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Government amendments Nos. 3 and 4 agreed to.
I am grateful for the co-operation and assistance of the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle). She has tackled important pensions issues that have concerned many hon. Members and I thank her for her detailed deliberations on those matters.
This is a Bill with a simple rationale. It addresses the difficulties faced by a small, vulnerable minority who have been denied basic legal rights for too long, and seeks to provide transsexual people with legal recognition of an everyday reality: the gender to which they now belong. On meeting the criteria in the Bill, a person will become in law the gender in which he or she
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now lives. That means that he or she will be able to get a birth certificate that reflects the acquired gender, and be able to marry or claim a pension in that gender.
Of course, a Bill of this kind raises issues about the rights of others. We have had an important debate today about the right to freedom of religion, and I hope that we have demonstrated that we are alive to those concerns and are engaging with religious communities and their representatives. Just as the Bill provides legal recognition of the identity of transsexual people, it also respects the conscience of others.
Many hon. Members have made an invaluable contribution to scrutiny of the Bill. The hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell) has been remarkably thorough, and in Committee he tabled a series of probing amendments that allowed us further to discuss some of the key aspects of the Bill. The Government amendment on placing the panels under the supervision of the Council on Tribunalswhich was agreed to todaywas a consequence of one of those probes.
The hon. Members for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) and for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) welcomed the Bill, and although there were areas in which they would have preferred the Government to legislate otherwise, I hope that they agree with the view expressed by members of the transsexual community that the Bill meets 95 per cent. of the needs of transsexual people.
On the Labour Benches, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) merits particular credit. She has been a forceful advocate of the rights of transsexual people for many years in the House. She set up the parliamentary forum on transsexualism, and she has brought her expertise and experience to bear on our consideration of the Bill. She and the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon both caused us to reconsider the issue of foreign gender change and to table the amendment to clause 21 that was agreed to earlier today.
Perhaps most importantly of all, hon. Members have discussed these issues with compassion and understanding, and I know that that has been appreciated beyond the Chamber. Many in the small community of transsexual people feel that they are excluded no more, that the House does not regard their concerns as trivial, and that the Bill is creating a robust and credible process whereby they can gain legal recognition of the gender in which they now live.
The Bill is about equality, human rights, dignity and respect. We judge our civilised societies by how they treat their minority communities. I suspect that the House has never before had to consider equality and human rights legislation on behalf of such a small minority, and it is a credit to the House that this judgment has been made today and that the Bill should receive its Third Reading.
Mr. Boswell: I should like to say at the start that I remain a supporter of the Bill, but that the Conservatives have decided to have a free vote on it. That will already have become apparent from the voting that took place earlier.
The House is often criticised for spending its time on trivia when there are other, more important things to discuss, but is to be commended today for spending a
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day of its time on a matter of intense interest to a small number of affected persons. It is a very small number in comparative terms: perhaps 5,000 people. Whatever else one may say about the transsexual community, they probably have very little direct political influence. It is therefore important that we address their interests if there is something wrong.
The Minister spoke strongly and eloquently about his commitment to human rights. That commitment is by no means confined to those on the Government Benches. I would say that if a human right is denied to one person for no good reason, that is a denial of one human right too many. How we implement that commitment and the interlocking with other commitments is the whole substance of our consideration.
Bearing in mind the historic wrongs suffered by the transsexual community and the degree of misunderstanding that is still apparent, the tone of our debates has been extremely important. I have tried to bear that in mind, and I know the Minister has. Hon. Members with different positions on the issue have generally brought that kind of flavour to our deliberations. It does this place credit and shows respect for the people we have been discussing. That has gone on throughout our debates and I hope it will continue into the post-legislative resolution of some of the issues.
In my own approach to the Bill, I have applied an overriding simple test: is there a wrong that needs to be remedied? Yes, I believe there has been. I ask myself two further questions: does the remedy create potentially difficult precedents and/or would it do more harm than good in practice? On the first question, we have just voted on a proposal, which, the House agreed, would have the effect of validating a very limited number of same-sex marriages. The Minister and I found ourselves in the same Lobby opposing that on principle, even if we have great sympathy for those people in practice. That is the type 1 danger. The type 2 danger is that although we may be legislating with good intentions, in practice our best intentions may be frustrated by difficulties. I cite as an example, as it was the last major debate that we had, the issue of Criminal Records Bureau checks. Anything in the Bill that made those more difficult to effect would be wrong. We must apply those tests.
The debates today and in Committee and, if I may add to the Minister's general commendation of those who participated in these debates, also in another place, have been an example of Parliament working well together, and that includes the Minister's colleagues as well as himself. Throughout this proper periodthe kind that we do not always spend on legislationwe have had some indication of particular problems. Some of those are hypothetical problems or ones that may arise in the future. They generally will not arise at the instigation of transsexual people, who will want to be able to enjoy their rights. I hope that nobody else will make a political demonstration about the issues or turn matters into a lawyers' paradise. There are better, less sensitive and more lucrative matters for lawyers to argue about.
We have had in Committee and on Report ministerial assurances about matters that could be difficult and difficulties that we anticipated. We have been broadly satisfied with those assurances. That may be reflected in
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the way that some of us vote. We will probably keep our fingers crossed that those assurances work in practice. I recognise that some hon. Members will have no coincidence of view on the principle and will still be unable to reconcile themselves to the Bill, but on the practical side we may have made some progress.
As regards my personal judgment of the Bill, let me put two points to the House for consideration. They may have slightly wider application than just to the Bill. First, as Ministers have constantly conceded, we need to find an appropriate balance between the human rights of individuals. Where those rights conflict, that conflict must be resolved. The Bill arose from European human rights legislation based on articles 8 and 12, and the UK's apparent breach of those provisions. A very powerful case today has today been deployed for the protection of religious rights, as the Minister has acknowledged, which are enshrined under article 9 of the European convention on human rights. As I suggested in my comments on that new clause, we may find that some of the issues in relation to conflict of rights, and different obligations to secure rights, become more common in the future. Perhaps all the easy work on human rights has been done, and the difficult work, and some of the tensions, will build up later.
This is not just a matter for the lawyers. It is also about society's acceptance of these rights and the way in which it can be comfortable with them, at ease with itself and at ease with the new situation that has been created. As I said, I know that some hon. Members will feel uneasy about that. We should do nothing to inflame that situation, because were we to do so, we would prejudice the newly acquired rights of transgendered people.
My second point is that however Members intend to vote in a few moments, while it is easy to spot problems and pick holes in the legislation, leaving matters as they are would also be extremely difficult and, in my view, less satisfactory. Let us consider an actual situationmany of us will be familiar with similar onesof a couple who are constituents. They are legally a man and a woman, married and living together over a number of years, and in a firm and loving relationship. One of them has already undergone gender reassignment surgery. It is difficult, as they would have to sever their marriage if that person were to avail themselves of the procedure for a gender recognition certificate. In everything except the legal sense, howeverwe are legislating tonight, and our concern is the legal meaningthose persons are already a same-sex couple. Incidentally, that is one reason why it is extremely important that we have now got the Government to come forward with the civil partnerships legislation, at least to provide a way of resolving some of these issues.
I say to some of my colleagues that just saying, "This is all a bit odd. We don't like how it sounds," is perhaps to condone other situations in which these rare but not insignificant cases have created dilemmas for us all. We should not run away from those. When the House confronts a dilemma, the answer is not to look for a simplistic solution or to consider how it plays in the tabloids, but to try to find the right approach.
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Were there a simple answer, we would either be making no changes tonight because we had got it right, or we would have made those changes long ago, because we would have needed to do so and it would have been easy. We would probably not be making them now were it not for the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, but that has spurred Ministers into action, in my view, constructively.
We are making those changes, and the Bill will pass shortly, if not without dissent. Even with its problems, on balanceto use the phrase for the last timeI welcome the Bill's righting of wrongs to a minority. I wish it well as it passes.
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