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International Women’s Day - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:59 pm on 9th March 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector) 2:59 pm, 9th March 2017

My Lords, there is a country where one group of women are allowed to be recognised legally only if they can prove their identity to the satisfaction of a psychiatrist for at least two years. It sounds like Russia. There is a country where women can have their legal identity denied indefinitely by a spouse. It sounds like a theocracy, such as Saudi Arabia. There is a country where some women, in order to obtain legal recognition, have to make an application to a panel which meets in secret, whose composition is never revealed, and when a decision is made there is no right of appeal. That sounds like China—but no, in all three cases I am talking about the United Kingdom. That is how we treat trans women, and men, in our country today.

While England, Wales and Scotland have made significant progress on LGB rights, our trans citizens face discrimination in public services, a damaging lack of understanding in the media by people who should know better, and physical violence. Transphobic hate crime reports rose from 215 in 2011 to 582 in 2015, but prosecutions remained steady at 20 per annum.

In January 2016 in the other place, the Women and Equalities Committee produced a report which made 35 recommendations. On 7 July the Government replied; it was responded to on behalf of a Government in which Theresa May was Home Secretary. Today, I want to ask the Minister about some key points in the report and the response.

The Minister for Women and Equalities has a cross-government departmental role, because trans people face discrimination in a number of different aspects of government. In July, the Government said that they would agree an action plan—an update of the 2011 trans equality action plan, brought into government by my noble friend Lady Featherstone—and that they would monitor progress. We are still waiting, and I ask the Minister when that will happen.

The Women and Equalities Committee had evidence from all sorts of people, including legal and medical professionals, which stated that the inclusion of gender reassignment as a protected characteristic in the Equality Act was a huge step forward at the time, but it is now dated, and what we really need is an updating of that Act to make gender identity a protected characteristic. That could make a fundamental difference to the lives of these women. For example, it would enable political representation—we have no trans people in Parliament whatever. Some of us, in my political party, want to make sure that we give preference to some candidates from minority groups, which includes people from the trans community. In fact, we have adopted a candidate in a seat that we hope to win, but it would have been much easier to do if we had had that change in the law.

In the inquiry of the Women and Equalities Committee, people testified to the fact that the Gender Recognition Act was in its day pioneering legislation, but it too is dated. It has a medicalised approach and requires people to have a mental health diagnosis to confirm their identity. It runs contrary to the dignity and personal autonomy of applicants. The committee asked the Government within this Parliament to come up with proposals to change the Act in line with human rights legislation. The Minister for Equality said in 2016 that they would do that and make changes to demedicalise the gender recognition process. We are still waiting. When will it happen?

The gender recognition panel meets in secret. Is it monitored? How do the Government know that it is exercising its authority correctly? How do they know whether it is doing so efficiently or whether people’s rights are being abused?

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, will not be surprised to hear me raise the matter of the spousal veto, as it was a matter that we talked about during the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. It is still the case that a spouse can withhold their agreement to a gender recognition certificate being issued to their partner who has transitioned. I cannot think of any other circumstance in which we would allow a spouse indefinitely to punish somebody to whom they had been close to prevent them obtaining the legal identity to which they should be entitled. When we have asked about this before, we have had numbers given to us of how many spousal recognitions have gone through, but we have never had the numbers of people who have been refused. We really do need to stop those women being indefinitely trapped in that situation.

We have done a tremendous amount in this country to lead the world in equalities legislation, but in this one respect we are lagging far behind. It is really important that we begin to pick this issue up very soon. Next year, we will have the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in this country. We left to the Commonwealth a terrible colonial legacy on LGBT rights, but we tell it that it should get better.

Trans women are bold and I think brave in doing everyday things, but they have waited far too long for change. The Government may have hoped that the report sank without trace and that some of us have not noticed, but we have, and we will continue to ask the question until these women get the equality and equal treatment that they deserve.