Radical: This new inquiry into the Gender Recognition Act reform affects us all – and there are just days left to have your say

24 Nov

Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical. She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this fortnightly column on trans, sex and gender issues, and are co-authors of the article below.

Our aim for this coming week is to finalise the Radical submission to the Women and Equalities Committee’s new inquiry into Gender Recognition Act reform. You may have read our last column, in which we called for the urgent replacement of this committee (the “WESC”), on the grounds that it has clearly been captured by a single-issue political campaign, and as such is incapable of properly holding the state to account on the important matters within its remit.

We proposed that it should be replaced by a Civil Rights and Freedoms Committee, which would focus on fundamental questions of equality before the law — tackling everything from citizenship to levelling up — instead of the grouping of people by particular identities. We stand by this proposal, and will be writing more in the coming weeks to strengthen our case.

Nevertheless, like many who are frustrated by the WESC — in general, and regarding its revisiting of GRA reform, in particular — we feel it’s important to make a submission to this inquiry. This is in large part because these inquiries often risk suffering from a form of self-selection bias, in which many of those submitting evidence hold extremely similar views to those of the people who’ve set up the inquiry.

This is especially so when a committee has been captured by a political movement; it is a clearly bad state of affairs for many reasons, mostly relating to the crucial role that proper democratic deliberation should play within a free society. Being a member of a democracy shouldn’t just mean having the opportunity to vote every few years: being able to inform decision-making isn’t just for (every fourth) Christmas. So we hope our submission will, at least, help to provide some much-needed balance.

So, here we are thinking about GRA reform once again. Regular readers of this column will have read our thoughts on this topic many times, culminating in our relief at the momentous news, back in September, that Liz Truss had confirmed that the “self-ID” proposals originally put forward by the May government in 2018 would not be taken forward.

We were pleased by this news because, while we strongly believe that people should be free to present themselves in line with whatever “gender” stereotypes they wish — as long as doing so causes no harm to others — this should not entail making the determination of one’s legal sex a matter of personal preference.

As we have explained over the past year in these columns, bringing in self-ID would undermine the important concept of scientific truth, do away with single-sex services and spaces, and put women at serious risk of harm.

We have also been keen to emphasise, however, the way in which the battle over self-ID shone a light on the generally dismal state of law and policy concerning sex and gender. We have long been calling for the Government Equalities Office and the EHRC to clarify guidance on gender reassignment and sex under the Equality Act.

A fortnight ago, we explained our frustration at the WESC’s ongoing existence in its current form, and its revisiting of the topic of GRA reform. The WESC addressed this topic in detail back in 2016, and doing so again seems, at best, a poor use of taxpayer resources. But, let’s turn to the inquiry. Its terms of reference are available here, and include such questions as:

  • Should there be changes to the requirement for individuals to have lived in their acquired gender for at least two years?
  • Should the requirement for a diagnosis of gender dysphoria be removed?
  • What impact will these proposed changes have on those people applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate, and on trans people more generally?
  • Why is the number of people applying for a Gender Recognition Certificate so low compared to the number who identify as transgender?
  • Are the Equality Act provisions for single/separate sex spaces and facilities clear and useable? If not, do we need reform or further guidance?

Now, evidently some of these questions simply represent a re-run of the WESC’s 2015-16 inquiry, which ended up calling for reform of the GRA. The questions about the clarity and usefulness of guidance on the Equality Act (EA) are welcome, however. It is clear that misconceptions and misunderstandings of the EA are widespread, and are often encouraged by gender-identity-activist organisations and public-sector bodies that have been captured by that lobby.

Even Caroline Nokes, the chair of the WESC, shows a lamentably bad understanding of the EA. Last week, in response to a question posed during a webinar hosted by the Tory Reform Group, she exclaimed that the EA has no relevance to men. Can it really be the case that the chair of the WESC doesn’t understand that the EA protects people from discrimination on the grounds of sex, whether their sex is male or female?

Nokes also showed a shocking disregard for the risks arising from housing male prisoners who identify as female in women’s prisons — flippantly (and wrongly) asserting that such concerns for the safety of women prisoners stem from only one, isolated, case (presumably, referring to this one). And judging all trans women prisoners by reference to a single case of a male rapist sent to a women’s prison was, Nokes claimed, like judging all doctors by reference to Harold Shipman.

That a self-declared equalities champion, and chair of the Women and Equalities Committee (note the foregrounding of the term “women”, here) is seemingly unaware that there are currently at least 139 trans-identifying male prisoners housed in women’s prisons — many of whom are dangerous sex offenders — is troubling.

Moreover, the Prison Service’s policy on trans prisoners is currently subject to judicial review, on the basis that it is unfair to the vulnerable women who are incarcerated alongside male-born criminals. If someone in Nokes’ position has such a poor understanding of law and policy in the field — and spreads incorrect and incomplete information, so casually — then what chance do public servants and private business people have?

The prospect raised in the WESC consultation of new legal protections for gender-fluid and non-binary people, which would extend the committee’s own remit in that respect, is concerning, therefore, not least given that its members clearly already struggle with their brief as it stands.

Other moments in the Nokes webinar were similarly disturbing. From her general question-evading, to the moralising intimation that submissions focusing on single-sex risk were ‘ignorant’ and ‘offensive’, to the callous way in which she spoke of foreign-born homeless people as a ‘complex cohort’, it was often quite hard to watch. We fear this underlines the way in which the WESC has been captured. If Nokes is simply not up to the job, then that’s one thing. If she is seeking to misrepresent law, then that is quite another.

Either way, the inquiry’s questions need answers. And these answers should come from a wide range of interested parties: these are matters that affect us all. You’ve got until Friday to have your say.