This is a thought-experiment. Imagine the following scenario:
A Conservative Prime Minister is dishing out peerages. Among the people given a lifelong right to sit in the House of Lords and vote on new laws is a lobbyist who has conducted a long campaign to diminish women’s rights under the law.
The lobbyist, leading an organisation that describes itself as a 'professional lobbying group', has particularly targeted the Equality Act 2010 for change.
A quick primer on the law:
The Act is the basis for most equality law and practice in the UK. It says that in general, people should be treated in the same way whatever their sex, race, sexuality, age, religion, gender reassignment or disability.
It also contains some very important exemptions, exceptions that allow organisations to restrict some services solely to people of one particular sex, and to exclude people of the other sex. This is 'discrimination' but it’s legal; not all 'discrimination' is bad.
Mostly, these exemptions relate to services for women. There are a number of organisations who wish to offer services only for women and who need a legal right to exclude men. For instance, someone operating a domestic violence refuge might argue that they must exclude men from that service, because vulnerable women who have experienced abuse and violence at the hands of men should be not be asked to share such a place with other men. In the words of one expert group: 'Single-sex exceptions to the Equality Act 2010 are generally applied in sensitive services, such as rape crisis and women’s refuges.'
In other words, these exceptions to the Act, allowing organisations to discriminate in order to provide women-only services, are quite a big deal. You might call them 'women’s rights'.
Back to our newly-ennobled lobbyist.
In 2015, this lobbyist’s organisation submitted evidence to a Commons inquiry which called for a 'review of the Equality Act 2010… to remove exemptions, such as access to single-sex spaces.'
In 2017, the lobbyist promised to campaign for 'the removal of all instances of permitted discrimination' from the act.
The effect of those changes, to be clear, would be to make it illegal for a domestic violence refuge to turn someone away because they were male, because they had a penis. Sorry to mention penises (again) but they matter a lot here. In English law, rape requires a penis. (Sexual Offences Act 2003: 'A person (A) commits an offence if (a)he intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis, B does not consent to the penetration, and A does not reasonably believe that B consents.')
The lobbyist’s proposed changes would mean it was not lawful for a refuge housing victims of rape to deny entry to a person because that person had a penis.
The lobbyist’s campaigning to dismantle those legal rights to women-only services were, not surprisingly, controversial. Several women’s groups raised concerns, arguing that making it unlawful for service providers to exclude people with male bodies from services and spaces for women was unjustified and potentially harmful. Some of those expressing concern, women providing refuges and shelters for vulnerable and abused women, said that ending the single-sex exemptions in the Act could allow abusive men to use the reformed law to gain access to women’s spaces and carry out more abuse.
Having campaigned to end those legal rights for women, having heard those concerns that doing so could make it easier for abusive men to abuse women, the lobbyist was asked for a response. In a recent interview, the lobbyist was asked about the policies she advocated and their potential impact on women’s safety. Was she concerned that the changes could create laws that might be used by abusive men to harm women? Her reply: 'Men are always going to rape women.'
To summarise our thought-experiment: imagine a Conservative Prime Minister gave a seat in the House of Lords to a lobbyist who repeatedly tried to erode women’s legal rights and dismissed concerns about a potential consequent risk to women with the words: 'Men are always going to rape women.'
Can you imagine the response? Perhaps you’re imagining fury from progressive campaigners and journalists, and coverage of that anger on the BBC and other media outlets who might refer to a 'controversial' appointment. I mean, if some horrible Spectator columnist, a Rod Liddle or a Taki, say, had said 'Men are always going to rape women' there would be a demo outside the office and Twitter would melt with indignation. And they’re just thrupenny bit scribblers; I’m talking about an actual peer of the realm appearing to shrug off rape as a tedious fact of life. There’d be screaming outrage, right?
Nope. In reality the people you’d expect to be concerned about this, or at the very least interested in questions about women’s legal rights, would cheer that lobbyist’s appointment. And those concerns from women about the impact of the lobbyist’s work, concern shared even by founders of the lobbyist’s group and by former colleagues? Those concerns would go unmentioned.
Maybe you find that hard to imagine. After all, these are progressive, liberal times, aren’t they? Anyone systematically campaigning to alter the law as it affects women in a way that some women thought would be potentially harmful to women could not be ennobled without – at the very least – some scrutiny or analysis of their record, surely?
In the end, you don’t need to imagine. This isn’t a fictional scenario, it’s a real one. The lobbyist is real.
She is Ruth Hunt, recently departed chief executive of Stonewall. As part of Theresa May’s resignation honours list, Hunt will shortly join the House of Lords as a crossbench peer, where she will have a vote on the laws of the land – including the Equality Act 2010 and the sex-based exemptions she campaigned to abolish.
For the avoidance of doubt, there is nothing illegitimate about Stonewall’s activities under Hunt, nothing sinister about its actions or intent: it is a charity in good standing whose leader prosecuted its case to the best of her ability, advocating policies Stonewall judged beneficial to the people it says it represents – transgender women.
My point in highlighting those actions and Hunt’s record is not that she did anything wrong. Quite the contrary. Quite evidently from the recent drift of public policy in this area, she made Stonewall’s case with great skill and success. I know some people who follow this debate think badly of her for that record. I am not one of them. I do have serious doubts about some of the policies she advocated, but I don’t question her right to do so. She did her job and did it well.
My questions are about the job she did and about how Stonewall’s fundamental purpose seems to have shifted during her tenure in a way that is poorly understood by many people in Westminster and Whitehall, and in a way that matters a lot for public policy around sex and gender.
And as ever, my criticism is for politicians (and others) who have failed to subject Stonewall’s advocacy to the same scrutiny and critical analysis that all lobbying should face, and which is too often absent from the trans debate.
That failure means that Ruth Hunt, who ran a long and dedicated campaign to lessen women’s rights under the law, will take up a permanent seat in Parliament with barely a whisper of comment on her record. That is not how politics should work and it is not how politics works in other areas of policy.
Issues of sex and gender desperately need to be part of normal politics, not confined to the fringes where emotion trumps reason and only the brave dare to tread; that is the soil in which culture wars grow. And normal politics means reporting and scrutinising the record of someone who now has a vote on the laws of the land and who has previously tried to change those laws in a way that leaves some women seriously worried for their legal rights.
So congratulations, Baroness Hunt, and welcome to politics.