Westminster Hall debate on our petition to make the Equality Act clear

Westminster Hall debate on the definition of sex in the Equality Act

Monday 12th June 2023

For the full official transcription of the debate, see Hansard.

In the Chair, Judith Cummins began by reminding everyone that the petitions being debated indirectly related to two ongoing legal cases in the Scottish courts, but that reference to those would be allowed.

Tonia Antoniazzi, MP for Gower

Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Labour) introduced the motion for debate: that this House has considered e-petitions 623243 and 627984, relating to the definition of sex in the Equality Act 2010. She emphasised that despite the difficulties of speaking up on these issues, it was the responsibility of MPs to do so. She also summarised the discussions she had had with people and organisations on both sides of the debate about why it was necessary.

“As well as supporters of both petitions, I spoke to the EHRC, whose job it is to protect everyone’s rights and to explain the Equality Act. The EHRC said that the law can be hard to implement – and don’t we know it?”

Ranil Jayawardena, MP for North East Hampshire

Ranil Jayawardena (North East Hampshire) (Conservative) spoke as a father of two young daughters, emphasising that it is parliament’s job to make sure that laws are clear and fair, and pointing out that the legal definition of sex matters across many areas: schools, sports, health, crime and prisons. He talked about making the Equality Act align with reality and said that that this did not affect anyone’s rights.

“In 1597, Edward Coke, the Attorney General, told Parliament that the law cannot do the impossible. The example he used was the law cannot make a man into a woman. I believe that he was right then and that he is right now.”

Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (Scottish National Party) spoke about the rights of gay men and women to be right of lesbians and gay men to be same-sex attracted and not same-gender identity attracted, and so the right of lesbians to exclude men from their dating pool.

“The protected characteristic of sexual orientation is contingent on the definition of sex as meaning biological sex. […] Gender identity is not relevant to sexual attraction.”

Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Conservative) highlighted the confusion that arises when people think that anyone has a legal right to be treated as if they have changed sex, illustrating the practical and safeguarding implications with a recent legal case.

“There is nothing more destabilising to society than to dismantle the legal, social and cultural guardrails that protect women and children by pretending that males become females and vice versa, and allowing that to creep into our law.”

Dame Angela Eagle, MP for Wallasey

Dame Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Labour) said that she was a lesbian and that there were no laws about who people could fancy and who they could date. She spoke in favour of the petition against clarifying the Equality Act, and characterised the other petition as an attack on trans people’s rights to exist and to live with respect and dignity in an accepting society.

“A change to the Equality Act’s definition of sex to biological sex would have a huge effect on all trans people by effectively mandating their exclusion from public spaces unless they use facilities in their so-called birth gender, which would be humiliating and damaging to them.”

Angela Richardson, MP for Guildford

Angela Richardson (Guildford) (Conservative) explained how the law needs to protect everyone’s rights and said that the protected characteristic of gender reassignment – which covers trans people whether they have a gender-recognition certificate or not – does not give someone the right to use opposite-sex facilities or services. She highlighted the need for legislation that can be explained clearly and easily, in practical terms.

“[Employers and service providers] need to be able to explain their rules on their signs and websites, on the phone and to staff. That means being clear about where there are sex-based rules and where a service is provided for both sexes together.”

Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley

Jess Phillips (Birmingham Yardley) (Labour) emphasised that sex and gender are different and that biology matters. She drew on her experience of running single-sex services to argue strongly that generic services that are expected to cover men and women simply do not work – sometimes resulting in victims and perpetrators of violence women using the same service.

“The majority of victims of domestic violence are women, and they are much more likely to be seriously hurt or killed. We must be really careful to protect our intricate and finely balanced services for women.”

Sir Peter Bottomley, MP for Worthing West

Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Conservative) referenced Helen Joyce’s book Trans: When Ideology Meets Reality and Kathleen Stock’s book Material Girls and talked about how Stock has been bullied. He referenced the anomalies caused by a badly worded question about gender identity in the 2021 census. He also mentioned sport, and asked:

“Why should a cyclist who is the 500th fastest in his age group or category be allowed to declare themselves a woman, and win a women’s cycling race? There is no justification for that. There never was, and there never will be.”

Rosie Duffield (Canterbury) (Labour) mentioned the abuse that she and other women face every day for speaking about this issue. She explained that one in four women will experience domestic abuse in her lifetime; two women a week are killed by a current or former partner; 41% of women care for a child or other relative compared with 25% of men; around 90% of single parents are women. 

“Because of those and other differences in men’s and women’s lives, we need to be able to monitor sex discrimination and provide for the needs of women and girls, particularly when they are most vulnerable. The Equality Act is the law that allows for that.”

From this point on, Sir George Howarth was the Chair.

Nick Fletcher, MP for Don Valley

Nick Fletcher (Don Valley) (Conservative) started by flagging that many members would be thinking about adult men who identify as trans entering adult women’s spaces, but his real concern was what happens when a six-year-old girl is in that changing room. Having worked in construction for most of his life, he made the analogy with health and safety rules – a near miss is reported to stop tragedy happening. He then talked about the need to prevent unfairness in sport, and the danger of telling children that they can change sex.

“I feel that I have to stand up for the six-year-old girl in the changing room confronted with a 50-year-old male who is going through a tough time. I am standing up for the nine-year-old who wants to stand in first place at the Olympics but thinks, “What’s the point?” when a biological man will be there in her place.”

Dame Nia Griffith, MP for Llanelli

Dame Nia Griiffith (Llanelli) (Labour) said that existing services could choose either to be single-sex or could be women-only services that are trans-inclusive and that the proposed clarification of the act would create a blanket ban on trans people from services that they had previously enjoyed without concern or complaint. She said that there had been a conflation of transwomen with criminals.

“Why the idea that someone can dress up as a woman and therefore carry out whatever criminal act they intend to should determine how we decide to treat trans women is absolutely indecipherable to me.”

Hannah Bardell MP asked Griffith whether she agreed, as a fellow lesbian, that trans people did not threaten them but in fact enhanced their existence. Griffith agreed.

Andrew Lewer, MP for Northampton South

Andrew Lewer (Northampton South) (Conservative) made the point that people can identify however they like, so long as claims about their identity do not injure other people. But laws had drifted away from reality and got muddled, he said, and other people were now being injured. He described some intimate procedures and reasons why a woman might want them carried out only by another woman. He referred to the recent NHS Confederation guidance and said that its claim that a man who identifies as a woman would be a satisfactory person to provide that care was not only heartless, but illegal.

“If a man provides such care to a woman who says that she is only willing to receive it from another woman, it is a sexual assault.

Have we reached the point where medical associations are instructing care providers to sexually assault women in the name of inclusion? That is why it is essential that the meaning of sex in the Equality Act is made much clearer, in order to end this and save lives.”

Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport

Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Labour/Co-op) said that he wanted to spend as much time talking about trans people’s access to healthcare. He said that trans people are legally allowed to access opposite-sex toilets and changing rooms and it was wrong to characterise them as predators. He thought that changing the Equality Act was unnecessary, unworkable and unfair, and was worried that it might lead to a roll-back of rights for the LGBT+ community.

“When we talk about biological sex, we are talking about the sex assigned at birth. That means that there is a real complication and a potential assault on people with intrusive medical tests to look at their biological sex at birth rather than where they are today.”

Tim Loughton, MP for East Worthing and Shoreham

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Conservative), like Antoniazzi, emphasised that parliament was the place for issues of sex and gender to be resolved and highlighted that the debate was about about clarification, not change.

His focus was on sport: since the London Olympics ten years ago, around 60 governing bodies have opened up the female category to male athletes, when the entire purpose of competitive women’s sport is to recognise and reward female excellence by allowing girls and women to compete fairly, like against like, he said. He flagged that even when sporting regulators have the law behind them, they worry about the risk of vexatious, costly legal actions and online abuse.

“Parents worry that their daughters will get injured on the field playing with bigger, stronger, heavier boys who identify as girls. Faced with such unfairness and risk, women and girls vote with their feet. A measure that is described as ‘inclusive’ actually means that girls and women are excluded from their own competition.”

Lloyd Russell-Moyle, MP for Brighton Kemptown

Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Brighton, Kemptown) (Labour/Co-op) mentioned abuse directed at politicians on all sides of the debate. He said that MPs were hearing cherry-picked case studies and that cases, people and sex were complex and not binary. If there was a rule that discrimination could only happen according to biological sex, he said, organisations would not be allowed to be trans-inclusive. He wanted local flexibility; he said the law was clear but services were under-funded.

“People are complex. That is why flexibility in the current law is important. By defining things too much, what we suddenly do is assume that everyone lives in these easy, binary boxes.”

Jonathan Gullis, MP for Stoke-on-Trent North

Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Conservative) said that he was speaking passionately about this issue because a woman in his life had fled domestic violence and would have been terrified to be near anyone male, whether or not they were a transwoman, because of the abuse, rape and torture that she and her daughter had suffered.

He said his constituents were “befuddled” by the debate since to them it was obvious that in the Equality Act “sex” was biological sex. Women were being persecuted and abused for speaking out, just as much as anyone in the trans community, and he wanted his daughter to grow up looking to heroines such as Rosie Duffield, Joanna Cherry and JK Rowling.

“Their rights should not be eroded because of an extremist minority shouting very loudly on social media and pursuing a very hard-line agenda that is not in keeping with the majority opinion, as we have seen during the national debate.”

In response to a question from Dame Nia Grifith about his understanding of the Equality Act, he added:

“I want to make it perfectly clear: sex is not assigned at birth. You are born a man or you are born a woman. Those are indisputable facts. You have XY chromosomes or XX chromosomes. Again, that is not up for debate or discussion.” 

Neale Hanvey, MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba) spoke as someone who has worked in clinical practice for 25 years and as a same-sex-attracted man – his sex and sexual orientation being strong parts of his identity. He made the point that if sex were to mean anything other than the biological category of natal male, gay men would not be able to describe themselves and the law would not be able to protect them.

He said he felt that the statement “transwomen are women” both implied the need to subvert and subsume the meaning of “woman” as it is commonly understood and suggested that there was something less, something other, about a trans identity, and he did not agree with that. He was clear that telling children there was something intrinsically wrong with them was absolutely unforgivable.

“I see absolutely nothing controversial in calling a transwoman a transwoman, and a transman a transman. These are necessary biological categories for society and the Equality Act to accommodate, value and protect. Without a stable, codified language, the whole meaning of protected characteristics, hitherto based on sex, comes tumbling down.”

Peter Gibson, MP for Darlington

Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Conservative) spoke in favour of the status quo petition, and noted Baroness Falkner’s remark that changing the definition of sex that “could bring clarity in a number of areas” but also “ambiguity in others.” He said that his fear was that the change ran the risk of excluding trans people from effective protection by the Equality Act, and that changing the act would alter its original intention and could throw into question over 10 years of case law.

“By restricting the definition of sex to sex assigned at birth, we could have a situation whereby protection from discrimination created a two-tier system. Trans people who are perceived to be cisgender would have more protection under the law than trans people who are not perceived to be cisgender.”

Kirsty Blackman, MP for Aberdeen North

Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (Scottish National Party) said she rejected the idea that trans people were potential predators, as this was demonising a protected group, and that the term “ordinary people” was an exclusionary phrase if it was used to mean “non-trans people”. She disliked being called “straight” on social media.

She said that nobody had been able to explain what biological sex was, but had talked about XX and XY chromosomes; she had no clue about her own, she said, but assumed they were probably XY. She felt that both women and trans people were treated as lesser in society. She talked about “gatekeeping” in relation to toilets and said that a friend of hers had been told that her two teenage daughters could not use a toilet because they had short hair and wore trousers. She suggested that what we should want is for everybody to be able to to the loo when they were shopping.

“I have a fair idea of what my genitals look like and how they compare with how other people’s look, but if we are talking about biological sex there needs to be a definition that everybody in this room can agree with.”

Caroline Ansell, MP for Eastbourne

Caroline Ansell (Eastbourne) (Conservative) rose to say that her argument had been won before the debate started, when the chair had mentioned two live court cases – her point being that individuals were operating in a legal grey space, rather than being directed by Parliament. She mentioned that the lead petitioner, Maya Forstater, had spent nearly two years and £100,000 just to determine that her beliefs were covered by the Equality Act, but this judgment meant that a GRC could not force other people to change their perception of a person’s sex. 

She talked about the woman driven out of Oxfam; Professor Kathleen Stock hounded from her post at Sussex University simply for saying that male people and female people are two different groups; and “Sarah Surviving” who is suing Brighton’s rape-crisis centre for refusing to provide women-only support.

“Those individuals and organisations are forced to run the legal gauntlet case by case, isolated and alone, and sometimes at very great cost to their reputation, to their career and to their health.”

Anna firth, MP for Southend West

Anna Firth (Southend West) (Conservative) focused on single-sex spaces and services. She wanted the Equality Act to be clear that having a gender-recognition certificate does not give male people the right to compete in women’s sports, undress or shower with women and girls, or be employed in a job that involves intimate contact with women. She described this as a very simple clarification, and emphasised that “case by case” simply does not work, since it leaves service providers to make difficult decisions. She gave the NHS’s Annex B policy as an example of the confusion caused.  

“Families, women and children in Southend West want to know that when the sign on the door says or indicates female, that is not up for negotiation. The only people who should be in that space are biological women. Biological males or trans women or non-binary people should simply not be in those spaces.”

Kirsten Oswald, MP for East Renfewshire

Kirsten Oswald (East Renfrewshire) (Scottish National Party) started by complaining that the language used in the debate had not been “measured”. She said that the suggested change would be likely to increase confusion, to the detriment of both trans people and women – and that it was a change, not a clarification. She said that she wanted to hear more about women’s rights, that women’s rights were not diminished by someone else having their rights upheld, and that what endangers women is predatory and violent men.

She stated that people have been going to the loo without any issue for many years but this was now a thorny issue. She talked about “intersex people” and commented that large proportion of adult women do not ovulate.

“There is no legal precedent for the definition of biological sex […]. That means that there is not a way of looking at how we support women’s rights to privacy, for instance. That kind of change could have regressive consequences: it could actually entrench gender stereotypes and biological determinism for women.” 

Annaliese Dodds, MP for Oxford East

Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East) (Labour/Co-op) began by describing her party as “the party of the Equality Act” and remarked that it was 13 years since Harriet Harman MP had piloted the landmark legislation through Parliament.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Labour/Co-op) interrupted to ask if she agreed that the Conservative Party had a wider agenda is to remove all its protections.

Dodds agreed, saying that we could not understand the Government’s intentions when the Prime Minister attacked the Equality Act one day, only to cast himself as its defender the next. She stated that Labour remains committed to protecting and upholding the Equality Act, including the public-sector equality duty, its protected characteristics and its provision for single-sex exemptions, and called on Kemi Badenoch to make it clear that she also supports the act. She confirmed that Labour also supports the protection of certain spaces that are for biological women, such as refuges for vulnerable women. 

She said that her party believed in a common-sense approach that provided clarity for service providers both in circumstances where trans people are included, and where excluding trans people is a proportionate means to a legitimate end. But she pointed out that the Government had given no indication of how it would provide that clarity, and its written response to the petitions did not support it. She asked Badenoch to set the record straight, and to confirm that detailed policy and legal analysis is being carried out and will be published. When the Government comes forward with any proposals out of all the rumours heard in the press, Labour will respond, she said.

“It is thanks to Labour’s Equality Act that it is possible today for service providers to create and maintain single-sex services where that is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim.”

Maria Caulfield, MP for Lewes

The Minister for Women, Maria Caulfield, noted Parliament’s responsibility to constantly review legislation. She said that reference to sex had generally been considered to refer to whether a person is a man or woman in law, rather than to their biological sex or sex at birth.

Joanna Cherry MP stood up to point out that supporter of the first petition were not seeking to define sex in law for the first time, and that it has long been recognised in the common law, referring to Bellinger v Bellinger.

Caulfield resumed and said that the Equality Act’s protection applies on the basis of perceived characteristics as well as actual characteristics, so a transwoman who passes as a woman can claim protection from discrimination on that basis. She mentioned Badenoch’s concern that the Equality Act may not be sufficiently clear in the balance it strikes between the interests of people with different protected characteristics, and stated that the Government has taken advice on the potential implications of the change and is considering the next steps at the moment. The opposing views of two United Nations representatives were also discussed.

Caulfield stated that the Government was committed to maintaining the safeguards that allow organisations to provide single-sex services; recognised that being able to operate spaces reserved for women and girls is an important principle, and should be maintained; and understood that creating environments where women and girls are protected from further trauma was a crucial part of enabling them to heal. She encouraged MPs to refer to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s guidance.

“Where it is a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim, the Equality Act is also clear that service providers can exclude, modify or limit access for transgender people even when they have a gender-recognition certificate.”

Tonia Antoniazzi, MP for Gower

Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Labour) took the floor again to sum up. She noted that those present had ignored calls for no debate – because this was Parliament’s work, and this was a democracy. She added that the medical conditions referred to as “intersex”. were irrelevant to the discussion: there is no third sex or intermediary sex, and people with those variations on the sex development pathway are either male or female.

“Speakers have made it clear that it is not about suggesting that all male people or all trans people are predators; it is just that single-sex spaces are an important risk management tool, given the overwhelming statistics in the patterns of male violence.”

The Chair, Sir George Howarth, thanked MPs for discussing this sensitive issue in a respectful manner. The House resolved that it had considered e-petitions 623243 and 627984, relating to the definition of sex in the Equality Act 2010.

For the full official transcription of the debate, see Hansard.