I beg to move,
That this House
has considered e-petition 580220, relating to legal recognition of non-binary gender identities.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank Ezio, who started the petition; we have met and had a good conversation on the subject. The petition has gained more than 140,000 signatures, so this topic is on the minds of many.
Many of the people I have spoken to have said that they supported the petition because they feel that, at present, they do not exist. I want the community of people who feel that they are non-binary to know that, of course, I accept that they exist. I see them; I hear them; I feel for them; and I want to help them. I say to them, “We are a tolerant nation and we accept you as you are.” It does not follow, however, that the law should be changed to reflect the way that certain individuals feel. No matter where anyone sits on this subject, their opinion should be respected.
I have not taken part in any social media discourse on this subject, because I believe that it often becomes completely negative. I have met some people who suffer with gender dysphoria, and I do not think that such discourse helps them in any way whatsoever. We must always remember that we are talking about human lives—about people with whom we share society. I have spoken with many people about this subject, and I thank them all for their contributions.
The petition asks to
“Have non binary be included as an option under the GRP (Gender Recognition Panel)/ GRC (Gender Recognition Certificate), in order to allow those identifying as non binary to be legally seen as their true gender identity. As well as having ‘Non-binary’ be seen as a valid transgender identity… By recognising Non-binary as a valid gender identity, it would aid in the protection of Non-binary individuals against transphobic hate crimes, and would ease Gender Dysphoria experienced by Non-binary people.”
That may seem straightforward. It would be just an extra column on a birth certificate or a gender-recognition certificate and part of the forms that we complete daily, and the Gender Recognition Act 2004 is already in place, so why not? Whether or not our starting position is to agree with the idea, we need to look at the impact on and implications for wider society.
Let me walk hon. Members through my reservations. First, I do not believe that the inclusion of non-binary would necessarily help with gender dysphoria. If people feel that they can exist only by putting an X in a box, we as a society need to convince them differently. Prior to the debate, I spoke with many people in the non-binary community, and they certainly spoke well. I do not think any of them need a mark in a box in order to exist.
Secondly, I do not think the change would reduce any so-called hate crimes. People who carry out such offences have no place in a free society, and we already have criminal laws in place to deal with such appalling behaviour. There are also practical issues relating to the non-binary and trans questions: protecting our kids from making life-changing decisions before they are adults and old enough to make such decisions; single-sex spaces; and, of course, sport.
I will start with children. In certain areas of the country, clusters of schoolchildren are saying that they are non-binary or trans. Where has that come from? Why is it more prevalent in some areas than in others? Who or what is putting that idea in young minds? Who is telling them, “You can be the opposite of what you are”?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for his comments about a respectful tone, with which I am sure we all agree. What I do not agree with, however, is the notion that someone has put into people’s minds an idea about their own identities. Will he maybe reflect on that as he goes forward?
I thank the hon. Member for her comments. I will reflect on that later as I go through my speech. But such cases are growing exponentially at the moment, and I am deeply concerned about it.
I do not want to get too technical on this, but there are certain times in our life when certain areas develop. The first two years are crucial, with the development of the front part of our brain. The same can be said about the nerve endings in our eyes: if those do not join properly by the time we are four or five, they never will. Puberty is also a time of development, and many young people are now questioning their gender at that crucial time. If we stop that developmental process in its tracks, before puberty, the results can be life changing. I believe that making non-binary a legal identity, and having an acceptance that that is an easy path to take, will have hugely detrimental effects on many young people, when I know as a certain fact that they are not old enough or mature enough to make that decision and understand the long-term and life-changing consequences. They are children; they are not adults. Therefore, any such decisions for children below the age of 18 must be avoided.
I am also unsure who is to decide that a child is not a boy or a girl, and when. The child cannot decide when it is born, so who decides? Doctors have always decided the biological sex, and there are rules in place for that. What about a 10-year-old? Can a child decide at that age, or is it still a parental choice? All the time, one of the few consistencies that a person can have in this mixed-up world is taken away. Is society really to say that he or she cannot decide whether they are a boy or a girl, or feel they are, before they have gone through puberty?
The interim Cass report said that we are letting our young people down by not having enough centres for kids who believe that they are suffering from gender dysphoria, but there are those who disagree. I have heard from a senior mental health specialist that the lack of appointments is actually saving us from a tsunami. That specialist is not alone in that view, so perhaps clinics are not the answer; perhaps they are. Perhaps education is. Perhaps there could be a standard curriculum—a single piece on what this looks like practically. It would be just basics: “This is what a life can look like and how it can never be changed once medication starts.”
Let us also educate parents not just to say yes in order to keep the peace, but to be strong and get kids on the right path. Let us give teachers the ability to say no to this issue at school; they want to. They want to teach kids and watch them shine, not fall apart. And please let us stop with this blurring of lines and bending to every whim that a lobby group asks for. Let us ask ourselves why a lobby group wants to work in this space. Why does it want to put kids even as young as 10 on to puberty blockers, especially when it knows that most who do take puberty blockers end up on further drugs—leading to infertility, and facial hair for girls—and in a place where no one else is.
It has been said that people are taking their own lives because they are so confused prior to treatment. But these struggling individuals are taking their own lives after treatment, too, so that really is no answer. We have to protect our children while they are children.
The next problem is what happens in single-sex spaces. This is deeply concerning. If we were to work around it to make it work safely for women, which I believe would be imperative, the necessary changes to our buildings would cost billions of pounds. Why should a female prisoner have to share a prison with a man who identifies as non-binary or a trans person? Why should a lady have to share a changing room with a man? Why should a woman have to follow a pre-op trans woman into a toilet cubicle? Why should a girl at school have to get changed in front of a boy? Why should a girl have to share a dormitory with a boy? Whether the girls think that that is okay or not, I am sure that their mums and dads do not. I do not believe it is safe; I do not believe it is decent; and I do not believe it is right. Women are not only entitled to safe single-sex spaces; those spaces are also absolutely necessary. Society has been this way for centuries. It works, and it should not be casually put aside.
Sport is another issue. I am not the greatest sportsperson who has ever lived; I never have been, but I do understand competition, the feeling of winning, and wanting to strive to be the best. I speak in schools whenever I get the chance, and I encourage all children to aim high in life and not be frightened of competition. Am I to tell the girls in a school, “Don’t bother competing, because you’ll never stand on the podium at the highest level. The best you can hope for is second when you compete against a trans woman. Everyone will know you have won, but I’m afraid that gold medal is forever out of your reach”? That is wrong. Biology matters and biological sex is real. Men and women are built differently from birth, and remain different throughout their lives. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. To make non-binary a legal entity reaches beyond what many people can think of. That is why I cannot support the petition.
Am I being unfair? I do not think so. I am being, I hope, realistic. The vast majority of people in my constituency know that men and women exist and that they are different—they are male and female. There may be people who feel that their gender is non-binary, but they are all biological men and women. What is my response to the genuine concerns behind the petition? My first ask is: leave our kids alone. Kids have enough to cope with as it is. Let them decide when they are old enough and mature enough to make those decisions. I hear so much about complex families and complex lives, so let us not make them any more complex. That would be unwise.
While I am here, I want to speak to parents. If their child comes home with those concerns, they should talk to them but be strong. They should not ever give in to them or to peer pressure from other adults. Their child was born either a boy or a girl; they should be proud of who their child is and tell them to be proud too. Wherever their interests lie, parents should hope and encourage them. They should be part of their life and talk to them—talk to them all the time. However, parents should push back on this. Sometimes parents have to be cruel to be kind—children will thank their parents for that in the long run. I have one further thought on that. If children say that they are unhappy, think for a second about how unhappy they will be when their best friend is having a child and they cannot; when their best friends are dressing up beautifully and they are having to shave. What makes you sure that they will be happy then?
Single-sex spaces are exactly that, and they should stay that way. When an individual enters one of those spaces, their sex is what should matter, not their assumed gender or how they feel that given day. To endanger women, or even to make them feel uncomfortable, is not fair. Some surveys reportedly show that people are okay with that, but who has been asked and where were they asked? What were the questions and how were they phrased? Have they knocked on the doors in my constituency? I know the people there, and I know that they agree with me.
Turning to sport, again, it is just not right. Certain sports, such as rugby, may carry out risk assessments that exonerate them from joining this argument, but please shout up. Sport is sport, and if it is not fair, then it ain’t right. I ask the biggest voices in the arena—the sportsmen and women at the top of their game and the pundits, who have all earned their money from the public and say that they want to give back—not to blow in the wind but to use their position to speak out on this subject. That would truly be giving back, by giving every child a chance to have a great childhood and to dream big, as they did. They should speak as one voice and push back.
I have read many books on this subject of late, and spent much time trying to see a different side to this, but ruining young lives, making women feel unsafe and taking away the sporting ambitions of half the population just is not right.
I have one final argument. I have heard that this is what other countries have done, and therefore so should we. I do not represent another country; I represent this one, which I believe is by far the best. Do not tell me that England is a bad place; it is not. It has its issues, as all other countries do, but I truly believe that it is absolutely wonderful. We should never do something because another country has done it; we should do something because it is right.
I am afraid that I cannot back a movement that may rob a child of their life. I could never back a community who wanted to put a biological male in a female changing room. I will never back anyone who wants to put a biological male in a female sports event, be that at Wimbledon or on a school field. In all fairness, I do not think any of us should back that.
I may have come across quite strong. I feel that I have to. I started by saying that I want the community who feel non-binary to know that I of course accept that they exist—I see them, I hear them, I feel for them and I want to help them. I say to them, “We are a tolerant nation and we accept you as you are. At 18 we should be able to give you a person to talk to—someone who can help.” That we must do. Anyone who abuses that community needs taking to task. If an offence is committed, they should be prosecuted. However, I am afraid that the course of life, that a small minority wish to embrace, comes with far-reaching implications for the rest of society. As such, I am afraid that I cannot support the petition.
“Non-binary” is a term for gender identities that are not solely male or female—identities that are outside the gender binary. So what do we mean by gender? The word “gender” used to be interchangeable with biological sex, and biological sex is indeed binary. Humans, like all mammals, have either male or female sex chromosomes in every cell. We are male or female; that is immutable and scientifically indisputable.
So what is gender identity? Gender is sometimes used as a descriptor of how masculine or feminine something is perceived to be, such as a particular character trait, choice of clothing or type of behaviour. We all understand what feminine or masculine clothes look like, though of course the stereotypes change between cultures and over time. Certain preferences are considered to be more masculine or feminine, and certain characteristics are more common in males or females. We all know both males and females who possess these traits. Given how important one’s sex is to one’s biology and psychology, it would be very odd indeed if our sex did not have some influence over our choices and behaviour.
What is the evidence for the idea that someone could have a gender identity that is different from their biological sex; the idea that someone can be male but feel female or, in the case of non-binary people, be either male or female but feel neither or both? It is absolutely normal for an individual to feel that they do not fit in with cultural or stereotypical ideas of how boys or girls and men or women should behave. How many of us in this room feel like we fit into a purely male, female or any other stereotype? No one completely fits neatly into a mould. Some people feel that they do not fit at all. Of course it is possible for someone to feel that they identify in some ways more with people of the opposite sex than their own, or not particularly with either. This is a normal part of the human experience.
While there are infinite different ways to express masculinity and femininity, it does not follow—logically or scientifically—that one’s soul or self has a gender, or that that gender is distinct from one’s biological sex. There is no observable marker for what it feels like to be female or male, because no one knows what it feels like to be anyone other than themselves. If we see a person’s likes or dislikes and preferences or behaviours only through the lens of gender, then we have lost sight of a concept far more important and evidence-based: the variety of human personality.
Through the wonder of DNA and the infinite permutations of upbringing and environment, every one of us has a unique personality, but those who see everything through the lens of gender are watching humanity in black and white, rather than through the glorious technicolour of the richness and variety of human nature. In trying to squeeze all that human diversity into the box of gender, there is also a danger of losing a grip on material reality.
Some people struggle intensely with gender distress, and some from a very early age. They should be treated with the utmost compassion and care. They should receive all the care, support and treatment they require. Adults in this country should, of course, be free to dress and present in any way without fear or discrimination, and they should be fully accepted. However, in this country our law is based on facts, evidence and material reality; it should not be used to embed contested and unevidenced ideologies that can sometimes be harmful. I will explain why I do believe this ideology is so harmful.
Children are now being taught in schools that there are more than two genders and that they can change their gender. They are being told by trusted adults that if they are gender non-confirming—itself a regressive concept that we threw out in the 1980s—then that might mean they were born in the wrong body. In one classroom, children are being taught the facts of sexual reproduction, and in another that women can have penises and men can have periods. They are being told to suppress the evidence before their own eyes by saying that a boy is now a girl and a girl is now a boy—or neither boy nor girl.
Vulnerable children, particularly those who are autistic, same-sex attracted or have mental health conditions, latch on to gender theory as an explanation for why they might be different or why they do not fit in. These children then look up the terms “trans” and “non-binary” online and are drawn in by adults they do not know on Discord and TikTok, who tell them how to obtain and inject cross-sex hormones. They follow YouTube stars who glorify surgical transition. Schools jump into transitioning children, changing their names and their pronouns and celebrating their new gender status publicly, sometimes without informing their parents, which cuts them off from the people who care about them most.
There has been a fifteenfold increase in the number of children referred to gender clinics, and an exponential rise in the number of trans and non-binary-identified children in school. Let us remember the ultimate consequences of transition: infertility and loss of sexual function for life; and for girls, permanent facial hair, a deep voice, male pattern baldness and lifelong health problems. This is a failure of safeguarding. It is not biology; it is ideology, and in many cases it is indoctrination.
It is not open-minded or compassionate to teach a child that they may be trans or non-binary. It is not open-minded or compassionate to encourage a child to look up gender on the internet, and to talk to adults who ask them intimate questions and for intimate pictures. It is not open-minded or compassionate to tell a child that their teenage problems can be solved overnight by a rejection of their own body and a denial of their biological sex.
We need to wake up. Gender theory is not the next frontier in the culture war or a new battle for civil rights; it is an unevidenced ideology that is causing harm to women, children, and people who are gay and lesbian. There is a significant amount of work to do to fix the safeguarding failures that are taking place in some schools, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary is aware of some of these issues.
To recognise non-binary as a gender identity in statute would be a mistake, separating law from reality and putting vulnerable children at risk. I echo the comments made by my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher: this is a debate about people, and I fully recognise that there are many people in this country who identify as non-binary and should absolutely be accepted. However, this is a matter of putting ideology into law, and we should resist that.
I had wanted to say only a few brief words in this debate, but given that we have a little time, I might add a few more. I start by echoing the words of my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher, who opened the debate: we absolutely have a duty to be tolerant of those who do not identify with the gender that reflects their biological sex, or who choose to identify as non-binary. I acknowledge that a great many young people suffer from gender dysphoria, and we need to be supportive and give them the help they require.
That does not mean that we have to change the law, and it certainly does not mean that we have to change statute in order to recognise one particular description of how people are choosing to identify. As my hon. Friend said, there are criminal laws in place to deal with transphobic crime and other related hate crime. It is important that those laws are enforced and are seen to be enforced, in a way that is no different from how they are enforced in respect of those who do not identify in that way.
The petition states that recognising non-binary as a valid gender identity
“would aid in the protection of Non-binary individuals against transphobic hate crimes, and would ease Gender Dysphoria experienced by Non-binary people.”
That is quite a bold claim, for which I do not see the evidence. Indeed, being faced with the possibility of identifying not as a male, not as a female, but as non-binary could cause added confusion, certainly to teenagers going through a very formative and impressionable stage of their lives—as if they do not have enough to worry about already.
In so many debates, we hear about the huge pressures on our teenagers, and those of us who are parents have seen those ourselves. Teenagers certainly face far more pressures than when you or even I, Sir Roger, were at school and growing up, going through puberty and everything related to it. They face the mental health impact of the modern world—of social media, of peer pressure, and of the trendy thing to do that goes on in school and, crucially, in the social media world, out of the range of face-to-face challenge.
Those are huge pressures on our young people. What are they to do if faced with the question, “Are you sure you are a girl or a boy?” If we put that into law and say, “Actually, you may not be a girl or a boy; you can opt for non-binary,” whether or not a young person instigates that themselves, the pressure from some people to get their contemporaries to do so could be overwhelming. I take issue with the formula in the petition because I think it could actually make things worse for children who are already potentially questioning their gender identity because of pressures on them.
Not acknowledging that the law needs to be changed in order to protect such individuals should not be seen as in some way anti-transgender or anti people who want to identify themselves as different from the sex with which they were born. I share the concerns of my hon. Friend Miriam Cates about the disproportionate number of young people, in particular, who are looking to identify as transgender or non-binary and are ending up in gender clinics. She said there has been a 15-fold increase in recent years. Why is there this big increase? We need more evidence and research on exactly what is driving it in certain parts of the country and certain parts of the world.
I gather that it is heretical to claim that a person cannot change their birth sex, but to me, it is not terribly traditional to have been brought up with biology lessons that say that sex is not immutable. I fully acknowledge that people can choose to change their gender and want to be identified as something else. They cannot reverse history and change their birth sex. They can only choose to change their gender or the way they are recognised now; they cannot go back in time.
We must also look at the impact on the rest of the population. It is absolutely right that we protect a minority of people who need protections, but it is not right that we do it with no regard whatsoever to the vast majority of the population who do identify as men and women—in particular, women; the impact on women’s space is absolutely worrying. We have heard examples relating to gender-neutral toilets and changing rooms, the situation in prisons, and so on.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has given way. Is he able to go into some more detail about his concerns regarding prisons? I have heard the Minister on numerous occasions clarify the arrangements for ensuring that everyone ought to be safe on the prison estate.
Indeed, everybody should be safe in prisons. I have raised this matter with the Prisons Minister in the past. There are statistics, I am afraid, that show that there have been sexual assaults committed in prison by somebody whose gender is different from their biological sex. I appreciate that the Government are doing more to ensure that that cannot happen in the future, but I am afraid there are cases where that has happened. That is why women, in particular, feel threatened. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady may well not feel threatened, but a lot of my constituents have come to me, having seen this evolving argument, to say that there are places where they no longer feel safe. We have a duty of care to those people; we must ensure their safety and wellbeing too.
Frankly, anybody who has the audacity to question any of these things, as I just have, is faced with the cancel culture, which is so utterly damaging and absolutely does not help the population as a whole. It certainly does not help women, and it does not help the gay and lesbian population, who feel greatly restricted by much of this. This argument and the terminology in the petition are, I am afraid, about the creeping blurring of language and a conflation of and around sex and gender. That threatens to erase the recognition of males and females—of men and women.
As I said, I am particularly concerned about the impact on children. I have been in Parliament for quite a while—not quite as long as you, Sir Roger—and in that time most things have become more restricted for children; for more things, we have seen the age of access raised to 18. A person under 18 can no longer go into a suntanning parlour to get a suntan, and they can no longer have a tattoo. We quite rightly restrict cosmetic procedures for children unless medically required. We know the pressures on young girls to get breast-enlargement surgery to be with the programme, and all the social media pressures about men and having cosmetic surgery.
Against that trend of recognising that children are children—when they are adults, they can do what they like, within reason, if it does not harm anybody else, but children need our protection, and that that is why the laws are there—it seems extraordinary that we have seen a huge increase in access to puberty blockers through gender clinics. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge quite rightly said, puberty blockers have life-changing impacts on children—far more than a tattoo, a temporary suntan or even a breast-enlargement operation would have. Yet if someone challenges that—if someone questions whether those children are capable of thinking through the consequences and are cognisant of the implications for the rest of their lives of making that decision, with or without the involvement of parental responsibility—they are subject to cancel culture. There is a huge contradiction in those two scenarios.
Let me end with some examples from Parliament. Whether we like it or not, what we do here is seen outside, and it is seen as setting an example. Sometimes it is a bad example, but certainly what we do and say in this place has influences. Members may have seen the reports of the debates on the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Bill in the House of Lords, where there were attempts to erase the term “woman” from the Bill. I am glad that my hon. Friend Baroness Noakes led the resistance to that. She said:
“I am not prepared to be erased as a woman”.—[Official Report, House of Lords,
Effectively, that is what was happening there. The language that we use in this place is important.
I mentioned the creeping blurring of language. You may recall, Sir Roger, that three years ago I was successful in my private Member’s Bill, which is now the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019. It enabled opposite-sex couples to have a civil partnership, it enabled the mothers of married couples to have their names on marriage certificates, and it brought in various requirements for stillbirths. Unbeknown to me, and only pointed out some time after the legislation went through both Houses, section 3 refers to persons who are pregnant—not “women”, but “persons” who are pregnant.
If I had known that that had been inserted—I did not write those words; they were written by civil servants in one of the Departments—I would have insisted that the language be changed. Indeed, at the first opportunity—perhaps in the conversion therapy legislation that is coming through—I will be proposing an amendment to my own Act to ensure that we refer to women, because it is only women who can get pregnant. This is happening all the time, and the insidious changing and blurring of our language is so important.
Another thing has just come to my attention. If we are looking for a fellow Member on the Houses of Parliament search engine—or if one of our constituents is doing so—and we are not sure where they come from or what subject we are looking for but want to search by sex, we now have four options. We can say that they are “male”, “female”, “any” or “non-binary”. That is on the search engine of this House, yet, as we have heard, the term “non-binary” does not have any status in legislation. Indeed, that is what the petition is all about.
We are setting the trend by acknowledging the existence of a formal term “non-binary” in searching for Members of Parliament. I am not aware that any Member of the Lords or Commons has, in any case, identified as non-binary. That is what I am worried about. Words matter. Although this petition—
I should hand over to the Front Benchers, or we will run out of time. I have been generous to the hon. Lady.
Words matter, and if we do not set a good example in this place—if we allow the blurring of terms and language to go unchallenged and unnoticed—then we should not be surprised when we see the consequences, some of which my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge and for Don Valley have alluded to.
Finally, the noble Lord Winston, who has written extensively—he is a man of huge expertise, knowledge and respect for his scientific and medical background—talks about badly damaged children who have been subjected to puberty blocking and other treatments at gender clinics. We have a duty to young people and to our constituents to ensure that words matter, that protections matter and that respect matters. That is why, despite the best intentions that I am sure the petition has, I think that it would have great implications were it to be adopted by the Government, and I urge the Minister to desist from doing so.
It is a pleasure to participate in this debate, which is an important one. I am grateful to Nick Fletcher for opening it and for reflecting that people have told him that they feel they do not exist. That is a sentiment that we should reflect on as we go through the debate.
The petition has 189 signatures from East Renfrewshire. I am grateful to those people for signing it, and to those who took the time to speak to me and share their views. I am also grateful to a number of organisations that have provided briefing materials for the debate.
I think we need to get to the crux of the debate: what are we talking about, and why does it matter? I suspect that the hon. Member for Don Valley and I—I am sure that he will take this in the positive spirit that it is intended—do not have a lot in common in our outlook and views.
He is shaking his head, so he agrees with me. However, I support what he said about the importance of tone in the discussion. I am not sure that anyone concerned about this at a personal level will have been particularly comfortable hearing the debate, but I absolutely support the hon. Member’s calls for a proper tone to be adopted. He also spoke about listening being important—we have to not only listen, but take in what we are being told.
It is welcome that we are having the debate. These kinds of conversations are well overdue. In my view, we should be on a journey to a situation in which it is an absolutely normal and unremarkable thing to accept people for who they are. We should not have to hear othering comments and we should not hear portrayals of non-binary people as a threat—that is not fair, helpful or accurate. I am uncomfortable with the notion expressed by Miriam Cates that this is something we should consider in the context of its being a medical complaint or a concern that is related to people who are neurodiverse, for example.
I thank the hon. Lady for letting me intervene, but the evidence is pretty clear that a disproportionate number of children who identify as trans or non-binary are autistic—they have been diagnosed as autistic, with many more awaiting diagnosis. There is a clear link between children who are neurodiverse and children who are choosing to go down this path. Does she not think that that in itself is of concern and that those children should be surrounded with safeguarding support?
I think that all children should be surrounded with safeguarding and support—I suspect that that is something the hon. Member and I can agree on—but to conflate autism diagnosis and people who are non-binary is a mistake and unhelpful in the bigger picture.
I also did not agree with the assertion of the hon. Member for East Worthington and Shoreham—
Tim Loughton—I beg his pardon. I am glad he corrected me—I cannot read my own writing—but I did not agree with his assertion that there is some kind of issue with something like “non-binary” appearing on a drop-down menu. That should not be an issue for any of us. That costs us absolutely nothing, and it makes people feel more comfortable.
If I could make some progress first, I will be delighted to let the hon. Member intervene.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham said himself that words matter and that we need to set a good example in this place. He said that no MPs or peers were non-binary. I do not know that that is necessarily true, but if there were MPs or peers who identified as non-binary, I wonder how they would feel in this Chamber today. How comfortable would they be with the statements that their peers had made? I just put that back to those who have contributed, because I suspect that those people might feel quite uncomfortable.
I thank the hon. Member for letting me intervene. It is the implications that concern me. Most of my speech was built around the fact that if we give people this as a way forward, what will follow from it will change society as a whole. It may just be a drop-down menu to her, but to me it could change the way that young people grow up and the way that women identify themselves; basically, as we have said, we will erase women. It would also have a huge effect on the sports scene. It may just be a drop-down menu to her, but it is certainly not that to me.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I have to say to him that I am a woman and I am not going to be erased, and other people having the opportunity to have their identity respected is absolutely no threat to me or to my identity.
I wondered whether it was worth going back to consider the principles. Who are we talking about? Who are non-binary people? The hon. Gentleman has used the word “they” a few times. He may have a very clear picture of who he is referring to, but people who are listening or watching may not, so I think it is useful to explain that the term “non-binary people” reflects an incredibly diverse group of people—people who are undergoing various forms of social and medical transitions or none at all—and that not all of those whose views, lives or concerns are reflected here today would use the term “non-binary” to describe themselves. We are talking about a broad range of people.
The one thing that we can be sure of is that this is a group of people who are not currently recognised in the UK, and that presents them with challenges. The lack of legal recognition results in barriers. If they have a piece of identity documentation, as we all do, it may present differently from the way in which they present in their day-to-day lives. I think that all of us can understand that that might present a challenge. When we join a new workplace we have to present an identity document, and it must be a matter of concern for anyone whose identity document does not reflect their daily life. We do not need to agree with everything that has been said today to accept that that is a challenge and that perhaps we can find a better way.
I think that society in general is moving on this issue. We have heard a lot about young people. The young people I speak to have a much broader and open perspective on such issues than was the case many decades ago, when I was at school. At that time, LGBT people faced a difficult climate. My school was very large and it was thought that nobody there was gay—of course, that is complete nonsense, as I now know, because lots of people are gay. There was nothing wrong with the school, but the social climate was not accepting, so the situation was not okay for them.
That shows how we have moved on, and I think we are moving on further. Business and civic society are more open to the fact that we need to accommodate the needs of non-binary people, whether that is in employment, service provision or whatever. The fact that we cannot have this type of conversation about the barriers—never mind legal recognition—is a challenge.
Seventy-eight per cent of non-binary people have told TransActual that they do not have identification documents. That is a real challenge for them. How on earth do people go about their lives without having identification documents that align with their lived experience? How will that affect people socially, never mind things such as employment?
Other countries have moved further forward. The hon. Member for Don Valley reflected that in what he said. I think he said that England is the best country and that he supports the way things are done there. That is absolutely his perspective, but I think it is sensible for us to recognise that other countries around the world have a different perspective. Perhaps we should examine why that is the case and consider whether it has caused difficulties. It does not appear to be challenging in countries such as India, Nepal, New Zealand, Iceland and Taiwan—I could go on—for there to be a different and more open way of recording.
In considering how we go forward, it is key that we take on board the views and lived experience of those directly affected. The Women and Equalities Committee has done that. It produced a report on transgender equality in 2016, recommending a different option for gender recording on passports, with an X. It also suggested that consideration could be given to the removal of gender information from passports and that the UK Government should move towards non-gendering official records as a general principle. In its report on the GRA last December, the Committee asked the Government to clarify which barriers prevent them from allowing non-binary people to be legally recognised. These are reasonable and valid questions. I cannot emphasise enough the need for lived experience to be at the heart of these conversations.
To conclude, people who are non-binary and have a real stake in this kind of debate have had experiences with which that nobody in this Chamber would be comfortable. They have been refused services. They have poorer mental health than the rest of the population. They feel uncomfortable sharing their identity at work. More than half the people surveyed did not think that their identity would be respected. That is why we need to do more.
I am glad that the Scottish Government recognise the need to do more. They have a strong commitment to improving non-binary equality—for example, by recognising the need to end conversion practices. That provides a real contrast to the extraordinary pantomime that the UK Government have got themselves involved in over conversion practices. It is really disappointing that trans conversion support was missing from the Queen’s Speech.
The Scottish Government are also committed to advancing equal access to healthcare for LGBTI people and will also continue to use the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association rainbow index as a benchmark for action. By contrast, in 2018 the UK Government Equalities Office published an LGBT action plan in which it said that it would issue a call for evidence on the issues faced by non-binary people. The Minister may want to correct me, but I do not think that has been published, and we need to understand why.
My hon. Friend Kirsty Blackman spoke about these issues in February and noted that none of the UK Government’s proposals even acknowledged the identity or existence of non-binary people, and that that has to change. She was absolutely right. The Scottish Government appreciate that more still needs to be done, even though there are positives they have put in place, such as the working group on non-binary equality, which includes a focus on the lived experiences and voices of non-binary people. That has been done for reasons of fairness, wellbeing and the good of all of us. I am keen to hear the Minister’s response to the points I have raised.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I am very grateful to the petitioners and to Nick Fletcher for opening the debate.
This discussion has been of acute interest and importance to people who identify as non-binary. It is also important to be sensitive to the needs of those who describe themselves as intersex or as having differences in sex development. We must consider whether they would describe themselves as male, female or non-binary, and we must understand the differences in terminology when we discuss these issues. Everyone is different, and that is why it is essential that we discuss these matters in an atmosphere of respect, care and compassion. We will find solutions only by working together.
The background has already been set out. The Conservative Government maintain that they would reform the Gender Recognition Act. However, they are only determined to reduce the fee and put the process online. We have not seen progress on, for example, removing the spousal consent provision, which we discussed in this Chamber not so long ago. The Women and Equalities Committee and many respondents to the Government’s call for evidence called for change to provision for non-binary people.
The fundamental value for Labour when examining these issues is that of respect. We recognise the abuse that many non-binary identifying people have been subjected to—something rightly referred to by the petitioners. Furthermore, we recognise that this is a particularly visceral matter for those non-binary identifying people who may also describe themselves as biologically intersex or as having differences in sex development, as I will come on to later. Again, I appreciate that these categories are not used by everyone.
Labour has been clear that we must have far stronger measures against hate crimes, to which LGBT+ people are subject, and treat them as aggravated offences. That is surely necessary, given what appears to have been a doubling in reports of such appalling behaviour over the last five years. That is an area where I depart from the comments of the hon. Members for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and for Don Valley. We believe that there needs to be a change in the law to treat those offences as aggravated, and we believe the same of offences against disabled people, who are also not protected in that way.
We also need to acknowledge that, of course, as well as gender, sex continues to play an important role in different areas of policy. As I have repeatedly made clear in my role as shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, sex is not the same thing as gender and both are important in different contexts. That difference is reflected in legislation. For example, as a woman I am an adult female—that is my biological sex. There are, of course, also trans women who have made a transition in their gender, and they deserve respect and dignity also.
That is a slightly different question from the one I was discussing. I hope the hon. Member is aware of the fact that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently released guidelines on those matters. I may well already have shared such a changing room; very often, women’s changing rooms will have separate cubicles, and in any case, that is how people often choose to try on clothes. If the hon. Member is interested in that matter, he could look at the EHRC’s guidelines.
In the spirit of what I have just said, Labour urges the Government to focus on the treatment of non-binary people, and to especially focus on the need for research. Kirsten Oswald referred to the fact that the Government’s LGBT 2018 action plan committed the Conservatives to launch separate calls for evidence on the issues faced by non-binary and intersex people. The Government appear to have contracted the National Institute for Economic and Social Research to investigate that area, but no research appears to have been carried out. The EHRC has also
“recommended that further understanding was needed before any legislation was brought forward”.
We believe that additional research is particularly important when it comes to those people who might describes themselves as intersex, or as having differences in sex development. That refers to the relatively small number of individuals who are born with any of several variations in biological sex characteristics—for example, in chromosomes or genitals—some of whom may describe themselves as intersex and some of whom may describe themselves as non-binary. I appreciate, again, that not everybody uses those categories.
The hon. Lady is being very generous with her time and making a very measured speech. I have been listening carefully and what she says about intersex individuals and disorders of development is very important. However, we must be clear not to conflate what are genetic disorders with gender identity. Those are two extremely different things. People who are born intersex do have a sex on their birth certificate. They do, and should, receive close medical care, but that is a very different thing from gender identity—something for which there is no biological marker at all. That is the subject of today’s debate.
I most certainly have not conflated the two; I would have thought that it was quite clear from my comments that I was not conflating the two. I have been very explicit about the difference. This matter did come up earlier, because the hon. Member for Don Valley suggested—unless I misheard him—that doctors might take some of the decisions if there are differences in sex development. There has been a very significant discussion around this, as I am sure Miriam Cates is aware. In countries such as Germany, quite a bit of work has been done on the possibility of ensuring that people can make decisions for themselves at the age of medical consent and competence—if it is still healthy for them to do so—although if those particular biological characteristics are aligned with physical health problems, earlier intervention might be required. The hon. Member for Don Valley mentioned that earlier. We need more research into the prevalence of those cases in the UK, as we do not have much data on them.
Of course, we are discussing the matter in the context of the Government rowing back on their commitment to adopt a ban on conversion therapy that would cover trans people. Let me be crystal clear. Such a ban must not cover psychological support and treatment, non-directive counselling or the pastoral relationship between teachers and pupils or religious leaders and worshippers, or—and this should go without saying— discussions within families. Indeed, the interim Cass review has made it clear that there is a disturbing lack of support and healthcare for children and young people with gender dysphoria, especially when it is accompanied by an additional diagnosis that requires care. I regret that that is in common with the current general lack of treatment for children and young people in this country, where many waiting lists are spiralling out of control.
A ban on conversion therapy covering trans people would prevent what the British Medical Association and the mental health charity Mind have intimated is psychologically damaging abuse. It seems to me that only this Government could spend time arguing over whether a form of abuse should or should not be banned rather than supporting people in their daily lives.
It would surely also be helpful for the Government to explain in more detail their understanding of the barriers to altering the current legal categories around gender and—separately, given the frequent and unfortunate elision of both concepts—sex. We need to understand the complex practical consequences to which the Government have referred. They have stated in response to calls for a non-binary category for passports that “a coherent approach” needs to be maintained “across Government”. They have not, however, fully explained why some forms of documentation appear not to indicate whether the holder is male or female.
Surely additional research and transparency from Government are needed, not least to explain their reasoning in those cases. Useful learning can be drawn from the different ways in which comparable nations have approached these issues. I think it is a symbol of the maturity and strength of our country that we are able to compare our public policies with those of other countries and learn positive and, indeed, negative lessons. That is a positive rather than a negative.
Finally, we must do more to tackle gender stereotypes in the first place. As a convinced feminist, I so often feel that we have moved backwards rather than forwards in that regard. Care work and jobs in catering and in the creative industries are for boys and men just as much as they are for girls and women. Jobs in manufacturing and science that use—dare I say it?—hard maths are for girls and women just as much as they are for boys and men. Of course, all jobs should be open to non-binary people, too. We need to eliminate gender stereotypes, including those based on body image—I agree with the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham on that.
Above all, we need to make sure that everyone in our country can reach their full potential, and that cannot happen when we have such a degree of gender stereotyping. As I have said, the key value for Labour in considering such issues is respect. Issues of sex and gender are highly emotive, for understandable reasons: they are fundamental to people’s sense of self and so much more, including for those who identify as non-binary.
To conclude, I will reverse John Major’s adage. When we come from different viewpoints on these issues, we surely need to condemn each other less and understand each other more.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger. I thank my hon. Friend Nick Fletcher for introducing the debate.
I want to put on the record that, since I took up the role of Equalities Minister, I have always sought to ensure that the tone is respectful. People have a right to disagree. They have a right to hold views and express them firmly without being cancelled, as hon. Members have said. I also want to put on the record that pursuing someone’s rights does not mean taking someone else’s rights away. It does not have to be one or the other. I am sure that, as we pursue these thorny topics, we can seek agreement and find some common ground.
The United Kingdom is a diverse society with many different cultures, backgrounds, identities and perspectives, and that diversity is a source of strength and enrichment of our culture and a driving force for change and growth. Our United Kingdom is made great by its diversity and its embracing of new cultures, new peoples and—dare I say it?—new ways of looking at people’s sexuality and gender.
That diversity started from simple things—well, they were not simple at the time—from the 1957 Wolfenden report on the decriminalisation of homosexuality, to the full recognition of same-sex marriage across all four nations of the UK.
I meant to mention this earlier, but I wonder whether hon. Members agree that the Church of Scotland’s decision today about equal marriage is very welcome and that we should all applaud it?
All converts to equal marriage should be welcomed. My hon. Friend Tim Loughton and I sparred over the debate on equal marriage. Now I am delighted to see that we agree not only on equal marriage but on civil partnerships for opposite-sex couples. It is amazing how things sometimes come full circle.
The Minister is indeed right, but we sparred not over equal marriage but over the same-sex marriage Bill, which had many deficiencies. I have never had a problem with the principle of same-sex marriage, and I was very happy to be one of the sponsors of the extension of the measure to Northern Ireland, as has just happened, late in the day though it may be.
I stand corrected.
The Government have no plans to change the Gender Recognition Act, and nor do we have an appetite to change the Equality Act 2010. The provisions in those Acts will remain.
The journey of LGBT equality has been debated with rigour, and those debates have not always been respectful. We need to ensure that people feel that they have the right to disagree and to debate those points forcefully where necessary. We sometimes feel that change can be too slow. Those who want more change are always hungrier for speed, while those who are less sure of the change often take some convincing or seek to stop the change. I understand that, and that is where we are today.
Non-binary people are an emerging focus of LGBT equality. Although to many people non-binary identities are familiar and understood, to others they are much newer and raise questions that challenge the traditional notions of gender. Interestingly, throughout history there have always been individuals across many cultures with different experiences and identities, many going back thousands of years. Some of the identities we are debating today have been with us for thousands of years; they are not a new phenomenon driven by TikTok. Some of them go back 2,000 years or more.
Today, as in the past, people who identify under the non-binary umbrella are as diverse as any other group. They are of all ethnicities, sexualities, backgrounds and ages; their experiences will be unique; and the obstacles they encounter will be unique. What is true of one person’s experiences of living as a non-binary individual may not be true of another person’s, and it is those experiences, this information and that data that the Government are committed to examining and monitoring.
Members have called for more data and research, and that is exactly the Government’s position, because we must understand how everyday life for non-binary people is impacted by their identities and explore any obstacles they face that may require addressing in law, which is exactly what Anneliese Dodds supports. We need more data, because it simply is not there in sufficient quality—as I have said, that information is lacking at present. Officials in the equality hub have conducted an analysis of existing data and research on non-binary identities, and have found that it is not of sufficient quality to allow us to draw conclusions, so the Government will continue to monitor research into the experiences of non-binary people, seeking to better understand their lived experience.
I turn to the LGBT plan, to which Members have referred. The Government remain committed to improving outcomes for LGBT people at home and abroad, and we continue to explore opportunities in the areas of health, education and safety specifically. I am working across Government with ministerial colleagues to develop tangible commitments that will improve the day-to-day lives of LGBT+ people in the UK.
I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous with his time. One of the things that would certainly improve the day-to-day experience of trans people is banning conversion therapy for them as well as for lesbian, gay and bisexual people, and I would be really grateful if he could outline his views on the lack of that provision.
The hon. Lady seeks to tempt me down a particular path, but the only view I have on that is the view of Her Majesty’s Government, which is that the Bill will proceed without the trans inclusion while we do further research on the complexities. All I can say to her is that it is a work in progress, and I cannot be tempted down that path at this stage. However, I have committed to ensuring that some of the day-to-day issues facing LGBT+ people are addressed across Government, and I hope to be able to discuss further details in the coming months.
Members have referred to single-sex spaces, and the hon. Member for Oxford East talked about the guidance that has been issued by the EHRC. Members also took part in what I thought was a very good debate in Westminster Hall a few weeks ago. Those on all sides of the debate agreed that clarity on the law and on the rules around single-sex spaces was to be welcomed, and I think that is a position that we are getting to. It is important that the principle of being able to operate spaces reserved for women and girls is maintained, and I think we all agree that that clarity is important.
Turning to prisons, there have been incidents in the past, but I refer Members to the answer given by the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend James Cartlidge, who made it abundantly clear that the rules were changed three years ago and that there have since been no incidents in prisons. Where a prisoner is placed is not down to what gender the prisoner identifies as; it is down to the offence for which they have been convicted, their physiology, their medication and where they are on the trans journey. All those factors form part of the risk assessment, which is how the Prison Service comes to a conclusion on where place a prisoner. It is simply not true to say that a prisoner can self-identify and place themselves in a prison of their choice.
I want to touch on the issue of trans people in single-sex spaces. For many years, trans people have used single-sex spaces in their gender without issue, and we have no interest in curtailing that. The law strikes the right balance, and we will not be changing it. The newly published guidance does not change the legal position or the law; it simply seeks to provide clarity to providers on the existing legislation, and that will not change.
To touch on the issue of trans adolescents and healthcare, it is important that under-18s are properly supported in line with their age and decision-making capabilities. To be clear, the child and adolescent Gender Identity Development Service does not provide any surgery to those under the age of 18, or permit any treatments that the NHS believes to be irreversible. That is the NHS’s view and the Government’s position. If Members believe that the NHS is prescribing puberty blockers inappropriately, that is a matter for the NHS and Members need to take it up with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
I fully accept the Minister’s comment that what is being done within the NHS is within current guidelines. However, there is no evidence for the use of puberty blockers in gender treatment. Their evidential base is for other conditions, and while they may stop certain elements of puberty taking place, their effect on those going through puberty—the effects on brain development and bone density—are not known at all. Those drugs are being used without the evidence that is required.
That may well be true, but I urge my hon. Friend to take it up with the Secretary of State. This is a matter for the NHS; it is not a matter for me, and at the moment the NHS is of the view that puberty blockers are reversible.
I also put on record that the interim report that Dr Hilary Cass has published is absolutely clear. Members have referred to the incidence of other factors that may cause gender distress, such as neurodiversity. Dr Cass is absolutely clear that it is the clinician’s duty and role—a protected right—to ensure that they explore all possible causes of gender distress. She will be issuing firmer guidance to ensure that clinicians, as well as their clients and wider society, understand that it is the role of the clinician to explore all possible reasons for gender distress. That clarity will be welcomed not only by the patient, but by parents, teachers, clinicians themselves and wider society.
The Minister is making an interesting argument. He has quite rightly said that permitting puberty blockers is a decision to be made by the NHS. The capacity of minors is a decision for the Government, so does the Minister think that a 12-year-old has the capacity to opt into puberty blockers without the need for parental consent?
Again, I am going to have to stray into areas for which I do not necessarily have the detail, because the clinical operation of clinics is obviously a matter for the NHS. My understanding is that under-18s cannot make those kinds of decisions, but I am looking for guidance from officials in case I get this wrong. It is probably safest for my hon. Friend to let me write to him with specific details of the clinical guidance on how under-18s are supported, but my understanding is that under-18s are not permitted to make irreversible decisions. Let me write to him regarding the exact line for decision-making capacity with parental involvement, so that I can get it absolutely right for him.
I am grateful, but I want to make sure that the Minister is writing to me on the right question, because he has just referred back to an opinion as to whether or not puberty blockers are reversible. I want an assurance from him, because I think I know the answer to my question, and I think he is inclined to give me a different answer. My view is that no child under the age of 18 should be able to opt into a puberty blocker form of treatment that is not required for medical or clinical reasons without parental consent, unless there is a question mark over the capacity of that parental consent. This is about whether a 12-year-old has capacity to take what many of us would regard as life-transforming decisions without any reference to their parents, who retain parental responsibility if that child does something wrong, at least until the age of 18.
I am not trying to give my hon. Friend a different answer; I am trying not to give him the wrong answer, so what I will do is this. I think the officials have a very clear understanding of the question, and we will write with the details, to ensure that that very specific question is answered.
My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley raised the issue of participation in sports by trans and non-binary individuals. The Government are clear that we support the independence of sports governing bodies to define their own rules on transgender inclusion. It is entirely appropriate that they can determine the right position for their own sport. Gender has no impact at all in some sports, even at elite level; and for those where it does make a difference, the devil is always in the detail. Sports governing bodies are best placed to navigate that. We may have an opinion, but the Government’s view is that sports bodies are best placed to use all the available evidence to come up with their own policies on how to deal with trans sportspeople.
The Equality Act has permitted restrictions on the participation of transgender people in gender-affected sporting competitions in order to uphold fair and safe competition. That has been in place since 2010. Again, the Government have no intention of amending that provision.
In September 2021, the Sports Councils’ Equality Group published the “Guidance for Transgender Inclusion in Domestic Sport”. The sports councils are currently working with a small number of sports to pilot some practical ways of using that guidance. Obviously, Members who wish to engage with that are advised to contact the relevant sports councils so that they can understand what is being reviewed and their views can be expressed and taken into account. The Government believe that time should be given to sports to consider that new guidance.
I would like to draw attention to the changing atmosphere for LGBT people in sports. Sport has traditionally proven to be a more challenging environment for some than for others to make themselves feel comfortable and safe to participate—that is not the same issue as where trans people are placed in sports. But it has begun to change in recent years. Only last week we witnessed the first male professional footballer in a UK club coming out as gay in more than 30 years. Jake Daniels, who is only 17 years old, has shown courage, maturity and authenticity in coming out publicly. I hope that his coming out will encourage a more inclusive sport, because I cannot believe for one minute that he is the only gay footballer in the professional sport. Certainly he has also been very honest in assessing the impact that it is likely to have on not just his career, but how he is reacted to by the fans. But he is now able at least to live his life the way he chooses, on his own terms. I genuinely wish him the very best and I hope that more follow his stance.
I want to finish on an international point. The UK is and will always be committed to being a global leader in LGBT+ rights. We are by no means perfect and we have work to do, but our role as co-chairs of the Equal Rights Coalition and—until this month—the European Governmental LGBTI Focal Points Network is very important to us. Working with colleagues such as Lord Herbert, who is an envoy specifically on global matters, we will continue to address many of the issues that are facing us overseas, because many countries are further behind. Some of that involves providing support, and some of it involves providing financial support, to ensure that non-governmental organisations are able to challenge discrimination. Although we took the difficult decision to cancel the “Safe To Be Me” conference, I am grateful to all the stakeholders for their work to get the conference almost in place.
I want to ensure that at home we continue to build a consensus on the legal recognition of non-binary individuals, because that has not yet emerged. We may not reach that consensus, and the Government may decide that they do not want to go down that route, but we need sufficient data, research and analysis to start to make decisions on where we go with this issue, based on the evidence. These issues are always thorny and never easy. All I can say is that the Government are willing to listen, talk and engage with many individuals so that their points of view are fully reflected in our policy development.
I thank the petitioner for attending the debate. I hope that they feel we have had a good debate —I definitely feel it has been good. It is the sort of debate that we need more of; it has been respectful of all people involved, and I thank everyone for that. I thank the Minister for clarifying the prisons issue—that was good to hear. I would like to be included in any letter regarding puberty blockers, to ensure that it is confirmed that they are not being given to under-18s without serious consideration. I am sure the sporting world will make its own mind up, but it desperately needs to look at the issue before too long. I thank everyone who has taken part in the debate, and all the people I spoke to prior to the debate. I hope that it has shed some light for everyone involved.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered e-petition 580220, relating to legal recognition of non-binary gender identities.