Government Ministers faced a number of questions this week during the final session of the transgender equality inquiry.
Members of the women and equalities committee asked several ministers, including Nicky Morgan and Caroline Dinenage, about a number of transgender-related issues and the case of Tara Hudson. The ministers were also challenged on the UK government’s claim that non-binary people don’t face any “specific detriment”.
During the previous session, held on 13th October, a number of those giving evidence had highlighted not only the need to ensure that trans people were no longer “traumatised and humiliated by the process” of having one’s gender determined by someone else, but also the need for non-binary legal recognition and wider Equality Act coverage to combat the very real detriments people face.
On Wednesday, Jane Ellison MP (of the Ministry of Health) and Will Huxter, Gender-Identity Lead for the English NHS, gave evidence that 4,500 new referals are made per year to Gender-Identity Clinics (GICs) – with a 50% year on year increase in referrals for the Tavistock Clinic (for children and adolescents) and as 25-50% across the NHS as a whole. The estimated time from first referral to surgery for those on the clinical-reassignment path is a shocking 42 months.
While the committee’s discussion centred only on the English NHS as health is a devolved matter, several members’ questions asked about how the medical establishment more generally treats trangendered people. Jess Phillips (Lab) ask affirmed that “the act of not treating [is not] a neutral act, but in fact one that causes harm to people.” – a concept all too familiar to anyone seeking gender-reassignment – before asking why, in relation to the limited provision of GIC services, “the government would … be allowing what seems to be avoidable harm…”
Referring to the medical guidelines that trans peoplemust adhere to in order to access treatment, the Committee Chair, Maria Miller (Con) asked whether there is “a clinical way to live as a woman… or man? We as a Committee have struggled to know what that looks like.” This was a tacit admission that such guidelines have their limitations and are unfit for purpose. Jane Ellison responded by suggesting that “a clinical consensus will evolve” – clearly, such a consensus has not yet been achieved.
The Home Office’s Karen Brady MP, also giving evidence, reported that 605 hate crime incidents were recorded in England and Wales last year, but could not say how many were transphobic incidents. She confessed that there is a “lack of research, lack of understanding, lack of knowledge of the scale of the problem” relating to transgender issues, but did claim her department was “looking across legislation to find gaps”.
Crucially, when asked about the possibility of introducing Gender-X recognition passports – something already legislated for in other jurisdictions such as Australia and which had been discussed in detail during the previous sitting – Ms Brady argued that, for “changes need[ing] primary legislation” she would “want to see evidence for need for change” When the committee bluntly stated that “We have evidence there is a need [for Gender-X passports]”, the minister stated the Home Office “would want to see individual examples” but conceded that “we will look carefully at the evidence of the inquiry. [The] Home Office wants to listen and understand.”
The Home Office’s evasion was met with challenges from chair Maria Miller. Regarding Gender-X passports, and the previously declared assumption that non-binary people are not experiencing detrimental treatment, she asked: “Other countries are already doing this. Why not just take gender off passports? If you don’t allow a third gender on their [Non-binary Transpeople] passports you are denying their identity.‘
In spite of these clear signals from the committee that they will be recommending radical changes to how transgender and non-binary people are treated unde the law, the general attitude from the Home Office appeared to be to make no clear statements until those recommendations are published.
Nicky Morgan MP, Minister for Women and Equalities, told the committee that “.engagement with the trans-community is vital”, before admitting there is “much more we could and should do to improve life for transgender people…[questions] around transgender issues aren’t often raised [in parliament]”. However, she was also evasive when directly challenged as to whether the Gender-Reassignment protected characteristic in the Equality Act (2010) be changed to “Gender Identity”: “I would want to … hear recommendations of this Committee … before reopening [the Equality Act]”, she said.
Caroline Dinenage MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, was challenged by the Chair in relation to the MoJ’s recent response to Ashley Reed’s petition to allow transgender people to self-define their legal gender – which has received over 32,000 signatures, and whose creator had themselves previously given evidence to the committee on the need for systemic change. The MoJ’s response had stated categorically: “We are not aware that that results in any specific detriment, and it is not Government policy to identify such people for the purpose of issuing non-gender-specific official documents.”
Ms Dinenage admitted that “this was a very regrettable [incident], with MoJ officials quickly responding without being aware of tone”, but she did not offer an apology. Ben Howlett MP (Con) challenged both Ms Morgan and Ms Dinenage, arguing that “it’s absolutely right that the Equality Act is not fit for purpose in the twenty first century!’ Maria Miller also asked Ms Morgan: “Do you think government policy should allow people to determine their own gender?”
Ms Morgan, while admitting “it’s a big issue” responded with her own question: “When and why do we need to know about gender?” She said she would “welcome evidence from the committee” and accepted there were “debates to be had” but ultimately avoided answering. “I can’t give you a definite answer”, she said.
For the many trans people watching and listening, this must have been a mixed experience. The committee clearly understands the issues at hand, and has taken on board the evidence provided by experts and activists. However, the non-committal responses from departmental ministers indicate that the case for positive change is not yet won.
James Morton, the co-ordinator of the Scottish Transgender Alliance, told KaleidoScot: “We were very pleased by the quality of the questions asked by the Women and Equalities Committee members. The MPs on the Committee have clearly listened carefully to the many equality concerns raised by trans people.
“However, the weak non-committal answers from the Government Ministers confirmed most UK Government departments still don’t appreciate the realities of trans people’s lives and the urgent need for equality improvements.
“Overall, we feel the inquiry has amplified positively the voice of trans people across the UK and it has been particularly useful for highlighting non-binary people’s equality needs. We feel cautiously hopeful about the recommendations which may end up being made by the Committee in their end of inquiry report.”