to exclude a biological male with a gender recognition certificate from any female space or specialist service. “Case by case” simply does not work. Operating without clear rules simply shifts the responsibility to service providers to make very difficult decisions about who should have access to female-only spaces and services, and who should not. A simple search on the internet reveals the extent of the confusion that reigns. To give just one example, the NHS promises single-sex accommodation in hospitals, yet NHS England’s annex B policy tells hospitals to allow trans and non-binary people to choose whether they are housed with men or women.

The situation is simply not clear. It is said that sporting bodies set sex-based rules, so clarification is not needed. I would say the exact opposite: the law must be clear about sex if sporting bodies are to feel confident setting sex-based rules.

I see that I am about to run out of time. I end by saying that recently I was horrified by the story of the fight between the boxer Fallon Fox, who identifies as a trans woman, and Tamikka Brents. Fox hit Brents so hard that she suffered from a concussion and a fractured skull, and received seven staples to her head. Purely and simply, that was a man fighting a woman. I do not believe that that is right or fair, and I do not want to see that happening in this country.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
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I call the SNP spokesperson.

19:16
Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir George. I thank the petitioners, the Petitions Committee and the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who opened the debate on the Committee’s behalf. I am grateful to constituents and organisations who have been in touch with me.

I would like to make a couple of points to begin with. First, the tone of the debate has been mixed—that is the best way that I can describe it. Some of the language was not what I would consider measured. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) characterised some of it as “unedifying”, and that is true. Unfortunately, all too often, the tone of conversation about these issues is unedifying. In my experience, that is a problem. The people who lose out most because of that are not us, although I think it was the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) who pointed out that we will all have braced ourselves before standing up to speak today. The people most affected will be those directly impacted by the issue, but the change that is being sought is not likely to improve their life. As we have probably demonstrated quite effectively today, confusion would be likely to increase, to the detriment of trans people—and, potentially, women.

Members have repeatedly said that they are in favour not of changing the law, but of simply clarifying it, but it is a change that they are looking for. They are entitled to look for that change; I do not have to agree with it, but they are absolutely entitled to look for it. I do not know why that is the narrative. If they want to change the law, they should absolutely say that.

I am a middle-aged feminist woman, and increasingly a crabbit one, because I am fed up with the fact that women all too often still do not have fair treatment, or the rights that we absolutely should have. So let us hear much more about women’s rights. Let us hear about our rights in relation to buffer zones, and our reproductive rights—that is very topical today. Let us hear about our rights at work. Where is that employment Bill, which could have helped women so much? I could go on. Obviously this debate is not in that category, but the thing is that my rights are not diminished by someone else having their rights upheld. What endangers women is predatory and violent men. To be clear, the SNP’s support for trans rights does not conflict with our continued strong commitment to upholding rights and protections for women and girls under the Equality Act.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald
- Hansard - Excerpts

I am not going to give way to my hon. and learned Friend or anyone else. I have not intervened on anyone and for that reason, though I am grateful to her, I will continue.

I grew up and went to school in the 1980s. As I have said before in this Chamber, I thought that there were no LGBT pupils in my large secondary school. Obviously, I now know that that is absolute nonsense. It turned out that a number of my very close friends were LGBT, but I did not know that. Nobody did, because they did not feel safe to make their identity known because of the horrifically hostile environment at the time, with the section 28 debate and all. My real fear is that the current conversation about trans rights, including this debate—although maybe we should not call it a debate; nobody’s identity should be up for debate—is very similar in tone, and that is really damaging.

We have to be clear that trans people continue to suffer poorer outcomes. That needs to change, and the suggested amendment to the Equality Act would not change it in a positive way. I also point out that the Scottish Government need to be fully and formally consulted on any proposed material changes, including changes to the current definition of sex. Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Justice has written to the EHRC to seek clarification on that.

The reality is that recent communication on amending the definition of sex to biological sex represents a shift in direction by the EHRC, and that shift does not appear to have been made on the basis of meaningful evidence or meaningful consultation.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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Will my hon. Friend give way on that point?

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald
- Hansard - Excerpts

I am not going to give way.

The heat in this debate has appeared only quite recently. The polarisation I see taking hold here resonates with some of the culture war we see in the USA, where a very damaging narrative is taking hold that is imperilling the rights of women and of trans people in a very frightening way.

We have heard that there are a range of practical issues if this is the direction of travel, including confusion and a lack of clarity on basic things such as where you go to the loo. Obviously, people have been going to the loo without any issue for many years. Your appearance might suggest that you should go to the ladies, but what I am hearing today is that maybe you shouldn’t—how do you deal with that? That is actually rather a thorny issue and practically quite challenging for people. Unless you are going to accept huge breaches of people’s privacy, there is a significant unanswered question here.

The hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) correctly raised the issue of intersex people. It is important to point out that biological sex consists of a wide range of characteristics. In many cases, people do not possess the sex characteristics that are typically associated with their sex. For instance, a large proportion of adult women do not ovulate. I am one of those women. I hear these debates and I do wonder. Of course, we have heard about intersex characteristics that do not neatly align with binary categories.

There is a significant amount of work that we need to do here. We need to consider the work of organisations such as Engender, which is Scotland’s feminist policy and advocacy organisation. It points to evidence indicating that attempts to amend the Equality Act to limit the definition of sex as a protected characteristic to biological sex risk regression in protections for all women, as well as disproportionate and harmful exclusion of trans people. It makes reference to a paper called “On the Basis of Sex”, which was written by Nicole Busby, professor of human rights, equality and justice at the University of Glasgow. It commissioned that work, which clearly concludes that the Equality Act’s use of non-restrictive definitions is a strength and, as we have heard already, a deliberate approach. It recognises that

“discrimination on the grounds of sex often arises in relation to…socially constructed gender roles rather than biological difference”.

Their concern, which I share, is that there is no legal precedent for the definition of biological sex, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) noted. That means that there is not a way of looking at how we support women’s rights to privacy, for instance. That kind of change could have regressive consequences: it could actually entrench gender stereotypes and biological determinism for women. These are things that the feminist movement has fought long and hard against. Those are the kinds of concerns, along with the utterly shameful disdain of the UK Government for Scottish democracy that was aired recently when they rode roughshod over the cross-party will of the Scottish Parliament on gender recognition. Transgender people should not be expected to be treated as some kind of convenient political football for constitutional wrangling. They should not expect to have their identities weaponised in the culture wars, which are causing so much harm in the USA. Please, let us not have that here.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Kirsten Oswald Portrait Kirsten Oswald
- Hansard - Excerpts

I am trying to continue speaking despite interruptions from behind me.

We should accept that all of us present may disagree—we probably all have various different views—but let us imagine that we are all here with good will and not trying to do others down. We are here because we are saying what we believe to be the case. We started the debate with Mrs Cummins, who was previously in the Chair, telling us to be moderate, sensitive and respectful in our language, and that is how we should aim to continue.

To conclude, I point out that we are talking about a small group of the most vulnerable people. The hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) pointed that out very eloquently. They are the very people who should be able to expect their Governments to find ways to make life easier and support their rights. Our new First Minister, Humza Yousaf, set that out very well:

“I am firmly committed to equality for everybody, because your rights are my rights regardless of who you are. My starting point is that I’ve been a minority in this country for my whole life. I have understood that you have to fight for your rights but my rights don’t exist in a vacuum or in isolation. They only exist because other people’s rights exist too.”

All other rights matter. The suggestion that this change would improve our rights is simply not the case.

19:26
Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to speak in the debate with you in the Chair, Sir George. I am grateful to everyone who signed both petitions and to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for the respectful way in which she began the debate.

The two petitions that form the subject of the debate and the large numbers of people who signed them make it clear that views on the issue are strongly held. It is vital that the Members of this House set an example on such matters, engaging in constructive, respectful and polite discussion of them. This discussion is important, because as well as the engagement on the petitions, many people relatedly seek clarity on the Conservative Government’s plans for the Equality Act. That includes my party, the Labour party, the party of the Equality Act. As many have remarked, it is now 13 years since my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) piloted that landmark legislation through this place, introducing a legal framework against discrimination by employers, businesses, schools, public bodies and many other institutions that many countries lack and still seek to learn from.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
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My hon. Friend is making a powerful point about the Equality Act. I agree that it has been protecting people for 13 years in a whole range of areas, including in relation to not just gender identity, but race, age, breastfeeding and disability. Does she share my concern that the Conservative Government have a wider agenda here? The Prime Minister said that the Equality Act was

“a Trojan horse that has allowed every kind of woke nonsense to permeate public life.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that the wider agenda is to remove all the protections that we all enjoy?

Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that there is huge confusion about the Government’s position. We heard those comments from the Prime Minister last summer. In 2020, we heard the then Minister for Women and Equalities, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), criticising what she claimed to be a “focus on protected characteristics” and saying that that had led to

“a narrowing of the equality debate”.

A similar position has been maintained by her successor, the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), and yet, confusingly, we have also had the Prime Minister claiming to back the protections that the Equality Act contains for women. To listen to him, one would not think that those protections had already been enshrined in law for 13 years—a law that, of course, his party opposed repeatedly as it was being passed.

That is important context, because we cannot understand the Government’s intentions when we have a Prime Minister who will attack the Equality Act one day, only to cast himself as its defender the next. Today, I can be very clear that Labour remains committed to protecting and upholding the Equality Act, including the public sector equality duty, its protected characteristics and its provision for single-sex exemptions.

I ask the Minister to be clear in her remarks. Does she support the Equality Act? Does she agree that statements attacking it from her colleagues risk eroding public confidence in its protections? And will she commit to explaining to her colleagues, including the Prime Minister, that the overwhelming consensus view of the British public is in favour of those protections and of greater equality and fairness?

On the specificities of future changes that many have talked about during the debate, as the party of equality Labour wants trans people to be treated fairly and with dignity and respect. Labour also supports the protection of certain spaces that are for biological women, such as refuges for vulnerable women, which are provided for by the single-sex exemptions contained in the Equality Act. Indeed, it is thanks to Labour’s Equality Act that it is possible today for service providers to create and maintain single-sex services where that is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim. That system has been in place for well over a decade, and many of the service providers I speak to tell me that it provides an effective and robust framework for dealing with what are often difficult decisions around service operation. We can see that in codified form in, for example, the guidance of Women’s Aid Federation of England on these matters.

The Equality Act protects everyone, which is why any changes to it need to be carefully thought through and why clarity on these issues is important. Labour believes that we need to have a common-sense approach that provides clarity for service providers for different circumstances—both those in which trans people should be included and those in which excluding trans people is a proportionate means to a legitimate end. The problem is that the Government have provided no indication of how they would provide that clarity, aside from leaning into the idea of amending the Equality Act—something that contradicts their written response to today’s petitions. I hope that the Minister can set the record straight on that. It is especially important given that we have heard contradictory statements on the subject from different parts of her Government.

Some colleagues have already referred, I think helpfully, to the recent exchange of letters between the Government Equalities Office and the Equality and Human Rights Commission. The chair of the EHRC made it clear that any potential future changes to the Equality Act could bring clarity to some areas but potential ambiguity to others. That is why the Government need to urgently explain what future changes, if any, they are in the process of identifying and set out whether they agree with the EHRC that such changes could bring greater ambiguity to other areas, and if so what the impact of that would be on anyone with a protected characteristic.

Detailed policy and legal analysis is clearly required before the UK Government can effectively respond to the EHRC’s letter, so can the Minister confirm whether that detailed policy and legal analysis is being carried out? If so, will she commit to publishing it so that the House can scrutinise the Government’s position, and will she confirm whether the Government plan to reply to the EHRC? When the Government come forward with any proposals out of all the rumours that we have heard in the press, Labour will respond accordingly. The last Labour Government did more to advance the cause of equality than any other in history. The next will put equality at the heart of their policies, and break new ground for women and for LGBT+ people.

I associate myself with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) in relation to recent votes on legislation, and I have to broaden her point. We have seen extensive engagement from those on the Government Benches on the issues that we are discussing today. We need to discuss them—politely and in detail—but I wish that we had seen over the last 13 years the same level of engagement from those on the Government Benches while so many women got poorer and poorer, while so many women saw their health deteriorate, with maternal mortality now increasing, while so many women and girls have become increasingly unsafe, and while impunity for violent men has in many cases increased.

19:33
Maria Caulfield Portrait The Minister for Women (Maria Caulfield)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George.

I am especially grateful to the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for introducing this debate in such a sensitive way, and I am also grateful to all right hon. and hon. Members for their contributions. I feel that we should be able to debate these issues openly and honestly, without being labelled or attacked for having particular opinions or views, and that we should be able to disagree respectfully. I also feel that on all sides of the debate, despite the reservations of some, we have been able to do that this afternoon in a civilised way and I pay tribute to everyone involved.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson
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Members will have noticed that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) has not returned to the Chamber. As he is this House’s only openly trans Member, I think it is really important that we send a message to him that this important debate is not about him and that it should be conducted with love, respect and care for every single person who is in the trans community, whether they be in this House, in the Public Gallery or watching from outside.

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
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I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. I spoke to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Dr Wallis) before this debate, because he had some genuine concerns that he wanted to raise, and I am very happy to follow up after the debate to make sure that we can talk through any concerns that he did not get a chance to raise.

The Equality Act 2010 is at the heart of today’s debate. As with any other piece of legislation, over time we need to reflect on its effectiveness and purpose. It is only right—indeed, it is our duty as parliamentarians—to ensure that we constantly review legislation, to keep assessing whether the statute book is still able to provide a framework that is relevant and responsive to the issues that we face today. Put bluntly, our law has to be functional and able to take into account everyday experiences and respond to modern challenges. Failing to guarantee that would be to do a disservice to our constituents and those who rely on the law to carry out their functions and safeguard their basic rights. With legislation, it is important to note that work on the ground and in practice means recognising that there are instances where protections interact with—and are at times in tension with—the rights of others, giving rise to discussion and debate about how to ensure that the rights of all involved are best protected.

Currently, references to sex in the Equality Act relate to a person being either a man or a woman. A woman is defined as

“a female of any age”,

and a man is defined as

“a male of any age”.

Reference to sex has generally been considered under the Equality Act to refer to whether a person is a man or woman in law, rather than to their biological sex or sex at birth.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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Can I just be very clear that those of us who support the first petition are not seeking to define sex in law for the first time? Sex has long been recognised in the common law. I refer to the Minister to the House of Lords definition in Bellinger v. Bellinger. I am sure that the Minister will agree that we are not seeking to define it for the first time. Everyone knows what a man is and what a woman is.

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
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Absolutely. For most people, their sex in law is the same as their biological sex. It is different where a transgender person has legally changed their sex to their acquired gender on their birth certificate by obtaining a gender recognition certificate. If “sex” meant someone’s sex in law, references to a woman in the Equality Act would include a trans woman with a gender recognition certificate but not a trans woman without a gender recognition certificate. That said, the Equality Act protection applies on the basis of perceived characteristic as well as actual characteristics, so a trans woman who passes as a woman can claim protection from discrimination on that basis. The debate today is about whether that basis of sex, based on law rather than on biology, needs changing to ensure that the rights of biological women are also protected. That is the crux of the matter that we have been debating today.

It is in that spirit that the Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), sought advice from the EHRC as the independent equality regulator for Great Britain. When seeking that advice, she set out that she is concerned that the Equality Act may not be sufficiently clear in the balance that it strikes between the interests of people with different protected characteristics. It is everyone’s best interests that we establish whether the law in its existing format is sufficiently clear, because not doing so, as we have heard today, could have very practical consequences. The continued debate on this matter inevitably creates additional considerations for organisations and service providers to navigate, potentially preventing them from carrying out their functions or indeed from complying with the responsibility for equality.

The Prime Minister has also publicly given his views on this issue. In April he said:

“We should always have compassion and understanding…for those who are thinking about…their gender. But when comes to these issues of protecting women's rights, women's spaces, I think the issue of biological sex is fundamentally important when we think about those questions”.

That is why, when it comes to women’s health, sports or spaces, we need to make sure that we are protecting those rights.

Jess Phillips Portrait Jess Phillips
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It is interesting to hear the words from the very top of Government. I wonder if the Minister will be joining us in the Lobbies during the Victims and Prisoners Bill to ensure that specialist women’s services are defined in law and are protected in commissioning at a local level, where currently they are being let go.

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
- Hansard - Excerpts

I know that the hon. Lady campaigns passionately on those issues from her experience of working in the sector. As a Government, we have done a huge amount for women in the space of domestic violence and abuse.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission has published its considered response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, stating that on balance it believes that redefining sex in the Equality Act to mean biological sex would

“create rationalisations, simplifications, clarity and/or reduction in risk for maternity services, providers and users of other services, gay and lesbian associations, sports organisers and employers. It therefore merits further consideration.”

It has, as the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) said, said that it could cause some ambiguity as well. That is why it is important that we consider, both in policy terms and in legal terms, the potential implications of this change before we take any further decisions.

The Government have taken that advice and are considering the next steps at the moment.

Stephen Doughty Portrait Stephen Doughty
- Hansard - Excerpts

I wonder if the Minister has had a chance to consider the interim advice given by the United Nations independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity, who has been very critical of suggestions of opening up the Equality Act and reviewing these positions, seeing them as taking rights away from people who should be protected and are protected at present.

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
- Hansard - Excerpts

As we have heard, there are many views on this issue. That is why it is important that we take the time to properly consider the policy around it and take in the legal considerations, too. There are clearly cases where people are struggling to make practical decisions on a day-by-day basis with the Act as it stands. However, we do not want to create additional unforeseen problems by changing or clarifying the Equality Act.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
- Hansard - Excerpts

The Minister is being very generous with interventions. Is she aware that the United Nations special rapporteur on sexual orientation and gender identity does not speak for all people who have same-sex orientation? He certainly does not speak for me. Is she equally aware that the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, Reem Alsalem, takes the opposite view and is very much focused on the protection of women?

Maria Caulfield Portrait Maria Caulfield
- Hansard - Excerpts

The hon. and learned Lady highlights the diversity of views in this space. That is why it is so important to take proper consideration and time before deciding our next steps. I know that Members will be eager to hear updates and reassurances, as well as the timeline for our next steps. However, the issues under discussion today are complex, and we need to proceed carefully and respectfully. As we have heard, a wide number of people will be affected by any change. I hope that Members will agree that it is only right and proper that we take timely consideration of the advice that we have been given before coming to any conclusions.

I will touch on some of the issues that were raised in the debate, particularly around single-sex spaces. I would like to reassure Members that the Government are committed to maintaining the safeguards that allow organisations to provide single-sex services. We recognise that being able to operate spaces reserved for women and girls is an important principle, and—to answer the question from the hon. Member for Oxford East—should be maintained.

As many here will already know, under the Equality Act, providers are already able to restrict the use of spaces on the basis of sex and/or gender reassignment where justified. The Act provides protection against discrimination, harassment and victimisation across a number of grounds, including sex. We are committed to upholding Britain’s long-standing record of protecting the rights of individuals against unlawful discrimination.

The EHRC has published guidance on the existing legislation, which provides much-needed clarity to those offering single-sex spaces. It does not change the legal position or the law. As that guidance makes clear, it is currently entirely acceptable for providers of single-sex services to take account of the biological sex of their service users. Where it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, the Equality Act is also clear that service providers can exclude, modify or limit access for transgender people even when they have a gender recognition certificate.

When women are asked, privacy and dignity are high on the list of reasons they give for wanting such spaces. That is because they will be in a state of undress or in very vulnerable situations. Those spaces are also frequently relied upon during some of the most harrowing and distressing times that women and girls can experience. Their ability to feel safe and secure should always be of paramount importance, and we understand that creating environments where they are protected from further trauma is a crucial part of enabling them to heal.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend is not now in the Chamber, but I hope he will not mind me saying that single-sex spaces are one of his concerns. We heard a bit about it in today’s debate. We have to be careful when making the assumption that one of the reasons that women want single-sex spaces is because they feel that trans people are of a predatory nature. That is not the case. The vast majority of women just want to be with other women. We need to be mindful of our language and tone, so that the trans community do not feel that they are being given labels or are being targeted in an inappropriate way. My hon. Friend made that point to me ahead of the debate.

The EHRC’s guidance is helpful for those wishing to navigate such scenarios with the care and delicacy needed. I encourage all Members to review it, and if there are queries from constituents, or organisations within constituencies, to refer people to the guidance, because it is helpful in practical terms.

There were a number of Members who touched on the issue of gender recognition and the long waiting list that many people face when going through the process of changing their legal sex. There are processes in place with the right checks and balances to allow those who wish to legally change their gender to do so. We have taken action to simplify the process following the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act. We have modernised the way that individuals can apply for a gender recognition certificate by moving the process online and making it cost significantly less.

In addition, we are opening up more gender identity services for adults. A new pilot gender clinic was opened in Chelsea and Westminster in 2021. We have since established four new community-based clinics in Greater Manchester, Cheshire, Merseyside, London and the east of England, with a fifth opening in Sussex later this year. All those clinics offer a range of clinical interventions that are offered by conventional gender clinics. We are trying to make the process as easy and supportive as possibly by tackling some of the practical barriers that those in the trans community face when they want to transition in a clinical way.

I thank Members again for their contributions. There are strong feelings on all sides, as shown by the numbers of people who signed both petitions, and by the Members of Parliament who fairly represented both sides of the argument today. The Government recognise the importance of biological sex, and we have taken it seriously enough to ask for advice from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. We will come back to this place once we have considered in detail the policy and the legal implications of changing or updating the Equality Act. I thank everyone for taking part in the debate, contributing to the discussion and affording the issue the respect it warrants.

19:49
Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
- Hansard - Excerpts

It is our privilege and responsibility to weigh up different groups’ rights, needs, interests and demands as we debate and amend the laws of this land. That is the bread and butter of the work of this House. I applaud all hon. Members—whatever their position on the substance of the two petitions—who have turned up to discuss them, and who have ignored the calls for no debate. We are doing our work, and this is a democracy.

The two petitions concern only the question of whether a GRC changes a person’s sex for the purposes of the Equality Act; they are not about gender self-ID. Also, the purpose of the GRC is nothing to do with what some speakers referred to as “intersex”. The question of whether GRCs change a person’s sex for the purposes of the Equality Act has nothing to do with those medical conditions, and people with those conditions have said many times that they do not want to be drawn into these discussions. They, and organisations that represent them, have said that these are complex medical conditions. There is no third sex or intermediary sex, and people with those variations on the sex development pathway are either male or female.

What has come across very strongly in arguments today is that one of the purposes of single-sex spaces is risk management. Speakers have made it clear that it is not about suggesting that all male people or all trans people are predators; it is just that single-sex spaces are an important risk management tool, given the overwhelming statistics in the patterns of male violence.

It has been an important debate for me to lead for the Petitions Committee, and to hear various views from across the House—some respectful, some less so. We are responsible for legislating, and we have to discuss issues. I wish no ill on anybody, whether they be trans, lesbian, gay or bisexual. This is important to me and to my trans community in my constituency, and it is important to all of us.

George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
- Hansard - Excerpts

Before I put the Question, let me say that my co-Chair appealed to people at the start of the debate to deal with this sensitive issue in a respectful manner. Before she left, she pointed out to me that, during her time in the Chair, it had been dealt with in that way. I thank everybody, as others have, for the respectful and thoughtful way in which they have put their arguments during my time in the Chair. People feel strongly about this issue, but it is no reason to be abusive, and I do not think that people have been. Thank you for that.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions 623243 and 627984, relating to the definition of sex in the Equality Act 2010.

00:05
Sitting adjourned.

Government Response

Wednesday 25th January 2023

This Government believes in individual liberty. There are processes with appropriate checks to allow for those who wish to legally change their gender. Changes to the Equality Act are not necessary.


The Equality Act 2010 provides protection against discrimination, harassment and victimisation across a number of grounds, including sex. We are committed to upholding Britain’s long-standing record of protecting the rights of individuals against unlawful discrimination.

The Government is also committed to maintaining the safeguards that allow organisations to provide single-sex services. It is important that the principle of being able to operate spaces reserved for women and girls is maintained, in line with the Equality Act. Government is committed to tackling harassment and abusive behaviours by all individuals, and ensuring single-sex spaces are safe for those using them.

The Act makes it clear that providers have the right to restrict use of spaces on the basis of sex and gender reassignment where this is justified.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) have published guidance on the existing legislation which provides much needed clarity to those offering single-sex spaces.

Finally, this Government believes in the principle of individual liberty and in the humanity and dignity of every person. There are processes in place, with the right checks and balances, to allow for those who wish to legally change their gender to do so. We have listened to the responses in the Gender Recognition Act consultation and have taken steps to modernise the way that individuals can apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate as a result, reducing the cost and moving the process online. Everyone that decides to transition, deserves our respect, support and compassion.

Cabinet Office


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