This is a story about politics and influence and openness. It’s also about the drive for trans rights and some of the people involved in that push, but in a way, that’s secondary. Because the issues involved here and the questions raised are bigger even than sex, gender and the rest. This is, in the end, about how rules and laws and policies are made, and who gets a say on that.
A lot of this story is about something called an All Party Parliamentary Group. APPGs are, as the name says, groups of MPs and peers who work together to investigate, report and campaign on a particular issue. They are not parliamentary bodies in the sense of being part of the legislature; unlike select committees, they have no constitutional status or legal powers.
Some APPGs are serious, influential outfits whose words can sway government policy. Some are little more than letterheads for political hobbyists. Most fall somewhere in between those two extremes.
Because APPGs are not formally part of parliament, they don’t get public money or resources. Many have ‘secretariats’, staff provided by people and organisations interested in the same issue as the group. Often those staff are provided by charities campaigning in the same field.
For obvious reasons, there are some pretty clear rules around the transparent functioning of the system I’ve just described. If MPs are going to get resources from outside organisations – organisations with their own agendas – to research and compile reports that could influence law and policy, it’s only right that the public know about all of this. Otherwise how confident can we be in our laws and rules, if the people who make them do so under the private influence of people and organisations motivated not by the public interest but by narrow sectional interest?
The APPG at the heart of this story is the APPG on LGBT+ Global Rights. The narrow fact of the story is that the group’s chair broke parliamentary rules on transparency by producing a report that was kept secret from the public but used to assemble a network of parliamentary support for a concerted attempt to persuade ministers to do something deeply controversial. Another, apparently unrelated fact, is that trans-rights campaign groups paid the equivalent of £80,000 to the APPG.
The wider context is of a legislative and political agenda that too often advances not by winning arguments in public but by exerting influence in private. That’s not good for democracy and, in the end, not good for the people that agenda purports to serve.
For now, let’s go back to the APPG on LGBT+ Global Rights and its secret report and lobbying operation. The context is the long, contentious Government consultation on amending the Gender Recognition Act, which began in July 2018 with proposals to make it easier for people to change their legal gender.
That consultation triggered more than two years of intense and sometimes aggressive debate around trans rights and how they interact with the legal and political rights of women that are rooted in their female biology. Some people wanted new rules to allow people to change their legal gender with little or no restriction; some other people said such a system of self-identified legal gender would infringe on rules and laws established for the benefit of women on the basis of their female biology.
That dispute helped prolong the consultation, as ministers were wary of taking a position on something so contentious.
But slowly, a government position started to emerge. In April 2020, Liz Truss, the Cabinet minister overseeing GRA reform, told a select committee that she was committed to the ‘the protection of single-sex spaces, which is extremely important.’
That was widely seen as a signal that Truss would reject calls for self-ID.
This was confirmed on 22 September 2020 when the Government formally rejected the self-ID proposals, saying it would streamline the process of changing gender but not change the criteria.
Among those unhappy about this was Crispin Blunt, the Conservative MP for Reigate and Chair of that LGBT+ APPG. He triggered a Commons debate two days later, where he told Truss that her statement in April had concerned him deeply.
As a result of that statement, he said: ‘I gave this issue my full attention and that of the all-party parliamentary group on global lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights… I engaged with people who had different views to understand the compromises necessary to deliver reassurance around trans people, but also to be able to deliver trans rights. That work was done. It was given, quietly, in a comprehensive paper to the Government in early July and, tragically, it has been ignored.’
That statement caught observers of this issue by surprise. The APPG had not published anything on the issue of GRA reform in July, nor made any other contribution to the debate around GRA reform. What was the ‘comprehensive paper’ that Blunt mentioned?
Some people asked Blunt and the APPG about the ‘comprehensive paper’ he had shared with ministers. In late September the APPG website was updated to add a document entitled ‘Delivering Respect and Reassurance Around Trans Equality in the UK’.
This 3,000-word paper was subtitled:
‘Proposals to guide the government’s response to the consultation on the Gender Recognition Act 2004 from the officers of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT+ rights.’
It makes a number of observations and recommendations on the trans debate, several of them measured and sensible. Its main thrust is on GRA reform, arguing that it should be easier for people to change their legal gender, removing the need for medical consent.
That point was not unusual, though it was – and is – controversial. It was broadly in line with the argument made by many trans-rights groups and a lot of members of the public who responded to the GRA consultation. Many feminist campaigners, by contrast, say making it easier for male-born people to legally declare themselves female would be detrimental to women’s sex-based rights.
The content of the APPG paper is not the central issue here. What matters is the manner of that document’s creation and dissemination.
APPGs are supposed to operate under clear rules of transparency, so that the public can see and judge the actions of parliamentarians. Laws and rules that affect the public should be made in a way that is visible to us, after all.
Yet that document had been written and given – ‘quietly’ – to ministers more than two months before the public could have had any knowledge of it.
Blunt’s revelation about his quiet attempt to influence ministers led to a complaint to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone. In October, she wrote to Blunt asking him why the paper had not been published in July, in line with those APPG rules.
In response, Blunt claimed that the paper was not, in fact, covered by the APPG rules. It had been drawn up by the officers of the APPG, not the full group, he said. ‘The narrow answer to your questions is that it is as such not required to be published at all,’ Blunt told the commissioner.
He went on to explain that the paper had been part of a significant operation aimed at securing – in private – agreement between politicians of all the major parties to amend the GRA to make it easier to change gender.
The stages of this process, Blunt told the commissioner began with ‘securing the support of the officers of the group to this paper, then securing the agreement of all the political parties own LGBT groups and the principal LGBT and Trans organisations that this paper, if adopted by the Government would be a satisfactory way forward.’
“‘Through the Officers [of the APPG] it was shared with Opposition party spokesman and the Leader of the Opposition. It was my judgement that if this paper could be communicated to the Government as representing a wide collective agreement they would be more likely to adopt it as theirs, than if they were faced with a public demand around this position and be seen to be forced into accepting it. Hence privacy around this paper was an essential (I believed) part of the strategy in order not to make the adoption of this position more difficult for the Government.’
Blunt also told the Commissioner: ‘Publishing the document before the Government’s public response… would have undermined our political strategy.’
Those statements amount to a candid and striking account of an attempt to influence government policy on a highly controversial issue, by way of striking private deals among politicians over a document that was not made public.
It was also against Commons rules on transparency, in the judgement of the Commissioner. She ruled that the ‘private’ report should have been published promptly after it was shared with people outside the APPG.
The commissioner’s investigation, and her conclusion that Blunt committed a ‘less serious’ breach of Commons rules can be read here. Blunt has accepted that the rules were broken and apologised.
The Commissioner’s report also details information about the resources of Blunt’s APPG. It shows that several groups that campaign on trans rights issues gave money and resources to support the APPG’s work. Since 2019, the group has a ‘co-ordinator’ who is formally employed by the Kaleidoscope Trust, a charity, and assigned to work for the APPG. The costs of employing that person were met by Kaleidoscope from its own resources, and from campaigners including Stonewall, the UK’s biggest trans-rights group. The position is now funded by the Baring Foundation.
Correspondence from the APPG to the Parliamentary Commissioner show that between December 2019 and October 2020, the funds committed to supporting the secretariat totalled more than £80,000.
However, it is important to note that the commissioner concluded that this money did not help fund Blunt’s rule-breaking secret report. There is no suggestion that any of those funding organisations have broken any rules.
So why am I mentioning the APPG coordinator? Well, when I first heard about that private report, I was reminded of another document I wrote about here in 2019.
That document was a report published by Dentons, a law firm, and a group called the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and Intersex Youth & Student Organisation (IGLYO).
That Dentons report draws together examples of ‘best practice’ for campaigners seeking to change gender recognition laws. Based on the accounts of campaign groups in several countries including the UK, it advises others seeking to advance the cause of gender self-identification how best to proceed.
Among the advice the Dentons/IGLYO document offers campaigners is to ‘get ahead of the government’, to tie trans-rights objectives to the more popular issue of gay equality and, above all, to ‘avoid excessive press coverage and exposure.’
As I wrote at the time about that Dentons/IGYLO report, it is a remarkable and revealing document that helps explain the extremely rapid advances that trans-rights campaigns have made in many political arenas in recent years.
It could also be a template for the rule-breaking ‘political strategy’ employed by Crispin Blunt and the APPG for Global LGBT+ Rights. In a further striking coincidence, the APPG’s Kaleidoscope-employed coordinator is Anna Robinson, who was from 2017 to 2019 the co-chair of IGYLO.
What does this story tell us? It’s more evidence that some people who campaign for trans rights policies make a deliberate choice to do so in private settings, where the wider public cannot know or assess their arguments.
That doesn’t, to be clear, mean that those arguments are automatically wrong or bad. I’m sure Crispin Blunt and Anna Robinson are acting in good faith, doing whatever they can to promote policies they believe would make the world a better place. And some of the points made in Blunt’s private report strike me as sensible and thoughtful.
But this isn’t really a story about such points. This is about tactics. And the tactics people use to promote an argument can tell you something about the quality of that argument. If someone isn’t prepared to argue their political case in public, to win over the public to their cause, what can we conclude about the strength of that argument?
An agenda that needs secrecy to advance will never command lasting public confidence. A competent, coordinated and well-funded operation based on private lobbying and ‘quiet’ influence may well score some short-term victories, but it won’t deliver real political success. Lobbyists working in the shadows should know that if you can’t defend your proposals in the sight of the public, they will never stand.