Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.27 pm

Mr. Boswell: For the second time, with the leave of the House, I am grateful for hon. Members' indulgence in allowing me to respond briefly. The debate has spoken for itself and I need only pick up one or two points briefly.

We have heard nine passionate speeches, which were clustered in an interesting way. Let me begin by topping and tailing the debate. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones). It was clear from several contributions, including mine, that hon. Members felt that her work in converting her constituents' concerns into a campaign that is within a whisker of bearing fruit was praiseworthy. As she knows from my earlier remarks, I am personally in sympathy with the campaign.

However, I also believe that hon. Members should be grateful for the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone—

Miss Widdecombe: And the Weald.

Mr. Boswell: I meant my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). We would do no service to anybody, transgendered or not, if we pretended that the issues were easy and that there were no debate to be had.

I derive encouragement from the conduct of the debate. As the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) said, it was not characterised by the sort of heat and nastiness that it could have been. That does us credit. We should not rest on our laurels; we should sometimes take such an issue and debate it properly. We have done our best to do that. That applies to all

23 Feb 2004 : Column 98

Members who have contributed, including my hon. Friends the Members for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Atkinson) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key), who supported my line on the Bill, and Labour Members who spoke from personal experience or their experience of, for example, the social security system and developed a position. Occasionally, therefore, we can come away with a sense of a worthwhile debate that was well conducted.

On such a subject, about which views differ, it would be impossible to hammer out consensus. Indeed, it would not be sensible. However, it is possible to light on several themes that will be germane to the Committee stage.

There is a very strong concern in principle. The Minister knows that I am on his side, and not that of certain others, over the implications for continuing marriages. We must have a firm debate on that in Committee, and consider any other possible procedures in relation to the transition to civil partnerships, or whether there are other assurances that can be given on that. That matter relates to legal status, and leads to the important issue of pensions. One or two comments that have been made on that are possibly not wholly fair to the Government. Anyone who reads schedule 3—I recommend it for insomnia—will realise that it addresses many issues. It might not always be congenial to people, because the basic principle on which the Government are operating is that if a person changes gender, everything else follows from that and there will be no other advantage. However, the consequences to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald referred could well flow from a divorce that took place with no reference at all to transgender issues. We will certainly need to consider that matter.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) made some interesting points, especially on confidentiality issues. I can just imagine the difficulties if someone asked for a person's GCSE certificate, and it had not been changed because no one was under a legal duty to change it or to consider that matter. We will want to look at such situations.

We have had a debate, if not of consensus, involving a remarkable consensus of tone. That is a good start, working on the assumption that the Bill receives a Second Reading, but it is not sufficient in itself. I am passionately committed to trying to get the legislation as right as I can—although that is sometimes a little difficult for a lay person—and I give Ministers and the House genteel notice that I intend to table amendments, as and when the Bill has received a Second Reading, precisely so that they can form part of the debate. I hope that other hon. Members, if they are prepared to participate in the Committee, will feel that they, too, can do that. It is greatly to our benefit to debate amendments thoroughly and properly, and I hope that we will not be rushed in doing so.

I have picked up from my hon. Friends their real concern that in their view, because they feel that the change of gender cannot have taken place, the Bill would allow two men or two women to marry. All I would say in response is that there are essential difficulties in this field. I might throw back to them the situation that can arise now in which a man and a woman are legally married but, because one of them has changed gender, the marriage now exists between two

23 Feb 2004 : Column 99

people of the same gender. In the same way, on registration and certification, if someone's birth certificate declares that they are a man, but for all practical purposes they are now living as a woman, I am not sure whether it is happier or more honest to say, "That's a man", or to recognise the fact that that person is now a woman. Then there are all the confusions, difficulties and ambiguities over the medical evidence. Perhaps my hon. Friends have realised that these issues are not straightforward. Some of them feel that they cannot live with the Bill, which I can understand, but equally, aspects of the status quo are not comfortable either.

That suggests that we need to proceed with a delicate balance. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury quoted our noble Friend the Baroness Buscombe as having said in another place that we need to proceed with caution—I am sure that that is right, because the law must be got right—but he then added the rider that we must also proceed with compassion. That is the right balance. In my view, if in doubt—this will drive my support for the Bill—we should look at the people concerned and the problems that they face, and try, if we humanly can, although not regardless of any other implication, to meet their needs. The Bill is not perfect, but it is a lot better for the long process of debate and discussion that has already taken place. We can have a further go at improving it, and we intend to do so.

8.34 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): May I say how impressed I am by the conduct of the debate? In my time in Parliament, I have not been involved in such a thorough, sensible and calm debate, which has brought out many of the important issues at the nub of the Bill. I feel privileged to have taken some part in today's debate. It was particularly marked that the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) had such a constructive approach, which I welcome. That constructive attitude will be brought to Committee, and my hon. Friends the Ministers who will take the Bill through Committee—the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy) and the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle)—are no doubt looking forward to that experience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) commented on the nature of gender dysphoria and said that the way in which some individuals define themselves and see their identity is a critical, and very personal, issue. It is important to recap what we are talking about. Transsexual people feel a deep conviction of the need to present themselves in the appearance of the opposite sex, changing their names and identities to live in the acquired gender. Some take hormones and have cosmetic treatment to alter their physical appearance, and some undergo surgery to change their bodies to conform more to their acquired gender. However, the medical condition whereby an individual born to one gender feels adamantly that they are in fact of a different gender is known as gender dysphoria. It is a real phenomenon, albeit one that

23 Feb 2004 : Column 100

affects only an estimated 5,000 people in the United Kingdom. Those individuals sometimes feel so strongly that they are of a different gender that they seek gender reassignment socially, hormonally or even surgically.

The hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) stated that when we debate those issues and try to find solutions, which the Government have genuinely tried to do with the Bill, a point comes at which we have to take a view on the principles that we hold. The Bill enables such a decision to be made, although I realise that there will be different opinions.

The basic principles behind the Bill are clear. Although it concerns a minority, the test of how civilised a society is rests in part on the care and respect that it gives to minorities. Tolerance and respect are important, and recognition of difference is a key ingredient of that. Giving legal recognition to transsexual people is one step towards removing a sense of exclusion from society for a minority in our community—so there is an important principle at stake. That was the point that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Woodward) made in a powerful and moving speech, as many Members heard. The Government believe, as does he, that all people should be entitled to basic rights and allowed to live their lives freely and legitimately, as they determine. If some people lack legal status or recognition, that can inhibit their freedom and their ability to take part in society at large.

Even if that problem affects only a small number of people, it is our duty to address it and to find solutions where we can. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones), as several hon. Members noted, has campaigned strenuously over a long period for many, if not the bulk, of the provisions in the Bill. She made her points exceptionally strongly, and I pay tribute to her for her contribution.

Basic rights to legal recognition are needed to allow transsexual people the right to privacy, without the need continually to describe their gender history to complete strangers in the course of their daily lives. That is another specific reason why this reform is necessary. Of course, the Bill will also enable us to meet our international obligations and honour various rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. The time has come to join a number of European and other states in giving legal recognition to transsexual people. We acknowledge that that will involve changing significant parts of our legislation, and that we need to begin to recognise more fully the human rights of that group in our society.

The hon. Member for Daventry said that we often come to understand these issues through listening to the views expressed by our constituents. Indeed, many hon. Members have mentioned hearing such views.

Next Section

IndexHome Page