Tonia Antoniazzi MP leads Westminster Hall debate on the definition of "sex" in the Equality Act 2010.
On Monday 12th June I opened a Westminster Hall debate relating to the definition of "sex" in the Equality Act 2010.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petitions 623243 and 627984, relating to the definition of sex in the Equality Act 2010.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Mrs Cummins. I am pleased to open the debate on the petitions on behalf of the Petitions Committee. One petition calls on the Government to update the Equality Act 2010 to make the characteristic of sex refer to biological sex, and the other petition calls on the Government to commit to not amending the Act’s definition of sex.
Opinions about the relationship between biological sex, gender identity and the law divide organisations, political parties, and even family and friends. Many people have told me that this is something that they are afraid to speak of, and some say it should not be discussed at all. Others have told me of how they are relieved and happy that we are finally discussing it in Parliament.
INTERVENTION FROM LAYLA MORAN MP
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way so early on. On her point about people being scared to talk about the subject, is she also aware of people like my constituents, who have written to me to say that they are scared that it is going to be talked about? Whenever such things are spoken about in Parliament, there is then a rise in hatred and violence. I thank you, Mrs Cummins, for your words about being courteous, but does the hon. Member understand the worry there is in some communities that the debate is happening, and would she urge other Members to stay compassionate and open minded?
TONIA ANTONIAZZI MP RESUMES
When the hon. Member listens to my speech, I think she will understand the compassion with which I speak. She will also understand that we are in a difficult position: we are legislators, and where there is something that needs to be addressed, as there is in these two petitions, it is down to us to stand up and make that change and have the conversation. It goes with the job, I am afraid.
Members from all parts of the House can model the respectful, adult conversations that are needed across society. We can demonstrate, here at Westminster, that we can freely express and listen to different opinions. This is a set of issues on which views are held profoundly and with good intentions. The nature of this debate means that those views differ across the House, and even within our own respective parties.
I was in education for 20 years before coming to this place. My priority has always been the wellbeing of those in my care, be they adults or children. I am afraid that asking probing and difficult questions to get through issues and problems is in my nature. I will not be cowed when looking out for my constituents, be they lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. The conversations that I get the most out of are the ones where I explore, learn and am able to disagree agreeably.
It is a mark of adult politics not to pretend that we are in perfect agreement on every issue, and Westminster Hall debates like this offer the opportunity for us to explore issues, free from the usual pressures of votes and the instructions of the Whips. This is a debate that will explore the difficult interrelationships that exist between rights, and it will mark the difficult lines between which individuals’ and collective rights are drawn. However, it is for the House to decide the way those rights are formed and how they are interpreted. We are holding this debate on behalf of individual people facing discrimination, and in support of service providers and public servants who have a deep commitment to reducing discrimination and to providing safe and welcoming environments. Our task is to make decisions on the boundary of rights and to take responsibility, rather than passing it on. We may draw different conclusions from historic debates on the legislation, but our responsibility is to make our decisions on what would be the right law to have now.
In order to prepare for the debate, the Committee Clerks arranged for me to meet the petitioners and organisations supporting these two petitions. I thank them all for their time and input. The House of Commons Library has also produced a debate pack that covers the complexity of the legal issues behind the two petitions. I am most grateful to everyone who has spoken to me, because there are two broad positions. Those who support the petition to update the Equality Act say that the law should be clear about the two sexes, and that it was never the intention of the Act to make it difficult or impossible to have sports that are for biological females only; to protect services that are for women, such as domestic violence refuges; to assure an elderly woman or a woman getting a smear test that, when she asks for a female carer or nurse, she has the right to be treated by a biological woman; to provide single-sex spaces where women are undressing and washing; for same-sex-attracted people to have opportunities to associate with each other; and for the public sector equality duty to consider the needs of women separately from those of trans women.
Kate Barker from the LGB Alliance and Julie Bindel and Tamara Burrows from the Lesbian Project, who support the clarification of the Equality Act, explained to me that the protected characteristic of sexual orientation is contingent on the definition of sex as biological, and that the Act did not intend to remove the rights of association for same-sex-attracted lesbians. I heard how, for the lesbians I met, biological sex is fundamental to understanding their rights as same-sex-attracted people, so the grey area that we have is creating ongoing problems for lesbians. If we do not say that “sex” in the Equality Act means biological sex, we may as well scrap the protection of sexual orientation. They said that the protected characteristic of gender reassignment exists. Trans people are able to hold their own separate groups under the protected characteristic and can also associate with lesbian groups already open to them; so the question posed was: why cannot lesbians organise lesbian-only spaces?
The Lesbian Project is an organisation that wants to research and study lesbian lives and survey lesbians. If trans women are included, it renders the research meaningless and pointless. This is not, I was told, about being anti-trans; it was about the bedrock of being a lesbian, and a lesbian is a female attracted to females. It was highlighted that there must be protections for trans people, but not at the expense of women’s rights. It is becoming a barrier to lesbians in coming out, which is a huge problem for them. The question for many is: should women be allowed female-only associations? Should it be easy and straightforward for women to be able to undress, shower and use a toilet in female-only spaces?
Those who want the Equality Act to stay as it is say that trans people are already using services for the opposite sex without concerns, regardless of whether they have a gender recognition certificate or not, and that not allowing them to do so would be harmful and detrimental to their human rights. It is therefore the responsibility of society and lawmakers to ensure that people are able to access opposite-sex facilities, services and sports. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Dr Finn McKay, Robin Moira White, Dr Paul Martin and Nancy Kelley for taking the time to speak to me and to explain the situation for that petition. Where this causes a problem is likely to be very rare, and a transgender person may be excluded on an individualised, case-by-case basis. Some of those arguing for no change to the Equality Act believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, and that therefore--
Some of those arguing that there should be no change to the Equality Act 2010 believe that trans women are women and trans men are men, and therefore that the protected characteristic of sex includes those who identify as the opposite sex. Some also feel that it is an attack on trans people to think or express disagreement with this belief.
In support of this petition, Nancy Kelley from Stonewall said that she is proud of the Equality Act 2010, that it works really well as “legal sex”, and that it works well to operate trans-inclusive or not spaces, and emphasised how inclusion should be the norm. Defining legal sex as observed at birth would see exclusion rather than inclusion.
I have also had the opportunity to talk to barrister Robin Moira White, who explained to me how this amendment was a blunt instrument; in fact, it was called a sledgehammer that was being presented as a simple solution. Robin told me that, to move forward, there was no need to change the law, but that there was a need for less toxicity and also that this amendment did not consider the anomalous position of a pregnant trans man.
I also spoke to Dr Finn Mackay, who told me about the impact that this change in the law would have on gender non-conforming people. Finn said that she would like to see more case studies from the Equality and Human Rights Commission on single-sex spaces, and she agreed with the Government position and said that the current rhetoric is dangerous. We also need to have better public amenities that work for all people, with inclusion as the default.
Both petitions received over 100,000 signatures, and we will all have constituents who are passionately engaged on either side, as well as service providers that say they badly need clarity about the law, and others who say the current situation is okay for them. It is important that we are having this debate today.
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? Its letter to the Minister for Women and Equalities states:
“A change to the Equality Act 2010 so that the protected characteristic of ‘sex’ means biological sex could bring clarity in a number of areas but potential ambiguity in others.”
Both the Government and the Opposition welcomed the EHRC statement that the current situation merits further consideration and exploration of possible solutions. The EHRC said that
“there is a clear need to move the public debate on issues of sex and gender to a more informed and constructive basis.”
I was told—and I know—that this issue had been bubbling away for many years and was not anything new. In 2018, the Women and Equalities Committee asked the EHRC to create statutory guidance on single-sex spaces, which it published much later, in 2022. However, the guidance placed a large onus on service providers to exclude people who are legal women. It was when this escalated in 2018 that the UK Government and the Scottish Government started talking about proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which started the debate about self ID. They said that the landscape since the Equality Act had changed significantly. There are more gender identities--
INTERVENTION FROM LLOYD RUSSEL-MOYLE
My hon. Friend is making a good and balanced speech so far. Does she recognise that when the Equality Act was being passed, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman at that time asked our Minister from the Labour party if it was the first step to understanding self-ID and moving towards that? That was in Hansard. This issue was thought about when the Equality Act was being created, and the affirmative response was given to that question at that time.
TONIA ANTONIAZZI MP RESUMES
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution.
At the moment, there are more gender identities and more trans people who have no intention of getting gender recognition certificates. The Government also said that the situation for people who identify as non-binary is very unclear, and that a change to the legislation would provide clarity and a framework for moving forward. They said, however, that the Government would need to scrutinise how trans people would feel about the change. They also identified the following key areas of concern for the public: NHS and medical treatment, toilets, sport, sport in schools, children’s rights and women’s domestic abuse shelters.
I am talking about a way forward. It has been said that the debate needs to be more informed and constructive. Akua Reindorf said that we need some shared facts in the debate. Baroness Kishwer said that the Government should publish their proposals, and then set up a Joint Committee to look at them first and ask all the questions. She said that would be a sensible approach. She also said that she hoped people would not shoot the messenger. The EHRC provided analysis for the Government, and it is up to parliamentarians to make decisions.
I will move on to the petitioners. One of them, who wished to remain nameless, said to me:
“We want legal protections. We want the conversative government to stop using us a distraction to pull hate away from their failures. But our hopes are not confined to the Equality Act. The main struggle most trans people face is not what legal protections we are afforded post-transition, but access to the means to transition in the first place.”
Maya Forstater, who was also a petition creator, said that the reason she is now trying to clarify the law is so that the law is made clear that sex discrimination and discrimination against transgender people are two different strands of equality protection. That way, employers and service providers will be able to protect individuals against both kinds of discrimination and treat everyone with respect.
In that spirit, I am proud to open this debate. I urge my colleagues to speak openly, fearlessly, and with respect for each other and for the different experiences of people in this country who are looking to us as legislators to take responsibility. I hope that we will have a constructive debate about how the needs and interests of everyone impacted by the Equality Act should be reconciled in legislation.
On the 8th June I spoke in the Backbench Business debate on the work of the Council of Europe.
You can read the transcript and watch my full contribution below.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) on securing this important debate. I am a proud member of the delegation to the Council of Europe—it is a real honour—and thank him for all the work that he does. The delegation is cross-party and comes from both Houses, so we are working collaboratively—work that people outside the House do not see. When we work together, we achieve better goals and better outcomes for all of us.
The Council of Europe was established following the end of world war two to promote democracy and protect human rights and adherence to the rule of law in Europe. The UK was one of the 10 founding signatories to the Council of Europe statute, and the UK continues to play an active role in all parts of the organisation. The role of promoting democracy, human rights and the rule of law is so important because that is what we are here to do.
Since the Council of Europe’s creation, it has adopted more than 200 treaties and conventions, with the best known being the European convention on human rights. The ECHR is an international treaty between states of the Council of Europe. The United Kingdom was one of the states that drafted it and was one of the first states to ratify it in 1951. That is really important. Some MPs have raised concerns about the ECHR’s impact since the rights set out in the convention were incorporated into British law by the Human Rights Act 1998. Some interpretations of that by British courts and the European Court of Human Rights have led some MPs to call for the UK to leave the ECHR altogether. That would be completely the wrong thing to do. The most notable and recent of those cases was when the European Court of Human Rights blocked a deportation flight to Rwanda in 2022.
I am a proud Welsh Italian. I have had the opportunity to travel across Europe and across the world, and I am a languages graduate. The opportunity to be a part of the UK Parliament delegation and to speak Italian and French with our counterparts is a great honour. The work we do is reflected in committees, as it is in this House. I sit on the Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media. Only last week, we held a session here in the UK Parliament on protecting human rights in sport, moderated by Lord George Foulkes of Cumnock, who is a great person and politician to have on that committee. It was heartbreaking to listen to Olivia Jasriel, the founder of the Olivia Jasriel Foundation for athletes, and Patrice Evra, the former Manchester United captain and French international, who, like Olivia, is an abuse survivor. They both campaign against abuse in sport and beyond.
These are domestic and worldwide issues around sport that impact directly on our lives, and the lives of our constituents, in particular young people. How governing bodies are held to account is very important to me. I have spoken in this House about misogyny and sexual abuse in sport. In the wake of what has happened in UK gymnastics, Yorkshire cricket and—I have spoken on this before—Welsh rugby union, the work of such committees is relevant to everybody and needs to be spoken about.
I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Henley for his work on the Istanbul convention, which is very important to all of us across the House. The UK delegation has done some great work on that and I thank him for it, because tackling violence against women and girls is at the heart of everything I do. I am also pleased that the UK delegation supports Kosovo’s application for membership of the Council of Europe, so I thank him for his work on that, too.
I also thank some really key players: Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, who I have already mentioned; my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), who leads the Labour delegation; and Lord Griffiths of Burry Port. I think the hon. Member for Henley would agree that they are the glue that holds the delegation together, with their expertise and knowledge. I thank Nick Wright and his staff who support us; they are absolutely wonderful.
The whole delegation, including those here today speaking in this debate, are very proud to be part of the Council of Europe. I am very proud to be a part of it and we should talk about it more in this House. We may have left Europe, but the UK Parliament delegation is still extremely relevant and a big player in the Council of Europe.
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