July 24, 2023 - 5:45pm

Today, the Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities Anneliese Dodds provided the first real insight into what Labour’s policy would be on the thorny debate over trans and gender-based rights. Writing in the Guardian that “nothing in our modernised gender recognition process would override the single-sex exemptions in the Equality Act […] there will always be places where it is reasonable for biological women only to have access”, the Labour politician has, for the first time, made an unequivocal and welcome commitment to the need for same-sex spaces.

But the question remains as to how the party can legally achieve this goal — particularly given the commitments to make the process of changing gender easier. One way would be to amend the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) to make clear that a person transitioning changes their gender, not their sex — and that the single-sex exemptions in the Equality Act are therefore unaffected whether or not someone has received a gender recognition certificate (GRC). Currently, there is confusion among single-sex providers over whether they should allow a person of the opposite biological sex with a GRC to access their services. This has grave consequences for some of society’s most vulnerable women.

Dodds’s commitment to single-sex spaces increases the pressure on the Government to act on its own commitments to sex-based rights and ensure its public sector does the same. The NHS remains captured, with current guidance endorsing a patient’s right to self ID into a hospital ward according to their gender identity. Among secondary schools, 28% are not maintaining same-sex toilets. The Crown Prosecution Service has recently released guidance stating that refusing to fund your partner’s transition could be deemed domestic abuse.

Labour’s plans to reform the GRA by “simplifying the process” of changing gender will understandably raise concerns among those who already believe that the legislation undermines sex-based rights. In particular, Dodds’s suggestion that one doctor’s signature is enough to validate a GRC is concerning. As the damning investigation into the Tavistock clinic showed, some doctors have been far too ready to rush people, including vulnerable and neurodivergent children, down the route of transitioning.

However, that Dodds has felt compelled to make such a statement — and in a way which departs significantly from Labour’s policy at the 2019 election — reflects how much public opinion has shifted on this issue. Only a few years ago, both Labour and the Conservatives entertained the introduction of gender-self-ID policies, with Keir Starmer claiming in 2020 that “trans rights are human rights.” Trans rights are indeed human rights, but so are women’s rights: the potential for self-ID to be exploited, not by trans people but by violent and abusive men, remains a serious problem.

Despite Dodds’s welcome intervention, significant questions remain. Given the repeated controversies in prisons, changing rooms, NHS wards and domestic abuse shelters, there is still a lack of clarity as to where Labour believes it is “reasonable for biological women only to have access”. Dodds is also silent on the question of sport, and whether or not Labour agrees that the female category must be preserved for biological women in the name of basic fairness.   

Most fundamentally, there is no mention of children. The long-term consequences for children with gender dysphoria, including those who are permitted to socially transition or offered puberty blockers, remains unknown. The heated debate over the much-delayed trans guidance in schools demonstrates that this is a subject that no government will be able to duck for long. 

Dodds’s statement reveals the first glimmer of what could prove to be a new era in the trans debate. But good intentions are not enough: if both women’s rights and trans rights are to be protected, significantly more will be needed.

Lottie Moore is head of Biology Matters at the Policy Exchange think tank.

Lottie Moore is the head of Biology Matters at the Policy Exchange think tank