Beware a government appearing to do the right thing. Liz Truss, minister for women and equalities, released a statement this morning that appears to do the right thing on reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). Trans activists wanted the 2004 law changed in three key ways: 1) Remove the requirement for a medical diagnosis and allow individuals to legally change their gender by self-declaration, 2) extend this to those who wish to be recognised as ‘non-binary’ rather than male or female, and 3) lower the age at which a person can do these things to 16. Gender campaigners got a good way down the path to victory before the radical nature of their proposals gained mainstream traction and provoked a backlash and, on the face of it, Truss’s statement has dealt the death blow to their plans.
The minister has determined that 'the balance struck in the existing legislation is correct’ and that ‘proportionate checks and balances’ are in place in the current system. As such, the GRA will not be reformed as some trans activists demand. However, in recognition of the challenges faced by people medically diagnosed with gender dysphoria, the process of applying for a gender recognition certificate will be simplified and the £140 cost ‘significantly reduced’. The minister’s statement says the government is ‘taking action to ensure transgender people can access the appropriate healthcare they need’. This includes a 50 per cent increase in funding for gender identity services over the last three years and ‘at least’ three new gender clinics opening this year and next.
Truss declares that: ‘We believe in individual liberty and in the humanity and dignity of every person.’ Simplifying and lowering the financial barriers to the gender recognition process are welcome tweaks which should make life easier for people suffering acute distress and, in some cases, receiving little or no support from family, friends or employers.
Even so, these changes are unlikely to satisfy trans activists, or at least the ones who enjoy the most political clout and media time, while some gender-critical feminists, who did the hard and thankless work of building the case against GRA reform, will not be impressed by the government’s commitment to expanding gender identity services. That’s politics, though: you can’t appease all of the people all of the time.
You can try, though, and buried in the small print of Liz Truss’s statement is a sentence that might be just such an effort. Under the ‘further information’ section at the bottom of the press release, this appears:
'The Government has asked the Law Commission to review the coverage and effectiveness of current hate crime legislation, which includes exploring whether transphobic hate crime should be considered an aggravated offence.’
‘Ruh-roh,’ as Scooby-Doo used to yelp. On its face, this is a reasonable-sounding initiative. The government is keen on sending more people to prison for longer and it may believe introducing a sentencing aggravator for crimes motivated by hatred of trans people will serve as a deterrent to such offences.
The problem is that this is an area with a particular propensity for mission creep and for highly-motivated activists to shape legal and policy changes long before they reach the arena of democratic debate. Watching the journey of the SNP’s Hate Crime Bill in Scotland may have made me cynical but supporters of free expression should be on alert that the Law Commission review does not stray beyond the specific question of aggravation. The Scottish Government’s proposed offence of ‘stirring up hatred’ on the basis of, among other things, ‘transgender identity’ will not have gone unnoticed by speech restrictionists elsewhere in the UK. The Law Society of England and Wales and the Society of Editors should seek urgent clarification from the government about this matter, otherwise they could find themselves in the same position as their Scottish counterparts, pleading for restraint in a process already in train.
The only person who can give that clarity is Liz Truss. If she allows herself to be taken beyond hate crime aggravators into anything that encroaches on viewpoints — even hateful ones — and their peaceful expression, she will find international trade becomes her secondary remit and her equalities role a mire for both her and the government. Truss says she believes in individual liberty. Let’s hope she means it.