Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (SNP)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Christopher, and to take part in this important debate. I am grateful to everybody who signed the petition, including those in my constituency, and to everyone who has taken the time to engage with this issue.
I wondered how this debate would go—I suspect all of us did—and it has gone the way that I thought it would. It has been a mixed bag, but I do not think that any of us would disagree with what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) set out at the beginning. It seems that too often there is far too much heat and precious little light on issues such as GRA reform, and that does not do anyone any good, which is a real shame. People who are directly impacted by the issue and those who are concerned with it deserve to have us conduct ourselves with dignity and respect.
The petition does not ask for much. It asks for a simplified and more dignified process, allowing people to get on with their lives, as the hon. Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) said. The process now is degrading, intrusive and traumatic. Indeed, it seems from its response that the UK Government Equalities Office accepts the need for the process to be “kinder and more straightforward”. The reality is that its plans are not going to achieve a process that is particularly kinder or more straightforward, and what the UK Government describe, somewhat mysteriously, as “balance” could charitably be described as a fudge at best.
What we are looking at is a necessary change to make the lives of trans people that little bit easier. It would be a real missed opportunity, and difficult to fathom, if that opportunity were avoided or fudged. That matters because at the heart of this is the issue of trans rights—the rights of a minority group who we have heard today have experienced a surge in hate crime, up more than 76% over the last couple of years, and live with the knowledge of an increasingly hostile narrative in many places. Everyone, whatever their views on this issue, loses out because of that.
Like the hon. Member for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy), whose speech I very much enjoyed, I am a feminist—a middle-aged feminist, so I have been around the houses a few times—and I am really focused on the rights of women, the wrongs done to women, and the need to always stand up for women. For me, those things are non-negotiable, but so is my support, and my party’s support, for trans rights. That in no way diminishes my commitment to always stand up for women. It certainly does not conflict with continued strong commitments to uphold the rights and protections that women and girls have under the Equality Act 2010. In fact, if we look at the world beyond this place, it has never been more important for all of us to stand up for equality, fair treatment and human rights. Indeed, Engender, Scotland’s feminist policy organisation, has also been clear that making the process easier will not impinge negatively on women’s rights.
I say all that because I want to be clear that I absolutely support the need to do better in supporting what the trans community needs to happen. However, I do appreciate and understand that some people have a sincerely held view that is different from mine, and I will always listen carefully and respectfully to views expressed carefully and respectfully. That is a really important principle. Indeed, the Scottish Government have engaged in listening via the extensive consultations that have been undertaken, and to a greater extent on this particular issue than on any other that I can think of. That is important because we must get this right; we must deliver a system of gender recognition that both complies with international human rights laws and delivers a fairer, more straightforward means of gaining legal recognition.
I note that the Women and Equalities Committee said about the proposed changes in Scotland that
“this could be a move in the right direction.”
That is absolutely true. However, before we get there, the situation as it stands, and the reason that people are concerned with this, bears some reflection. There is obviously no requirement for anyone to have a gender recognition certificate, but it is surely easy to understand why someone would want one. At the moment, only between 1% and 3% of trans people in the UK have a GRC. Those statistics tell us that the current approach, with its focus on medicalisation, very burdensome bureaucracy and very opaque guidelines, is not working.
The responses to both the UK Government and the Scottish Government consultations tell us that people recognise that and support the need for reform. The recent Savanta ComRes poll in Scotland also found majority support, including among women and among under-54s. Perhaps that is no wonder, because who among us would want to deal with life events that necessarily come with admin—things such as marriage, new jobs, pensions, and even death, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) eloquently set out—with the knowledge that our paperwork could be wrong? Even describing it that way seems an inadequate way of explaining the worry and distress that that could cause.
The petitioners’ desire for the system to be simplified is understandable, and when we start to drill down, it becomes even more so. I spoke recently to someone who had had to produce paperwork in quantities that would fill a whole box, making the UK Government’s suggested solution of an online system somewhat difficult to comprehend. That is without even getting into the England and Wales requirement for what is known as a spousal declaration. In what other area of our lives would that possibly be even remotely acceptable?
The UK Government have said that they will reduce costs, which is welcome, but the reality is that the cost of the reports and so on that would be required would put those costs right back up and more, so they are not making it more accessible at all. That is before we even start to look into the difficult issues of medical processes, medicalisation, personal upheaval, social challenges, the significant financial burden—and then someone is faced with the arbitrary decision of a panel of strangers potentially telling them, in essence, “You don’t know who you are.” On any examination, the present system is not working, as my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) said. It is unnecessarily medicalised, it is bureaucratic, it is traumatic, and it is simply not fair. That is why a move to a more straightforward self-declaratory system is needed and makes sense.
Again, to be clear—like others, I have read some statements, particularly online, that are simply false—this reform would not allow anyone to simply get up one day and decide to be a different gender for some nefarious purpose, and then revert. That is just not true. The proposals laid out by the Scottish Government mean that obtaining a gender recognition certificate will remain a serious and lifelong commitment. They include a period of three months living in your chosen gender, a statutory declaration and a further three-month period of reflection, and applicants would still be subject to criminal proceedings for making a false declaration and application. It is not something anyone could enter into lightly. By way of comparison, we could reflect on the experiences of places such as Ireland, Malta, Norway, Denmark and many more, where the process works without any drama and life is just more straightforward.
As the Scottish Government’s plans progress, I hope that people can hear the reality of what is planned and that that will be helpful. They will also hear that the Scottish Government’s draft Bill does not include any new rights for trans people and that the changes will not affect the rights or protections that women currently have under the Equality Act, as my hon. Friend the Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes) explained clearly. All of those rights—of both women and trans people—must be protected, including the protection of women’s safe spaces.
I say that because, unfortunately, the issue beneath a great deal of the heat in this discussion is the fact that predatory men who attack women exist. Bitter experience shows us that they do not need a gender recognition certificate to do that: they can attack women now, and they do. The problem is predatory men and criminals, not trans people. By conflating those groups and allowing ourselves to be diverted from this reform, we do everyone a disservice.
Doing so also encourages what is already an increasing intolerance in some quarters. It is a narrative that makes me very uncomfortable and takes me back to being a teenager in the 1980s. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Dame Angela Eagle) spoke very eloquently about this: the public conversation around homosexuality back then was poisonous, corrosive and damaging. We need to be very clear that we cannot and will not go back there on trans issues.
One of the most important points today was made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). It is important that we are having this debate and I very much welcome it. However, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, there are no trans people participating in this debate. We need to reflect on that. It would be very helpful if we could hear the lived experience and voices of trans people as part of this respectful dialogue.
I close by saying that whatever our different views and opinions, we are all the better for being more open and inclusive and for appreciating that all our rights are important. It is no surprise, perhaps, that I see this issue through the prism of how the country could be better. The better country that I know is coming in Scotland will be more open, inclusive, tolerant and equal: a country where no one’s identity is up for debate and where all of our rights matter. It is time for that change.