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6.22 pm

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): I am pleased to have the opportunity to say a few words about the Bill. I profess straight away that I do not claim to be an expert on the issues, but I have listened carefully to the remarks of the Government and Opposition Front Benchers and of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), and I have been taken by the degree of consensus on the matter. The Liberal Democrats certainly want to give the Bill a fair hearing and we hope that it proceeds to its next parliamentary stages.

I say that in acknowledgement of the fact that there are real concerns, particularly on the part of those holding strong religious beliefs, who struggle with the matter and have serious difficulties with the Bill. I read with interest the contribution of the Bishop of Winchester, whom I know well, in the other place. There comes a point, frankly, where one can argue as much as one likes, but people simply have to agree to differ on some of the issues because they are approached from a wholly different perspective. Little can be gained from getting into endless arguments on narrow points, when there are fundamental differences.

We support the measures in the Bill, largely because of the tradition in the House whereby we eventually—perhaps not as fast as some would like—catch up with social changes and reflect how society is moving. Sometimes we are ahead; other times we lag behind. On this particular issue, we have lagged behind, but it is a tradition, as I said, that the House acknowledges what is happening in the real world outside of both Houses. There is also an important tradition whereby we do all we can to protect minorities out there, many of whom are persecuted because of their position or beliefs. As ever, we politicians should protect those people's rights. The Bill recognises that we needed to catch up and put those rights in place. It is important to recognise that transsexuals have rights and I hope that, as the Bill proceeds, we are also aware, as other hon. Members have said, of the impact that conferring them could have on other individuals' rights.

Mr. Rendel: Does my hon. Friend accept that those who have undergone the process are almost unanimously in favour of the Bill? I have a letter from the chair of the Gender Trust—the largest organisation working for transsexual and transgender people. She urged me

Mr. Oaten: I certainly agree with that point and I congratulate those transsexuals, including some of my hon. Friend's constituents, who have persistently raised the issues in Parliament. The hon. Member for

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Birmingham, Selly Oak spoke about her constituents and people who have not been able to talk as openly as they would have liked about the issues. They will welcome our sensible and mature debate in Parliament today.

The process of arriving at the present position was partly set by European legislation, which was once again ahead of us. We have had rulings from the European Court of Human Rights, but we have also had valuable pre-scrutiny in the work of the other place and of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, so no one can accuse us of rushing to this particular stage. Many of the issues have been thoroughly examined.

The Bill has resolved several problems. The first, mentioned in the other place and in our earlier debate, is what I describe from a layman's view as the car insurance point. By that I mean the ridiculous circumstances under which someone who has changed sex can phone up and ask for car insurance under a woman's name—there is nothing wrong with that—but if an accident were to happen and a claim were made, that person would, as I understand it, be committing fraud on the basis that the person is really a male. That is daft, silly nonsense and it is the sort of problem that the Bill will help to sort out. We should all welcome that.

I also welcome the Government's clear commitment to putting in place a new birth certificate. It is another sensible, practical measure for someone to have a piece of paper that is requisite for many forms of legal documentation, which does not cause awkwardness or embarrassment.

Sir Patrick Cormack: The hon. Gentleman is a fair-minded man and recognises that some of us are not lacking in sympathy for this small group of people, but do not believe that the Bill is right. I accept that the Bill will be passed, but does he accept that it is important to build in a conscience clause for registrars and others who find it offensive to take part in what they would view, frankly, as issuing fraudulent documents?

Mr. Oaten: My inclination is to agree because I respect the hon. Gentleman's views, but I have to say that I cannot agree on this occasion, because the job of a registrar is to implement the law. If we were to allow some form of waiver on this particular issue, on what other laws would a registrar be allowed the same thing? Although I could be persuaded that conscience opt-outs are appropriate in some circumstances, I could not accept that in respect of an individual whose job is to manage and register the law. I could not therefore agree with the hon. Gentleman on that point.

The Bill also deals with access to pensions and benefits, and I believe that some of the measures will usefully tackle current problems. It is also important that individuals will have a right to marry under the new gender, which is wholly sensible and right.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) (UUP): On that point, have I been misinformed that under case law, a person could be divorced on the grounds that a marriage was void because the person was transsexual?

Mr. Oaten: I am sorry, but I did not quite understand the point of the hon. Gentleman's intervention. Perhaps

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I shall be able to answer it by moving on to my next point, which deals with the issue of how marriages currently stand. There is a problem there, and the Government have not moved far enough to deal with it. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the matter and not be so rigid about what happens to the tiny number of individuals—no more perhaps than 150 or 200—currently living in a marriage, who have undergone gender reassignment but want to continue to be married.

I am not being pre-judgmental, but it strikes me that for a marriage to be able to survive in those circumstances, and for people to stay together, there must be an incredibly strong bond between them. Given that bond, that love and that affection—there may even be children involved—if everybody is comfortable and happy with the situation, there must be a way round the problem. The Government must be able to allow the marriage to continue. We are talking about a very small number of people, and we do not wish to create difficulty, tension and unhappiness where none existed.

Even if it were not for that moral issue, I would still argue that there is a practical issue, which several hon. Members have raised—pension rights. Obviously, the ability to draw down a pension in such a partnership is dependent on whether, at a particular point, a marriage existed. If we require marriages to be dissolved, we could be jeopardising pension rights, so I hope that the Government will reconsider the issue.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Is not the way forward to accept that, except in cases of bigamy, which we are not discussing at the moment, marriages will not be put asunder in a civil sense unless someone applies for them to be ended in one way or another, or made void? Perhaps the Government could accept that without such an initiative, people could continue as they were.

Mr. Oaten: Whether that would be legal is a complex and tricky question, and I would also have concerns about who might apply for the marriage to be broken up. It might be a way forward—but I am sure that when the detail is discussed in Committee, the issue will be revisited by Members who want to ensure that we get the balance right. When the Government get round to introducing the welcome legislation on civil partnerships, that may resolve some of the issues, but for the sake of those 150 or 200 people, I hope that they will think again now.

I welcome the provisions on privacy, and the fact that the Minister said that he was concerned to ensure that in the context of documentation and birth certificates, an individual's privacy would be protected as much as possible. He also said, however, that despite that desire for some form of privacy, we would need to ensure that police records were maintained. That is important. Either now or in Committee, will the Minister tell us how far that provision will be extended?

I am thinking in particular of access to such material through the Criminal Records Bureau, an organisation not known for the effectiveness of its operations. I would like to know at what level the information will be made available. For example, if an individual is likely to be employed in a school, or as a care worker, some sensitive

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issues will be raised. There will be information that could be made available, and some difficult judgments will have to be made about what information to release to a school governor or a head teacher—information that would completely take away someone's privacy. Will the school governing body suddenly have to judge whether it feels that gender recognition is an issue for it to deal with?

I would want to be very clear about where information will be passed on. I understand the need to have it in police records, but if it became available through the Criminal Records Bureau, it could suddenly become widely known. We should be very careful about how it might be used.

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