UK Government ‘unwilling to take simple steps’ on Gender Recognition Act reform, committee chair says

The UK Government is “unwilling to take simple steps” to reform the Gender Recognition Act, according to the chair of the Commons’ Women and Equalities Select Committee.

Commenting on the Government’s response to her committee’s recent report on the GRA, Caroline Nokes MP said ministers are “not prepared to go anywhere near far enough” to amend the 2004 legislation, which grants transgender people the right to legally change their gender.

She said on Thursday: “In December, after over a year of consultation with a wide range of voices, we called on the Government to enact real, meaningful change to the gender recognition process. Its response makes clear that it is not prepared to go anywhere near far enough, but there is some movement in the right direction.    

“Moving closer to a system of self-declaration and away from the currently over-medicalised process of gender transition would have given transgender people the dignity and respect they deserve. I am disappointed that the Government is unwilling to take simple steps – such as the removal of the requirement to live as a stereotype in an acquired gender, or the requirement for a ‘gender dysphoria’ diagnosis – to move the GRA into the modern day.  

“Other parts of the UK are moving forward – Westminster needs to do the same. I hope that the small admissions made by the Government in its response indicate that further reform will come – albeit at a far slower pace than is right.”    

The committee’s report on GRA reform was published in December, with recommendations including an end to spousal consent; the requirement for an individual to have lived in their gender for a set period and the need to have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria.

However, in the UK Government’s response to the recommendations on Thursday, it said its position set out in September 2020 is “right and appropriate”, and added that the evidential and diagnosis requirements in the Act “provides assurance that the system is robust”.

It reads: “Being transgender is not a mental illness and we will take steps to amend the specific reference to gender dysphoria as a “disorder” in the GRA via a remedial order in due course.

“The assessment by the Panel [about living in their gender] is based on the evidence provided, and the input of two independent medical experts, and does not look for or consider whether an applicant’s behaviours and presentation conforms to any gender-based stereotypes.

“A marriage or civil partnership is a contract between two individuals, the nature of which cannot be changed without the consent of both parties. For this reason, we consider it is equitable for the ‘spousal consent’ requirement to remain in place.”

On the spousal consent element of the GRA, the Government response stressed it “does not mean that a spouse can prevent their partner from securing a [Gender Recognition Certificate]”, but a “safeguard for the non-transitioning spouse to decide whether they want their marriage or civil partnership to continue before their partner is granted a GRC”.

It continues: “It is right that both parties should have an equal say in the future of their marriage or civil partnership, given transition can fundamentally change its nature.

“More widely, we anticipate that the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020, which comes into force later this year, will help to reduce conflict in such circumstances.”

The 2020 remarks, meanwhile, refer to a written statement by Liz Truss MP, the minister for women and equalities.

Addressing MPs in the Commons following the conclusion of a consultation on GRA reform, she said “the balance struck in this legislation is correct” with “proper checks and balances in the system”.

She added: “We have also come to understand that gender recognition reform, though supported in the consultation undertaken by the last government, is not the top priority for transgender people.

“Perhaps their most important concern is the state of trans healthcare. Trans people tell us that waiting lists at NHS gender clinics are too long. I agree, and I am deeply concerned at the distress it can cause.”

In a statement commenting on the Government’s response, the trans youth charity Mermaids described it as “disappointing”.

Kai O’Doherty, Head of Policy and Research, said: “Their response has yet again rejected calls to reform the Gender Recognition Act, which simply allows a trans person to change their legal sex and live with dignity and privacy.

“These reforms which were supported by the vast majority in the 2018 public consultation, and are being currently proposed in the Scottish equivalent.

“The response also refused to develop a comprehensive healthcare strategy for trans and non-binary people, despite record waiting lists of over two years for first appointments with gender specialists, which has a detrimental impact on those left in limbo.

“It is frustrating for us, the trans community, when the government refuses the necessary reforms that will fundamentally improve the day-to-day lives of trans people. At a time when our rights and access to spaces are being publicly questioned daily, the government’s inaction fails to protect and support us.”

The UK Government’s response to the Women and Equalities Committee’s report comes a day after Boris Johnson made a comment on gender transition during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs).

Mr Johnson told the Commons “we must recognise when people want to make a transition in their lives that they should be treated with the maximum possible generosity and respect”, adding that “when it comes to distinguishing between man and woman, the basic facts of biology remain overwhelmingly important”.

Following these comments by the prime minister, O’Doherty warned the remarks should not be taken out of context.

“We were pleased to see the PM’s answer today included an important emphasis on ensuring we treat trans people with respect and generosity and that his latter comments were distinctly made within this context.

“We believe it is in everyone’s interest to not attach so much weight to biology when discussing trans matters.

“Sex rights and trans rights are not at odds with one another,” they said.

Photo: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office/Flickr.

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