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Lynne Jones: I wish to take my hon. Friend back to clause 21, which covers foreign gender change and marriage. I apologise for not intervening at the appropriate time. Why is it necessary for transsexual people who have full legal recognition abroad to apply to the panel for recognition here? What would be the status of marriages that take place abroad? Would it not simply be possible to recognise countries that grant legal status and accept that status in this country, provided that we have approved the process, just as we accept a passport from another country as a valid document?

Mr. Lammy: Let me say to my hon. Friend that we—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps we could hold only one debate in the Chamber.

Mr. Lammy: We want to ensure that the standards in other countries are the same as those that we apply here. We also want to make sure that we do not create a position whereby people who cannot get the gender recognition certificate here apply abroad to fulfil the criteria. That is why we believe that it is right for the panel to consider applications. My hon. Friend will understand that the applications are essentially considered on the papers and that, over time, the panel will build up expertise on the criteria and standards in other countries.

Schedule 4 contains a conscience clause for ministers of the Church of England and the Church in Wales.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab): My hon. Friend is about to deal with the conscience clause and the exemption for the Church of England and the Church in Wales. I hope that he agrees that members of other Churches, including the free Churches, also have consciences. Will he guarantee that the proposed legislation does not mean that Churches in other denominations will experience expensive litigation because of deeply held views of conscience? My hon. Friend will know of a case in south Wales in which an individual took a free Church to court unsuccessfully under the Sex Discrimination Act 1975. It could have been liable to expensive litigation. What exemption is he prepared to give those free Churches—probably a small minority—that, because of their religious views, will not wish to accept the Bill?

Mr. Lammy: The Church of England and the Church in Wales have a specific exemption because of their obligations to solemnise marriages. That does not pertain to free Churches. The Bill does not extend the law on equal rights and equal opportunities in human rights or other legislation and it therefore places no extra duties on the free Churches. Doubtless the transsexual person who applies will be minded of the understanding of the priest or clergyman of those matters.

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However, it is important to make the distinction between the specific status of the Church of England and the Church in Wales, which have obligations when someone asks for a marriage to be solemnised, and that of other Churches.

Donald Anderson: What about the very real danger of Churches being put to expensive litigation because of activists in this field, and of being bankrupted on grounds of conscience?

Mr. Lammy: That does not arise, in that the Bill does not make provisions in relation to equality in any new fields, beyond our existing arrangements. My right hon. Friend might know that when the Joint Committee on Human Rights considered the matter, there was some discussion on extending discrimination, and hon. Members might well seek to take those arguments forward later in this debate, but the Government's view is that this Bill is specifically about gender recognition. It is not about wider issues of discrimination relating to transsexual people, which might well pertain to the issue that my right hon. Friend raises and lead to new powers and legislation.

There was considerable discussion in another place of the interests of family members of applicants. We clarified that the gender recognition panels will be able to take evidence from immediate family members and that, in the case of a spouse or partner, we would expect them to do so. That will be pertinent to the criteria in the Bill.

The Bill seeks to provide transsexual people with the opportunity to enjoy the rights and responsibilities appropriate to their acquired gender, and to leave behind the vulnerable position—the limbo between two genders—that they currently have to endure. However, it also has a wider impact. It affirms the values of tolerance, inclusion and social justice that are we as a country embody, and that we as a Labour Government are committed to fostering.

5.42 pm

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for his attempts to explain the Bill. Given that he has run into considerable difficulty with questions from both sides of the Chamber for the past 40 minutes, it would be fair and charitable for me to say that I attribute at least some of those difficulties to the Bill's inherent complexity, rather than to any deficiency on his part. Indeed, to give a rare compliment, it is a little unusual for the present Government to take such trouble over the details of legislation.

It is possible to read the clauses, if not the schedules, with a degree of understanding, which reflects the history of the Bill's creation, including the preparatory studies of the interdepartmental working group on transsexual people—which the Minister's Department reconvened, with an extended remit, to consider the implications of the Goodwin judgment—and the wise publication of a draft Bill last summer. There were then the observations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the Bill's introduction in substance in another place, which led to some thorough and lively debates. I sense that those might continue in this place.

The Joint Committee and others have declared the issues complex and delicate, and I thoroughly endorse that comment and share the Committee's concern. I

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want to approach the subject not with political triumphalism—we saw some signs of that from the Minister—but with a degree of humility and in a spirit of honest inquiry. It seems that there is scope in this matter for the proper expert input of at least three learned professions, although of course they never agree with each other on such matters. They are theology, the law and medicine. I practise none of those, but I take advice from those who do.

We can certainly agree that Parliament now has an opportunity to tackle this matter definitively, and I believe strongly that, in the interests of everyone, we had better get it as right as is humanly possible, if not absolutely perfectly right. I should make it clear at this stage that the official Opposition will allow their Members a free vote on this issue tonight. This reflects not only the sensitivities to which I have already referred, but the clear reservations of principle that have already surfaced in debate, particularly, although not exclusively, from people of faith. I should also record that the opinions of people of faith are not unanimous. At this point, I should perhaps make it clear for the Minister's comfort that I shall support the Bill.

We often find that we learn from our constituents on these issues. I have a constituent who is a male-to-female transsexual, and who has been discussing the issues with me and briefing me on the matter over the number of years in which I have taken an interest in it. She is a former senior official, and as such is well aware of the processes of legislation. She has taught me a great deal about the problems that transsexuals face, particularly people in a situation such as hers, as she is legally married to a woman.

To borrow from a literary reference from a Roman historian, the unknown is often magnified in circumstances such as these. If people could come to terms with some of the difficulties that some of our citizens encounter, they might take a more sympathetic view—although not, as I hope to show, a completely uncritical one—of the issues.

To move from the particular to the general, I believe that I echo the spirit of the Minister's remarks when I say that Parliament has a long and entirely decent tradition of legislating to meet the deeply felt concerns of even quite small numbers of individuals about their status. That status could well be defensible under some principle of law; equally, however, it could have arisen from some long-past concern or controversy so deeply buried in history that we do not even remember why it was originally introduced. I am thinking, for example, of the intense debates that were held in this place a century ago during the passage of the Deceased Wife's Sister's Marriage Act 1907, or the minor but remarkable and commendable legislation passed half a century ago to correct the position in which foundlings had to have a special birth certificate labelled "foundling", which must have deeply offensive to them.

Issues such as these are not generally a matter of political weight. With great respect to the 5,000 transsexual people in this country—I think that we would all wish to show that—they are extremely unlikely to turn the result of the next general election. However, that imposes a duty on us collectively to try to be as helpful to individuals as we properly may.

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In this case, as the Minister has said, there is also a European dimension, and I am personally exercised that British law is harsher on transsexuals than most of its European counterparts. The Liberty submission suggested that only four other countries were equally harsh, and that only Britain and Ireland refused transsexuals any rights such as these at all. As the Minister has implied, however, the impact of the recent judgment of the European Court of Human Rights and the Bellinger judgment in the UK must be tackled.

I should stress that we are, by definition, contemplating a change in the operation of the civil law—no more, no less. At least since Hardwicke's Marriage Act 1753, Parliament has taken an interest in matters that have a clear ecclesiastical and theological interface, such as provisions regulating marriage. That Act, as a matter of interest—this bears on some of the concerns of the faith communities—regulated the conduct of the clergy in the matter of marriage, and, I understand, imposed extremely severe penalties, up to and including capital punishment, on transgressors.

As to the theology, over which we can all pass briefly and tentatively, I hope that the Minister will appreciate it if I confine myself to the argument in the Acts of the Apostles of the wise Gamaliel, who told the Jewish council that God would ultimately be the judge of the worth of what was being done, and that, in effect, we could do no more than offer our good faith in the matter. We need to acknowledge that good faith and good will may be necessary conditions for legislating but are not necessarily sufficient. We therefore need to tackle the difficulties, too.

I genuinely accept the sincerity and intensity of views of those on the other side of the argument and of those who may wish to oppose the legislation in the Lobby. In some cases—not always—those counter arguments start with objections of intrinsic principle. For example, in the debates in another place, the Lord Bishop of Winchester referred to the biblical text,

and pointed out that that is an intrinsic part of the beliefs of Christians, Jews and Muslims alike. I note that a number of objectors in another place took sex as a given at birth. Even then, however, some genuine doubt existed as to the uniqueness of the criteria to be employed, whether the definition of sex was simply a chromosomal definition—the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) has mentioned the separate issue of intersex people—and in certain cases whether even the chromosomal definition could be ambiguous in determining sex. I was impressed by some of the medical comments made by learned peers on that matter. Whether or not there is or could be a precise, conclusive definition of sex, it is clear to me, modestly, that the defining characteristic of transsexuals is that they are in the real world deeply unhappy with their birth gender. That is the issue that, after due process, the Bill would change.

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