NHS England: Ovarian Cancer - Question

– in the House of Lords at 11:06 am on 2 May 2024.

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Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Labour 11:06, 2 May 2024

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of NHS England London stating that “anyone with ovaries can get ovarian cancer” in a social media post rather than referring to “women”, whereas at other times NHS England refers to “men” in relation to prostate cancer; and whether this wording has been market tested with women, including those for whom English is a second language, to ensure that it is fully understood.

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

We are writing to NHS England about NHS London’s social media post, to reiterate the expectation that biological sex should be front and centre of all health-related information. Removing language around biological sex has the potential for unintended health consequences. The Government are committed to upholding the rights of women and girls, which is why we are consulting on updates to the NHS constitution, including the use of clear language based on biological sex.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Labour

I warmly welcome the Minister’s response, which is probably welcomed across the House. Given the Government’s welcome assurance that “single-sex wards” means “biologically single-sex wards”, will he also discuss with the GMC the video on its website that advises doctors to ask trans patients which wards they would prefer to go in? Perhaps he could also talk to the GMC about its practice of allowing doctors to change their gender on the register without any advice that they should inform patients of their biological sex. Although I approve of the Government saying so, it is very hard for patients to ask for a doctor of a particular sex for intimate care if they do not know the sex of their doctor.

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

First, I thank the noble Baroness for all her work in this space. I will continue to work closely with her, including by writing to and meeting the GMC as necessary on all these matters. On her second point, while I respect that many clinicians may wish to keep their information private, we have to understand that, for many people, it is the patient’s right to be treated by someone of a particular biological sex and to know what that is. We have to make sure that those feelings and understandable sensitivities—which are sometimes religious—are catered for.

Photo of Baroness Burt of Solihull Baroness Burt of Solihull Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I totally agree that the wording looks a bit odd, to say the least, and that we should give special consideration to the wording for people for whom English is not their first language. However, there are tens of thousands of trans and non-binary people who would be missed out if we did not spell out that trans men can still get ovarian cancer and trans women can get prostate cancer. Does the Minister agree that what we need is clear, incisive language, so that everyone can be aware of the health risks that apply to them?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Yes, absolutely. We all come at this from the perspective of making sure that health is front and centre, which is why the primary descriptors should be “man” and “woman”, as I think we all agree. Beyond that, we should clarify that “woman” may mean a “person with ovaries”—but the primary descriptor is “woman”. I hope that we can all agree on that.

Photo of Baroness Meyer Baroness Meyer Conservative

My Lords, given the lack of specific data on the consequences of NHS England’s adoption of gender-neutral language and services, does my noble friend the Minister agree that the millions of women who have been affected should have been consulted before such measures were implemented? Does he agree that, if medical records fail to document patients’ biological sex, clinicians would be at risk of giving trans people the wrong medication?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Yes. Once again, I come at this from the perspective that health is the primary factor here. Clearly, a person’s biological sex is a key part of the information on their record that any clinician needs to know, so that absolutely needs to be primary.

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Non-affiliated

My Lords, I will make a simple point with which I hope the Minister agrees. Is it not to be welcomed that we come up with language that is inclusive and reaches as many people as possible, as the noble Baroness, Lady Burt, suggested, and as is indicated in the framing of the information we are discussing?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Yes. To reiterate, I think that we should always use “man” or “woman” as the primary descriptor. For people with English as a second language, “woman” is very understandable. We can then be inclusive by saying a “person with ovaries”, so that we are absolutely clear. My remit here is health, so I want to make sure that most people, especially if English is their second language, understand who we are referring to when we say “woman”.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Chair, Preterm Birth Committee, Chair, Preterm Birth Committee

My Lords, I am slightly reluctant to stand up and get involved, but I have done so previously, and I will continue to support the campaign led by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, to make sure that the words “woman” and “mother” are not removed from our language—I absolutely support that. I will muddy the waters a bit. There is, in medical terms, a syndrome called androgen insensitivity syndrome, which occurs in about two to five per 100,000 births. The person born is registered at birth as a female, because they have the phenotype of a female and external genitalia that resemble those of a female. They grow up as female, and the diagnosis is often not made until puberty, when they do not menstruate—but they develop breasts. They do not have ovaries. They often identify themselves as female for the rest of their lives, and they occasionally get married. I have looked after such a person myself. They are registered as female, they do not have ovaries and they sometimes have internal testes, which can become cancerous. So it is correct that only people with ovaries can develop ovarian diseases, including ovarian cancer. As I said, I have muddied the waters.

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I am not sure that there was a question there, so I might take the easy option of thanking the noble Lord for his comments—and for maybe muddying the waters—and moving on.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Equalities and Women's Issues), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, all noble Lords have raised the issue and the Minister has put it quite rightly: health has to be the primary consideration, language is quite important, and how do we reach difficult communities who are isolated, whether for community or religious reasons, and so on? On a visit to Kenya last year, I was able to see innovative practices. Women living with HIV are 60% more likely to get cervical cancer, so local treatment centres were being used as a way of testing and screening so that comorbidity was properly addressed. The success of these campaigns was because they were backed up by using individuals trained in the community to empower and educate their community. They provide a critical service by building trust and confidence, because many people are reluctant to be tested and screened in the way that noble Lords have been talking about. That innovation has been incredibly successful in Kenya. Does the Minister agree that we can learn from that sort of thing and start doing it in this country?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Absolutely, and I hope noble Lords have seen that I am keen to learn from wherever. I would be interested to understand more in this case. As I think we are all saying in these arguments, it is about making sure that we are being sensitive and inclusive in language, but that we are also being very clear in our language about what we mean so that health always comes first.

Photo of Lord Allan of Hallam Lord Allan of Hallam Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, I recently looked at the prostate-specific antigen screening programme advice, which was very good and met the requirements that the Minister has set out. However, I got there only because of a Peer-to-Peer networking episode, where I bumped into another Peer who said, “You really need to go and look at the PSA screening”. It struck me then that this journey into screening programmes is still very confused and ad hoc. Will the Minister look at that and at how we can make sure that whoever you are and whatever your gender, your age and your other risk factors, you get the direction you need into the right screening programme?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I thank the noble Lord; he is always very good at bringing up some of those cases. I will look into it and make sure that we do that.

Photo of Baroness Fox of Buckley Baroness Fox of Buckley Non-affiliated

My Lords, I welcome the untangling of linguistic confusion and the implications for policy. However, when the Minister says, “When we say ‘woman’, we all know what we mean”, I am not convinced that that is true in policy circles. Increasingly, inclusive linguistic demands are that “women” includes men who self-identify as women, which means that by-women and for-women provision, such as rape crisis centres, domestic abuse support and so on, is actually not women-only at all. When the Minister says, “We all know what we mean by ‘woman’”, can he make it absolutely clear that he means “woman” as in “natal woman” and not those who identify as women?

Photo of Lord Markham Lord Markham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I guess what I am trying to say here—again, always with my health hat firmly on—is that I want to make sure that when we describe something in a health sense, I want that person to know that we mean them because we are doing something which applies to them, often in the case of ovarian or cervical cancer. By saying “woman”, obviously in most cases that will make it very clear that it applies to them—particularly to those with English as a second language—and they know what that means. To make sure we are covering all the bases, I am very happy that we have that secondary descriptor of a “person with ovaries”. I am trying to cover all the bases in an inclusive way so that the health message gets through.