Gender Recognition Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:05 pm on 23rd February 2004.

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Photo of Mr David Atkinson Mr David Atkinson Conservative, Bournemouth East 7:05 pm, 23rd February 2004

I support the Bill. As the Minister explained, because of a court ruling more than 30 years ago transsexual people in this country have been condemned to be always of the sex written in their birth certificate. That has sentenced them to a life of constant secrecy, fear and depression, at risk of suicide and self-mutilation. Their position in law prevents them from safeguarding themselves, their partners and their families. The Bill will do much to end that. I regret that it took five failed petitions to the European Court of Human Rights, before the two that succeeded, to bring forward the Bill.

There are two reasons why I want to speak in support of the Bill. Like several hon. Members who have spoken, the first is the experience of a constituent who sought my help in my surgery two years ago, in 2002. She was 62 years old, a post-operative transsexual male to female. She had always known her birth certificate was wrong. She had a particularly tragic childhood. She had a terrible puberty. No one knew what gender she was, except herself. She married, but was compelled to divorce. She paid for her surgery and subsequent treatment herself. She lost her male partner because they were unable to marry in this country. She pursued a teaching career. When she reached 60, she was told that because she was a woman she had to retire, but because she had been a man she would have to wait five years for her pension. Understandably, she became ill as a result of the financial problems that caused and the stress she faced.

In response to my representations, the then Minister of State, Mr. McCartney, confirmed that my constituent would not receive her pension until she reached the male age of retirement, 65. Of course, my constituent feels that she has been denied natural justice. By then, the European Court in Strasbourg had delivered its judgment in favour of Goodwin v. United Kingdom. My constituent has rightly been pressing me for the legislation that is before us today.

The experience of my constituent and my sympathy for her compels me to support the Bill. Will the Bill enable transsexuals in my constituent's situation—described as male on her birth certificate, now a female—to enjoy a woman's pension from the age of 60? If so, will the pension be backdated in her case?

The second reason I support the Bill is that it is in response to the findings of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. It is as a member state of the Council of Europe that we are committed to the European convention on human rights. I accept that some of what the convention imposes and the ECHR finds is not always welcomed by Ministers, hon. Members or the public. For example, many hon. Members and the majority of the public do not accept the abolition of the death penalty. Home Secretaries cannot change sentences passed by the courts, despite outcry in the tabloids, because the ECHR says they may not. However, all of us, I believe, need to be reminded from time to time that the European convention on human rights, with its unique enforcement machinery of the ECHR, is a response to the genocide and discrimination that Europe experienced under the dictators. That discrimination, no doubt, applied to transsexuals.

Now, 50 years after the convention came into force, the rights of transsexuals in this country will also be protected by the Bill. Why has Britain been one of the only four Council of Europe member states that have until now refused permission for transsexuals to change the gender on their birth certificate?

I hope that the example of the Bill will be followed by similar legislation in the other three countries—Albania, Andorra and the Irish Republic—without the necessity of their citizens petitioning the European Court of Human Rights.

Given the existence of the Human Rights Act 1998, why were two findings of the European court in 2002 required to change the British law on rights for transsexuals? Surely the Act provides for such rights to be protected without further application to the court in Strasbourg.

In conclusion, I regret that, of all the Churches, only the Evangelical Alliance has opposed the Bill, claiming that it will allow same-sex marriages—which, of course, it will not. I also regret that some in the Conservative party sought to oppose the Bill in the other place and that, from indications from my colleagues in the House, they will oppose it in this debate. I had hoped that the Conservative party today could accept human nature for what it is. Transsexual people are probably one of the smallest minority groups in this or any country. We have treated them atrociously these past 30 years. We should all give full support to the Bill, which will help to end their unhappy situation.