Last week, it was confirmed that the State put a rapist and paedophile in a women’s prison. That rapist, who uses the name Karen White, then sexually assaulted four women in that prison.
This is, of course, an outrage, a failure of public administration of the first order. Many people are angry, among them members of the Government that oversaw this failure. Many people have questions about how that failure came about. How did the Prison Service come to decide that Karen White, a person with a male body and a history of violent sexual crimes, should be put in New Hall prison? (New Hall, incidentally, also has a 'mother and baby unit.' The State did not just put a rapist in a women’s jail, they put a convicted paedophile in prison with children).
Was this just a catastrophic failure of judgement? Was it the result of flawed policy on the handling of transgender inmates? Did a climate of unthinking acquiescence to the demands of a highly effective transgender rights lobby contribute to this horrible mistake?
These are all legitimate questions, questions that should be debated and answered by the ministers responsible. These are the questions that Parliament exists to debate: questions about the conduct of public policy.
As I and others have noted repeatedly, a lot of politicians privately ask such questions about transgender issues, but many keep quiet about it – for fear of being labelled 'transphobic' or worse. I know serving ministers who have real doubts about some of these things, but dare not speak publicly.
Fortunately, a few MPs are willing to speak out. The obvious seriousness of the Karen White case persuaded more than one MP that the Commons should call a minister to explain and account for the incident.
David Davies, Tory MP for Monmouth, thus tabled an Urgent Question, a parliamentary request for the House to summon a minister to discuss the issues raised by the Karen White case, and of other transgender sex offenders in the prison estate. (Yes, there are others. There is at least one male-born rapist in a women’s prison today.)
The decision to grant a UQ and summon a minister rests with the Speaker, John Bercow. He grants a lot of UQs. That annoys ministers but pleases backbenchers. It’s probably the best aspect of his tenure as Speaker. I know he annoys a lot of people, but he’s been a good servant of the Commons, giving the legislature greater bite on the executive.
Given that, I’d have bet on him accepting a UQ on Karen White and transgender inmates. He didn’t. Mr Davies says the Speaker rejected his request. There are whispers that at least one other MP was also rebuffed.
To recap: the State put a rapist in a jail full of vulnerable women. That rapist then sexually assaulted four of those women. MPs wanted to know how that happened, and to question the ministers responsible for those events. The Speaker of the House of Commons said they could not do so.
The story of transgender policy in Britain today is a story of political failure, where many people fail to do their job and speak openly about matters of clear public interest. Writing about it this year, I’ve grown accustomed to that failure, though no less angry about it.
But even by the dismal standards of the trans debate, where supposedly responsible figures routinely shirk their duties to appease a small, aggressive group of activists and lobbyists, John Bercow’s decision strikes me as repulsive, a disgusting abdication of responsibility that brings shame on its author and his office.
Why did John Bercow refuse to let MPs debate the state-sponsored abuse of women? I have no idea and his office told me they never give a reason for the rejection of a UQ. He is, of course, meant to be a wholly neutral figure who discharges his duties as Speaker even-handedly and without bias to any cause or campaign. I have no reason to think he did otherwise on this occasion. However, it is at least worth noting that John Bercow is also the President of the Kaleidoscope Trust, an advocacy organisation that describes its mission thus: 'We urge the British government and Commonwealth stakeholders to use their influence in support of the rights of LGBT people.'
No doubt Mr Bercow believes that he can do his job as objective, neutral Speaker while holding that role at Kaleidoscope Trust without any conflict or embarrassment. I am not saying he can't. But I wonder if the women attacked by the rapist Karen White in HMP New Hall will think the man who chairs the assembly speaks for them.