Government has no plans to block trans people from single-sex spaces, says equalities minister

Equalities Minister Mike Freer speaks during a debate on Gender Recognition Act reform

Trans people’s access to single-sex spaces will remain enshrined in the Equality Act, Tory MP Mike Freer has said.

The equalities minister also addressed the spousal veto – legislation which forces married trans people to get their spouse’s consent before they can gain legal recognition – and promised that the government will remove a “specific reference” to the word disorder in the Gender Recognition Act (GRA).

Freer spoke during a Westminster debate, responding to a petition calling for reforms to the GRA, on Monday (21 February) evening.

He told MPs that the government firmly believes LGBT+ people should be “free to live and prosper in modern Britain”.

After some legislators raised concerns about how trans people can access single-sex spaces, Freer assured those present that the Equality Act 2010, which prohibits discrimination against trans people in the UK, will not be amended.

“For many years, trans people have used single-sex spaces in their gender without issue,” Freer said.

“The government have no interest in curtailing that. It is also important that we maintain existing provisions that allow organisations to provide single-sex spaces.

“The Equality Act already allows service providers to restrict access to services on the basis of sex and gender reassignment, where that is justified.”

Under the Equality Act, providers of single-sex spaces may only discriminate against trans people if it is “objectively justified as a means of achieving a legitimate aim”

The example given by the government in its explanatory notes on the act is that a group counselling session for female victims of sexual assault could legally exclude a trans woman if her presence would prevent others from attending.

Freer said there has been a “lot of media attention” given to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) work to “provide clarity to service providers on the provision of single-sex services”.

The EHRC was recently accused of seeking to exclude trans people from single-sex spaces without a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) in leaked guidance to Vice World News. 

The documents seemingly showed that the EHRC, the UK’s equalities watchdog, has been working on proposed guidance to advise organisations, prisons and gyms to ban trans people from single-sex spaces unless they have a GRC. The EHRC has denied knowledge of the documents and denied it wants to exclude trans people without a GRC from single-sex spaces, which lawyers have said would be illegal anyway.

Freer said he had a “fruitful, if frank, conversation” with the chair of the EHRC, Baroness Kishwer Falkner, about how the UK government is “not seeking to change” the Equality Act while “recognising that for some people… clarity about its provisions might be welcomed”.

Mike Freer addresses spousal veto

At the moment, the spouse of a married trans person must consent to continuing the marriage before their partner can gain legal recognition. Effectively, it gives them a veto over their partner’s legal transition, as if their spouse refuses consent the trans partner cannot obtain a Gender Recognition Certificate until their divorce is finalised.

Freer said the government will “address many of the issues” raised in Monday’s debate about the spousal veto in a “formal response to the Women and Equalities Committee report”, which will be “published shortly”.

In the meantime, he said that the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 would “remove” the issue.

Current UK divorce law requires people seeking divorce to give evidence on facts to establish the irretrievable breakdown of their marriage. This can include three facts based on “fault” or two based on a period of separation.

The Divorce, Dissolution and Separation Act 2020 – which comes into effect in April – will remove the fault-based requirements for divorce, which in theory would make it easier for a trans person whose partner will not give consent to seek divorce.

However, TransActual, a trans-led group, clarified that the “no fault divorce” will not remove the spousal veto from the law books.

“A bit of a clarification here,” the group wrote on Twitter. “Spousal veto will not be removed but the introduction of ‘no fault divorce’ may make it less of an issue. TransActual are of the view that the spousal veto must go.”

In a statement on Twitter, Freer said the divorce act would help to “avoid spousal consent issues” by “making it easier and quicker to get a ‘no fault’ divorce”.

During the debate, Mike Freer also said the government was “taking steps to amend a specific reference to ‘disorder’” in the GRA “via a remedial order as soon as possible”.

Stonewall welcomed Freer’s “commitment to trans rights” and “challenging falsehoods on prisons and single-sex spaces”. The LGBT+ organisation also welcomed the removal of the spousal veto and term “disorder” as vital steps, but Stonewall said more still needed to be done.

“Removing the spousal veto and the term ‘disorder’ are vital steps, but do not address the stigmatising, invasive, medicalised nature of acquiring a Gender Recognition Certificate,” Stonewall said.