Campaigners spoke out after Labour shadow equalities minister Dawn Butler codemned “outdated” legal provisions protecting single-sex facilities like women’s refuges and said there was “no way spaces will be permitted to discriminate against trans people”.
Ruth Serwotka of campaign group Women’s Place UK said that Ms Butler’s comments amounted to watering down women’s rights and contradicted a pledge in the Labour manifesto to ensure that legal protections for single-sex spaces are “understood and fully enforced in service provision”.
A Labour spokesperson said that single-sex spaces would continue to be allowed “providing that such treatment by a provider is justified”, but added: “No spaces will be permitted to discriminate against trans people.”
The row centres on a clause in the 2010 Equality Act which states that it is not discriminatory for people who have undergone gender reassignment to be denied access to a service provided “only to persons of one sex”.
Ms Serwotka said she welcomed the apparent commitment to this principle in the Labour manifesto.
But she said “alarm bells” began ringing after Ms Butler declared: “We will remove outdated language from the Equalities Act. And there is no way spaces will be permitted to discriminate against trans people. That is illegal and it will stay illegal.”
Ms Butler followed up on her comments by tweeting a letter she sent last year to then equalities minister Penny Mordaunt stating that Labour would reform the language of the act to ensure it protects people on the basis of “gender identity” rather than “gender assignment”.
Ms Serwotka warned that this could mean women-only venues like refuges, therapeutic services, prisons and changing rooms having to open their doors to people who self-identify as female as well as those born with that gender.
She said that gender self-identification risked being “extremely dangerous” in medical situations such as blood transfusions.
And she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have to continue to understand what the sex is at birth, and that that is the basis on which lots of services continue to be provided.”
Ms Serwotka said the Labour wording on single-sex exemptions was “a really big step forward” from the 2017 manifesto, which was welcomed by women’s rights campaigners.
But she said Ms Butler’s comments gave the impression that she did not understand the importance of the provisions.
“Schedule three, part seven, Section 28 of the Equality Act is clear that it is lawful to allow single-sex services for women who require therapeutic space – in refuges, in prisons, all of those places,” she said.
“For a minister to be suggesting that that is not the case really does ring alarm bells.
“It’s not acceptable for Labour Party spokespeople to say that they will remove rights from women in order to give rights to another group. That’s just not acceptable it’s been done without consultation or any discussion.
“It’s clear that if you are going to protect single-sex services, then you have to protect the characteristic of sex, which exists in the Equality Act. Any attempt to remove that has got to be done with the full consultation not just with party members but with women across society because these rights have been won by them.”
A Labour spokesperson said: “Our commitment to reforming the Gender Recognition Act to introduce self-declaration for transgender people is undimmed.
“Labour will amend the Equality Act 2010 to ensure it protects trans people by changing the protected characteristic of ‘gender assignment’ to ‘gender identity’ and removing other outdated language such as ‘transsexual’.
“The Equality Act will continue to allow for separate and single-sex services, providing that such treatment by a provider is justified, but no spaces will be permitted to discriminate against trans people.”
Shadow cabinet minister Laura Pidcock told Today: "I think that there has to be the enforcement of single space exemptions for women to heal and recover and it is absolutely crucial that there are spaces, that there is provision, for trans people to also get the help and support they need."
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