Today the Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, Liz Truss MP, was summoned to the House of Commons to answer an Urgent Question tabled by Crispin Blunt MP. This followed her written statement on Gender Recognition Act reform on Tuesday 22 September.
Using a written statement means that the Government Minister tabling it doesn’t have to face awkward questions. So it is testament to Blunt’s tenaciousness in this area that she did have to face scrutiny this morning. And her statement started to unravel.
Truss insisted that trans people needed a “kinder” system and that is why she wants to reduce the application fee and move the system online. Lots of people will wonder what is kinder about interacting with computers, or keeping a system which dehumanises the applicants and gives no right of appeal.
The main cost of a gender recognition application is not the statutory fee, but the cost of medical reports and ensuring that all the other evidence needed is assembled, and this can easily run into hundreds of pounds. So a reduction from £140 to an unspecified “nominal fee” is really only a reduction of cost by, say, around 20% when you look at the package as a whole. Gender recognition will still remain the preserve of those who can afford it. So much for “levelling up” – another government catchphrase.
And how is digitising the process going to actually work? Will people be expected to scan in dozens of documents, some containing intensely personal information, and upload them to a Government website? Given that most trans people have at least one story about computer cock-ups, there won’t be much trust in Truss’s IT super-system. And Government systems are notoriously secure and never subject to data breaches – oh, wait…
Truss makes much noise about the importance of addressing healthcare need for trans people. The waiting lists for gender identity services were reported to be around 13,500 in March, and the clinics have switched to maintenance mode over the Covid crisis. The three new clinics, which it seems are the three clinics previously announced (but that’s the Secretary of State for Health’s problem, apparently), are estimated to take around 1,600 off the waiting list. To be blunt, that’s basically the increase in waiting list that we would expect by the end of the year given current growth rates. So basically Truss is expecting praise for standing still.
Then we come to the Equality Act. The underlying principle of the Equality Act is “you must not discriminate”. The exemptions are there to allow single-sex services to continue. Almost all single-sex services and spaces already include trans people.
She mentioned the importance of being able to “protect” single-sex spaces more than once, saying that people and organisations could discriminate on the grounds of biological sex. Except that “biological sex” is not the protected characteristic. “Sex” is, and sex and gender are used interchangeably throughout UK law. Truss also left out the important qualifier, you can exclude trans people from your service if it is a proportionate means to a legitimate aim.
Truss did not get an easy time in the Commons this morning. MP after MP rose to criticise the statement and how the Government’s lack of action over recent years had enabled the continuing abuse of trans people. Out of 19 MPs who spoke, 16 were openly critical.
One interesting question was from Wera Hobhouse MP who asked the Minister whether she had met any trans people. “I and the GEO have met” was the answer. Based on the inclusion of the words “and the GEO” we can conclude, no, she hasn’t.
Which is incredible if you think about it. A Government Minister has made a key policy decision affecting, as Crispin Blunt said, between 200,000 and 500,000 people without meeting a single one of them.