We welcome the opportunity to contribute to Labour’s national policy forum consultation.
Woman’s Place UK (WPUK) is a grassroots feminist campaign which was formed by a group of women in the labour and trade union movement to uphold women’s sex-based rights and protections in the UK. Since September 2017, we have held 22 public meetings across the UK which have been attended by over 3,500 people.
Initially, our aim was to enable a diverse range of women’s voices to be heard on the UK and Scottish Government’s proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act 2004. However, we are increasingly concerned with upholding and advancing women’s sex-based rights. We have recently published a draft manifesto for women.
As architects of landmark UK legislation on sex discrimination, previous Labour governments can lay claim to a strong track record on tackling the structural inequalities faced by women. We would like to see Labour acting as a catalyst to reinvigorate debate and discussion about how to uphold and advance women’s sex-based rights.
We particularly welcomed the commitment in Labour’s 2017 manifesto to “gender audit all policy and legislation for its impact on women before implementation” (p.109).
A decade of Tory-led austerity has hollowed out our public services and women, in particular working-class women, have borne the brunt of this. Women are over-represented in public sector employment, which has been subject to year-on-year budget cuts. More women are engaged in precarious forms of employment. Funding for services that they rely upon – such as Sure Start and domestic violence refuges – has been subjected to annual local authority budget cuts. And it is women who so often plug the care gap when these services are diminished or disappear altogether.
We are concerned about the absence of any class-based analysis in the public debate about persistent discrimination faced by women on the ground of their sex. It is impossible to assess and tackle the structural inequalities suffered by women if we cannot recognise women as the oppressed sex. It is against this backdrop that we wish to raise a number of concerns about the challenges facing women in our communities.
Equality Act 2010
The Equality Act (EA) 2010 is the legal cornerstone of women’s existing rights to fair treatment, and to privacy and dignity in services provided to them. Passed by a Labour government, the foremother of the EA was the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) 1975. The Act defined a woman as a female of any age, a definition carried forward to the Equality Act 2010. The fundamental belief underlying the SDA was that the physical and social consequences of being born and living with a female body are so significant that women deserve specific protections in law, including the right in certain circumstances to single-sex services and spaces. The SDA stated clearly that it was concerned with discrimination against a woman “on the ground of her sex”.
However, in recent years, the exemptions provided for under the EA 2010 – and indeed the very definition of what it means to be a woman – have come under pressure. Governments and public authorities are increasingly shifting their focus to capturing data and planning services on the basis of ‘gender identity’ rather than sex. We believe that this shift, left unchecked, will have grave consequences for women’s sex-based rights as enshrined, primarily, in the Equality Act. Below we consider the implications of this conceptual shift on women in our communities.
Justice and home affairs
WPUK’s draft manifesto calls for a reduction in the size of the female prison population. Across the UK, the female prison population has grown substantially over the past two decades. According to Women in Prison, 84% of women entering prison in 2017 committed a non-violent offence. The majority of women in prison are the victims of male violence and have been experienced emotional, physical or sexual abuse during childhood.
These issues were highlighted in a report by Labour peer Baroness Jean Corston, published in 2007. The report made a series of wide-ranging recommendations with the aim of reducing the number of women in prison. Five years later, Dame Elish Angiolini published the report of the Commission on Women Offenders in Scotland, which made similar recommendations. Both reports recommended increased use of community sentences for women and sustainable funding for community based services for women.
Unfortunately, the female prison population has not declined in any significant way since and women in prison remain one of the most vulnerable groups in society.
In recent years, both the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) and the Scottish Prison Service (SPS) have introduced policies that enable prisoners to request to be accommodated on the basis of their ‘gender identity’ not their sex. A number of male prisoners who identify as women have been placed in the female prison estate. One prisoner, Karen White – a convicted rapist – was housed in a female prison in Yorkshire, where they sexually assaulted female prisoners.
Last year, campaign group Fair Play For Women established that up to half of male-born trans prisoners are likely to be sex offenders or violent criminals. It also emerged that the Equality Impact Assessment undertaken by the SPS did not consider the impact of the policy on female prisoners or prison officers.
Women in prison are an exceptionally vulnerable group. Most have been the victims of male violence. Ensuring their physical and psychological safety as well as their privacy and dignity and up must be paramount. This can best be achieved by maintaining single sex prisons and we hope that any future review of current policies in force in the UK will take account of this.
WPUK manifesto demands on justice and home affairs:
- As a minimum, protect the human rights and laws we currently enjoy as European citizens.
- Strengthen the Equality Act by restoring the statutory questionnaire, the duty to protect from third party harassment and the power of tribunals to make wider recommendations. Enact Section 1 to compel action to reduce socio-economic disadvantage.
- Enforce Public Sector Equality Duty and Equality Act, including duty on government and local authorities to carry out equality impact assessments of all new legislation.
- Properly resource the EHRC to ensure effective oversight and enforcement of the Equality Act by including clear guidance on the existing legal protections for single-sex services and a commitment to strengthening them where necessary.
- Enshrine UN Convention to End Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) into UK law.
- Defend women’s bodily autonomy and decriminalise abortion across the UK, including Northern Ireland.
- Remove barriers to the employment tribunal system including extending time limit and increasing awards.
- Better treatment by police and criminal justice system of women survivors of male violence and harassment as well as improved access to justice.
- Overhaul aggressive immigration laws and end the hostile environment policy
- Ensure equal access to the social security and criminal justice system for all women who have experienced domestic abuse, including migrant women, regardless of their immigration status.
- End the practice by the criminal justice system of allowing offenders to self-identify their sex – particularly in relation to violent and sexual offences.
- Better support and protection for women prisoners, including pregnant women and women with mental health issues.
- Implement the recommendations of the Corston and Angiolini reports and reduce the imprisonment of women.
- Effective resourcing and implementation of community-based sentencing for women offenders. Where women are housed in the prison estate, accommodation must be single-sex to protect their privacy, safety and dignity.
- End the detention of children and pregnant asylum seekers.
- Provide adequate levels of legal aid for criminal cases, restore civil legal aid as well as aid for all immigration and asylum cases.
Woman’s Place UK