Gender Recognition Act

Elliot Colburn Excerpts
Monday 21st February 2022

(2 years ago)

Westminster Hall
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George Howarth Portrait Sir George Howarth (in the Chair)
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Before we begin, I remind Members to observe social distancing and wear masks. I call Elliot Colburn to move the motion.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 327108, relating to reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. I would like to begin this debate, as I have begun every Petitions Committee debate that I have led, by going over the prayer of the petition before I make a few observations. Formally, on behalf of the Committee, I have moved the motion on the petition entitled “Reform the Gender Recognition Act”.

The prayer of the petition states,

“Reform the GRA to allow transgender people to self-identify without the need for a medical diagnosis, to streamline the administrative process, and to allow non-binary identities to be legally recognised. The response gathered by the government showed strong support for this reform with 70% in favour, but the results seem to have been ignored by policy makers. The current process is distressing and often humiliating for transgender people, as well as lengthy and costly making it inaccessible to many people. Reform is needed to improve the lives of trans people, and I don't think the proposed measures will negatively impact existing provisions under the Equalities Act.”

The petition closed with 137,271 signatures, including 224 from my Carshalton and Wallington constituency.

I have a speech to make about the specific asks in the petition, but I want to make a few remarks first, because there is no denying that the petition and this debate are being followed with great interest across the country, as is the issue of trans rights more widely. The debate has raged not only in this country, but across much of the world. Sadly, it has not been conducted in a well-mannered or well-reasoned way. The discussion around trans people has become so toxic that it frightens people away from engaging with it. Indeed, when the Petitions Committee tried to schedule this debate, it was quite difficult to find a Member to agree to take it on for fear of what might happen on social media should they do so.

To an outsider looking in, it may look like the debate around trans issues is one where there can be only one of two extreme points of view. We have seen the most appalling, dreadful things said on both sides of the debate, with threats, intimidation and venom spat at either side, and there has been a failure to conduct it in a civilised and respectful way. I want to be clear that the failure lies squarely at our doors. It is the failure of MPs, leaders, the media, academia and beyond to make space for a respectful, real and genuine discussion.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that MPs are afraid to engage in this debate because, if they do so, as I have, they receive death threats and, in my case, a threat of corrective rape from a member of my own party?

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I completely agree with the hon. and learned Lady. We have failed to make a genuine space to express concerns and come to an understanding with one another, and that has left a vacuum, because, in that space, where the few people making their voices heard want to pull us into one of two very extreme positions, we are left with only one of two options if we want to engage with this debate. It seems we must agree that to be trans is not right or even real and that trans people are inherently dangerous and need a cure rather than support, or, on the other side, we must use trans people as an example of why the entire western liberal system is wrong, and agree that no one can be truly equal until the very foundations of what we understand about society are broken down. The failure to have a real discussion has consequences for us all. We now have a situation where people fear speaking up, and they fear to ask questions in case they get attacked or targeted. There are, of course, strongly held views on both sides, but to shut down discussion and to say that everyone must agree with one’s own worldview, or else, is damaging to society and poisons the debate.

One of the most common things I hear from colleagues in this place—and I am sure Members will agree—is that they just do not know enough about the issue. They have not given much thought to reforming the Gender Recognition Act 2004 before, and, as far as they know, they have never met a trans person. That is completely fine, but it therefore falls to us, when we bring these matters to a national platform, to allow space for discussion to happen, so that we can explore and ask questions.

Mhairi Black Portrait Mhairi Black (Paisley and Renfrewshire South) (SNP)
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Given that we are legislators, does the hon. Member agree that, particularly when talking about some of the most marginalised people in society, we have a job to educate ourselves? In actual fact, we have had five years to educate ourselves.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I agree with the hon. Lady, who leads me towards points I will come on to later.

If we allow this toxicity to continue and refuse to lead from the front, we will end up in the situation we are in now, where we have ridiculous public conversations about erasing language or trying to figure out if certain words are offensive, and where we label anyone who expresses concerns about the protection of sex-based rights a TERF—trans-exclusionary radical feminist— or transphobic, rather than actually talking about the issues. If we allow that to continue, we abdicate our responsibility as a House and, most importantly, we forget the people in the middle of all of this: the hundreds of thousands of trans people living in the UK, who, like the majority of us, just want to live their lives. They do not want this massive, toxic debate about their existence going on. They just want to be able to live their lives.

I plead with colleagues to use today’s debate as an opportunity to change that narrative. Let us lead from the front, have more respectful discussions and debates with one another and explore these issues without the need to rip each other’s throats out. From looking around the room, I know that there are strongly held views on both sides of the debate. Colleagues will no doubt want to focus on appalling things that have been said and done on both sides of this debate and talk about the more nasty and absurd parts of the far ends of the debate. However, I urge colleagues to just take a moment.

People say that this House is at its best when we come together in total agreement on an issue and get things done, but I would like to go further. I genuinely believe that this House can demonstrate its strength and the strength of the democratic process by coming together on an issue where there is not agreement, creating space to talk about that respectfully and finding a way forward. That demonstrates the best of what this House can do.

I hope today will be that opportunity. We do not do ourselves any favours by taking the easy road of appealing to those who we think are shouting the loudest. Please, colleagues, join me in rejecting the Twitter-isation of this debate, where our arguments are condensed to miniature soundbites. We can find the answers and a way forward together, rather than tearing each other apart.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle Portrait Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab/Co-op)
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The hon. Member is making an important argument to frame the nature of the debate, but does he agree that it is sometimes important that we do not talk in big, grand narratives about our political beliefs one way or another? This debate is specifically about the GRA and the process of applying for a gender recognition certificate, so colleagues should not be having these big, grand debates about trans issues and feminism. Instead, we should talk about the practical things that the GRA and GRC do. It does two practical things, and nothing else. It does not give someone rights to anything other than the following two changes: a birth certificate and pension rights. We should limit the debate here to that. That will provide civility.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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The hon. Member has second-guessed what I am about to move on to. I truly believe that there is a way for the House to come together on this issue. As a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, which conducted a very recent inquiry into reform of the GRA, I was struck by how much agreement there was on both sides of the debate on many of the practical issues this petition is calling for. There was also repetition of what the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) said, specifically on the issue of the application process for the GRC. After all, that is what the petition is all about. Much of the discussion has centred around access to such things as single-sex spaces, but those are not catered for in the GRA or included in the scope of this petition; they are instead governed by the Equality Act 2010, which sets out provisions around single-sex spaces. It is right that we make space for that discussion to happen, because part of the reason that the debate has become so toxic is the confusion around the application of the Equality Act and its relationship with the GRA.

Joanna Cherry Portrait Joanna Cherry
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May I just disagree with the hon. Member on the legal impact of the single-sex provisions in the Equality Act? There is a respectable body of opinion that there will be an impact on the single-sex provisions in the Equality Act, and we are waiting for guidance to come out from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Does he agree that that guidance is much needed and will bring some clarity to the debate?

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I agree with the hon. and learned Lady on the point of guidance, and I will come on that point next. It is the failure of successive Governments since 2004 and 2010 to produce any guidance about the relationship between the GRA, the Equality Act and the exemptions provided for that has led to a disjointed application of those exemptions in much of public life. There are those who use it to exclude everyone, those who use it to exclude no one and a large majority in the middle who simply do not know what to do, because there is no guidance from the centre as to what best practice looks like.

I therefore urge the Government to look again at the recommendation of the Women and Equalities Committee to produce that guidance and to convene an advisory panel of those on both sides of the debate to look at what that guidance could look like and to bring that guidance before the House so that we can debate and discuss it.

I want to focus specifically on the application process for a gender recognition certificate, as catered for within the petition. In the Select Committee inquiry, we received evidence from those in favour of further reform and those who were against it, but what struck me was how much agreement there was between the two sides on the application process. Indeed, the three big asks for reform of the GRC application process were more or less welcomed universally. I strongly hope that the Government will have a chance to look at those in a bit more detail.

Wera Hobhouse Portrait Wera Hobhouse (Bath) (LD)
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I absolutely agree with the hon. Member that we need to have a civilised discussion about this issue, but given the difficulties and given that it is clear that the Act as it stands creates huge problems for transgender people, does he agree that we need reform of the Act?

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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Absolutely. There is a strong case, simply if we look at the statistics around GRCs, to show that the process does not work. The fact that only 1% to 3% of trans people go through the process of obtaining a GRC demonstrates to me that the process is too bureaucratic, too expensive for many and simply not fit for purpose.

Jackie Doyle-Price Portrait Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con)
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I hear the point that my hon. Friend makes, but should we not also consider whether GRCs fulfil any useful purpose? The GRA was introduced in 2004, at a time when we did not have same-sex marriage. We now do, so what is the point of a GRC?

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I think the point of a gender recognition certificate is the difficulty that trans people have in getting their legal gender recognised by very many bodies. That is why reform of the GRA to allow for an easier process to obtain a GRC is needed. We may need to come on to a discussion later about whether GRCs are fit for purpose in their entirety, and I would welcome that discussion, but given what we have been left with through these two bits of legislation, the first step is reform of the GRA to get us to that point—then we can look to the future.

The changes that were recommended in the Government’s 2018 consultation and in the two Women and Equalities Committee inquiries focused on three particular asks. The first was for the removal of the requirement to obtain a diagnosis of gender dysphoria before applying for a gender recognition certificate, as well as removing the need to provide medical reports detailing all treatment that people have undertaken. Both sides of the debate throughout the Select Committee inquiry agreed with that. The 2018 Government consultation showed that 64% agreed with removing the need for a diagnosis and 80% supported the need to remove detailed medical reporting.

The second ask was for the removal of the spousal veto, which requires a married transperson to obtain consent from their spouse before getting their legal gender recognised. Again, in the Select Committee inquiry there was agreement about this from both sides, and 85% of consultation respondents agreed that it should be scrapped.

Finally, there was a call to remove the need for transpeople to provide evidence that they have lived in their so-called “acquired gender” for two years prior to obtaining a GRC. That was condemned very strongly by both sides because it was felt that it reinforces gender stereotypes, and because there is no agreement on how to define or prove that someone has lived as a man or a woman for two years before obtaining legal recognition of their gender. Again, nearly 80% of people who took part in the Government consultation agreed that that should be removed.

Instead of having to collate all the information and submit it to the gender recognition panel, which from the anecdotal evidence we received is very confusing because there does not seem to be any accountability as to who sits on that panel or how it operates, the call was instead for a form of Registrar General to be introduced in England and Wales, before whom transpeople would have to make a legal declaration to an official in order to obtain a gender recognition certificate and legal recognition of their gender. That would, of course, come with consequences in law for any false declarations being made.

That change would not allow people to self-identify without an application to an official. The phrase “self-identify” has been confusing and, potentially, unhelpful. I admit that it conjures up images to those on the outside, who might think people can just wake up one day and decide to change their gender. That is not what the petition calls for, and I do not think anyone here would recommend that.

The model I have outlined has already been introduced in a number of countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Ireland, Denmark, Norway, France, Portugal, Greece, Iceland, Luxembourg and Malta, as well as four provinces of Canada and 10 states in the United States, and it is being introduced in New Zealand and Germany. The Irish model is probably the closest example to what some campaigners have been asking for, and is reported to have worked particularly well.

There is a lot of agreement, Sir George, about reform of the application process to obtain a GRC, so I hope the Government can take that away and look at it again, and that colleagues here, as well as those who have not taken part in the debate but would have liked to, can come together to realise that politics is a battle for hearts and minds, but we do not need to be at each other’s throats to talk about this subject.

There are strongly held views, and a temptation to steer the conversation into areas that are not directly relevant to the GRC, but we have to appreciate that transpeople face huge challenges in the country today, not least recognition of their gender, as well as the violent and sexual crimes to which they are subjected. They are twice as likely as other LGBT+ people to be subjected to conversion therapy, for example, and they face discrimination in their everyday lives.

However, there is reasonable and understandable concern, particularly from women, about the protection of sex-based rights. That comes from unacceptably high levels of physical and sexual violence towards women, which creates concerns about erosions of these rights. We must allow space and time for everyone to legitimately be heard, and to find a way forward.

Change is a slow process. I know that is frustrating to hear, particularly in the age of social media in which we live, where we demand instant gratification and action, but in my short time in this House I have found the real world, and the battle for hearts and minds, to be infinitely more complex. We have a duty to lead from the front, in order to remove the toxicity from the debate, because continuing in that way will not end well. It will just push people further in one of two directions, or leave them afraid to say anything or to act.

I urge colleagues to join me today in trying to take the toxicity out of this debate. Let this be the moment that we come together to do more and express the real and genuine concerns held on both sides, so we can work towards what everyone wants: a society where the rights of all are respected, and where what people get out of the country is what they are willing to put in.

Let us try to be the leaders on this issue that the country needs right now and calm this debate down, working together across the divide to find the answers and find the way forward.

None Portrait Several hon. Members rose—
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Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I join the Minister in thanking colleagues across the House and on both sides of the discussion for their participation today, and particularly for having the bravery to come to this Chamber and speak on this topic. I would be shocked—I am prepared to bet with any Member in or outside of this room—if every single person who has contributed today, on either side of the debate, does not receive abuse. That is appalling and a shame.

I agree with the Minister that today we have managed to conduct ourselves better, frankly, than I expected— [Interruption.] It’s true. As I said in my opening speech, when the Petitions Committee was presented with this petition and tasked with scheduling it for debate, the look of fear on colleagues’ faces as we were deciding who would take it forward was genuine. I do not make light of that, but I am glad that we have managed to come to this position and have this conversation. I particularly welcome that it is this Minister who is in his place today, as I do not doubt his personal commitment to the issue one iota, and he has spoken incredibly well. I really feel that he is someone with whom we can have real and genuine conversations on both sides of the issue, and be sure that our voices will be heard; I am grateful that he has come here to respond to the debate.

I was interested to hear that the Government intend to remove the words “gender dysphoria” from the requirements set out in the Act.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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“Disorder”.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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Yes, sorry. I appreciate that the Minister cannot give any more details here, but he knows my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, as well as I do, and I am sure that he will definitely be asked to come back to the Committee to give more details on that point.

The Minister also mentioned that the spousal veto will be removed in a divorce measure. That just leaves living in the acquired gender for two years as the last bit of the equation. It sounds as if the Government are already moving in the direction that the petition is asking them to. I know that we will want to flesh out some of the detail in the Women and Equalities Committee and in Women and Equalities questions, but if the Government are already minded to remove the words “gender dysphoria” and the spousal veto, that just leaves living in the acquired gender for two years.

Mike Freer Portrait Mike Freer
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I need to correct my hon. Friend. It is “disorder” that will be removed.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I thank the Minister for that clarification. I look forward to having more discussions with him on that in the Women and Equalities Committee.

I reiterate what everyone has said throughout the debate: we have to remember that at the heart of this matter are people who are just trying to live their everyday lives. If we can conduct ourselves with the respect and tolerance that we are showing each other in this room today, we can successfully take the heat out of the debate, have those discussions with one another and find those answers, because they are there and they are fixable. I am sure that this will be the first of many conversations. I thank all Members for coming today; it is one of the most well attended Petitions Committee debates that I have taken part in, and that can give us faith in the petitions system.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 327108, relating to reform of the Gender Recognition Act.