Rebecca Lowe is the former director of FREER, and a former assistant editor of ConservativeHome. She is co-founder of Radical. She and Victoria Hewson, her co-founder, alternate authorship of this column on trans, sex and gender issues.
We need to talk about the Women and Equalities Committee. Just take its name, for a start! The ‘women’ part incites ire both from those who find it patronising (“we’re 50 per cent of the population!”), and those who find it exclusionary (“what about men?”, “what about trans men?”, “why isn’t there a BAME committee, then?”). Whereas the ‘equalities’ part is symptomatic of the confused nature of state discussion of such matters: why the plural? If ‘equality’ is good enough for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Equality Act…
Parliament.uk lists 133 current parliamentary committees, the members of which are MPs and Lords (some only have MPs, some only Lords, and some both). Some are ‘general committees’ (focused on scrutinising legislation), some are ‘select committees’ (focused on the work of particular government departments, etc), and three are ‘grand committees’ (focused on devolved matters). Unsurprisingly, these committees cover a vast range of topics — from Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs, to Fire Safety, to Pensions.
The Women and Equalities Committee (WESC) is a select committee, set up in 2015 to scrutinise the work of the Government Equalities Office, on the recommendation of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Women in Parliament. It’s worth noting the involvement of this APPG. After all, the GEO focuses on many other ‘equalities issues’ aside from women; sex is only one of the Equality Act’s ‘protected characteristics’. Anyway, on this approach, aren’t women included in ‘equalities’, already? Isn’t the WESC a bit like a Mars Bars and Chocolate Bars Committee?
There’s more to be said about the foregrounding of the term ‘women’, here. But, beyond specific frustration at perceived condescension or exclusion, there’s a longstanding general debate about the state’s involvement in such matters. This ranges from the claim that the state does nowhere near enough to further the life chances of people from oppressed groups, to the claim that the state shouldn’t be involved in these matters at all. Many argue, for instance, that such involvement can be divisive and counterproductive, and represents serious overreach. And that seems a convincing argument to us at Radical, with regards to matters such as state-enforced positive discrimination.
However, it also seems clear that there are certain such matters that do require state involvement. Indeed, in writing this regular column, we hope to remind Conservatives of this, in relation to the way in which, so often, the interests of women have been forsaken amidst the gender-identity lobby’s capture of our institutions.
Beyond this, however, it’s hopefully uncontroversial to emphasise, for instance, that it’s good and right that FGM is illegal, as it has been under UK law since 1985. And also that the state should do a much better job of enforcing this, to protect girls from these mutilations. Then, there’s the decades-long failure of UK institutions, including police forces, to stop large-scale sexual abuse in towns including Rotherham and Rochdale. The state is involved in these matters, and its actions — for good or bad — must be scrutinised.
Again, maybe you believe the state has no role to play in proactively addressing what are typically seen as hot ’equalities’ topics — such as mandating pay gap reporting, or quotas on boards. And those particular policy approaches run very much against our beliefs.
But hopefully you’d agree that equality itself is a crucial societal value, relating to our basic rights as human beings and as consenting members of a shared political society. And that situations in which members of certain sets of people are treated as if they are lacking the fundamental equal status that we all share, can be a matter for the state. And that this can move beyond instances of direct harm. For instance, policy issues like prisoner voting, and asylum seekers’ right to work, relate to equality in this sense.
But does the WESC spend its time addressing these kinds of matters? Is it a champion of girls’ safety? Are its members engaged in considering fundamental questions of equality? Do they work hard to defend their existence by engaging with underlying debates about the role of the state, and which kinds of state intervention can be justified?
Well, if the WESC has made any impact at all, it’s been solely on the question of gender self-ID. Perhaps it was inevitable that a committee with its remit would be susceptible to capture by gender-identity interest groups like Stonewall. It stands to reason that sceptics of the equalities agenda would avoid engaging with such a committee, while lobbyists for each protected characteristic under the Equality Act would see it as a political platform for their cause. And, as the most vocal identity-related cause of recent years has been that of transgender people, the most high-profile inquiry of the WESC was on transgender equality. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that, only weeks after Liz Truss published the government’s response to its long-running consultation on self-ID, the WESC felt the need to re-litigate the matter, opening its own, second inquiry into reform of the Gender Recognition Act.
This is neither to say that the interests of transgender people are unimportant, nor that the WESC has not produced interesting publications. Its 2016 report on sexual harassment and violence in schools made for sobering reading. Indeed, you might have thought WESC members would’ve reflected again on their earlier findings on the ease with which people should be able to change their legal sex. Their 2016 conclusions included not only the importance of accurate data — currently under serious threat following the capture of the census ‘sex question’.
But also the urgent need to ‘engage with men and boys’ on matters of sexual violence: ‘the focus in [Sex and Relationships Education] has been often based on girls changing their behaviour, rather than addressing the culture that leads some boys and young men to sexually harass and abuse girls and young women’. We hope the WESC pays more attention to such matters in their new inquiry, and recognises that effectively denying the existence of biological sex is not an option for a state institution.
Or maybe we should hope for something else. The WESC has shown itself to have been captured by a single-issue political campaign, and as such is clearly incapable of properly holding the state to account on the important matters within its remit.
The WESC has even shown itself incapable of advocating for the one group specifically named in its title — women — and has focused instead on privileging the interests, at all costs, of people identifying as transgender. Perhaps, therefore, parliament should bring the WESC to an end? Perhaps it should be replaced with a committee charged with scrutinising the way in which the state upholds the equally-held freedoms and rights of all, rather than viewing these matters through the contested post-modern lens of identity politics?
We therefore call on MPs to halt the WESC’s waste of taxpayer-funded state resources, and propose it should be replaced by a Civil Rights and Freedoms Committee, at the earliest opportunity. Focused on questions of equality before the law, instead of the grouping of people by particular identities, this committee could tackle everything from the privileges of citizenship, to the question of economic ‘levelling up’, to the risks of government by decree in the age of Covid-19. These are matters related to the fundamental values of equality and liberty, which can be approached by conservatives and progressives in common cause, without conceding to identity politics at the outset.