My Lords, in speaking to my amendments, I very much welcome the Minister’s announcement, as well as his willingness to talk to noble Lords on numerous occasions over the last four days. I also welcome the review he is announcing alongside the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I had already decided to put my support behind the noble Lord, Lord Lucas. I prefer the term “woman” but, as he said, I am very happy with the substitution of “mother” for “person”.
I always wanted to see the Bill delivered so that the Minister can get her maternity leave, but I also wanted it to be clear and respectful to women. I am delighted that we have come to this outcome. There is no doubt that the use of the word “person” rather than “woman” or “mother” is not a technical issue that should ever have been decided by parliamentary counsel. It goes right to the heart of the Government’s attitude towards women, their rights and their ability to speak clearly about situations where their sex matters. In recent months we have increasingly heard about the Government’s concerns about free speech in this country. However, when it comes to issues to do with sex and gender, they have been remarkably silent.
I know that many noble Lords have received countless messages, mainly from women, since our debate on Monday—I have had over 200 messages. What comes through is their fear about the hard-won rights of women and their marginalisation in recent years. I was struck by the comments of one senior NHS consultant, who said:
“Language matters and sex-based rights depend upon that language … You are … aware of what happens when women have … tried to express similar concerns” to those that noble Lords expressed on Monday. She continued:
“What happened to Rosie Duffield was disgusting, but the silence from her colleagues was also chilling and very disturbing.”
Other comments I received were:
“If we can’t speak meaningfully about sex, we will never end sexism, violence against women and girls, or misogyny”,
“I have campaigned for equality across the board all my life and yet now I’m dismissed as a bigot and a transphobe for even trying to raise concerns at all.”
I too find it chilling that those who speak up for women’s rights can find themselves accused of trans hate and subject to horrific abuse, particularly if they are women. That really is a sign of free speech under threat.
At Second Reading, I listened very carefully to the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, because she was one of the two speakers who disagreed with the general theme of our debate. She referred to the importance of the language used in legislation remaining inclusive and referred to trans men believing that using the word “woman” excludes them and therefore removes their rights.
As Louise Perry pointed out in this week’s edition of the New Statesman—actually, in relation to the Brighton NHS trust’s adoption of gender-inclusive language—one risk is that if you exclude one group to include another, you impact on their rights. It goes much wider than health, of course. How is erasing women from the language of the law somehow inclusive? Where is the equivalent pressure to change references to men in public health campaigns? Prostate Cancer UK does not come under fire for transphobia for talking about it as a men’s health issue.
It is women’s safety, dignity and inclusion that are compromised when organisations do not feel confident in maintaining the ordinary privacy of separate spaces for changing and washing. It is women’s specialist services, such as rape crisis centres, that are being replaced by mixed-sex services—the latest example being very recently in Brighton, with the contract being withdrawn from Brighton Women’s Aid.
It is women’s specialist services and charities where the staff are afraid to speak up for fear of losing funding. It is the women in the workplace who feel threatened if they speak up for their rights under the Equality Act. It is female academics who are being no-platformed and silenced because they are seen as “the wrong kind of feminist”. It is the women MPs in the other place who get the hate and abuse. That is not inclusion.
I support trans rights, and I support women’s rights. Sometimes, there can be a tension between them. That is why the Equality Act 2010 was so carefully drafted to recognise that, with separate characteristics and principles for reconciling and balancing rights when they come into conflict. The legislation uses the word “woman” not just in terms of defining the protected characteristic of sex, but throughout the Act in all sections related to pregnancy, maternity and lactation.
All institutions have a responsibility to avoid discrimination in relation to each of the nine protected characteristics as laid out in that Act, but it is increasingly common to find in the equality policies of many public bodies that the Equality Act characteristics of “sex” and “gender reassignment” have been replaced by a single word: “gender”. The protected characteristics of pregnancy and maternity are often forgotten. How can those organisations then assess how their policies impact on people in relation to sex and gender reassignment, when they collapse the two categories into one?
Furthermore, many are advised by organisations that tell them that even thinking about the possibility of a conflict of rights is transphobic. The result, of course, is that single and separate-sex services, which are enshrined in the Equality Act 2010, are coming under increasing attack, not least from the misleading guidance issued by many government bodies, local authorities and the EHRC.
I am very grateful to the Minister. This is a turning point and an important moment, but there is much more to do to protect women’s rights and the other rights enshrined in the Equality Act. I will certainly not move my amendment, but I thank all noble Lords who have given enormous support to this cause; I am very grateful.