Cambridge Council and the Equality Act

Ann Sinnott, is a former Labour councillor at Cambridge City Council. She spoke at our Liverpool meeting. This is a transcript of her speech.

On 8 June 2018, I learned – on Twitter! – that Cambridge Council was in breach of the Equality Act (EA).

It had been discovered that many councils were routinely using the wrong terms for the EA protected characteristics of ‘Sex’ [instead using gender] and for ‘Gender reassigned’ [using trans, gender identity, transgender].  Once informed, most councils corrected either immediately or within a fairly short time.

Cambridge Council, however, was not just using the wrong terms.  It was in serious breach in other ways.  Though originally a Labour Bill, the Equality Act came into force under the Coalition govt on 1 Oct 2010.  Just ten days later, transwoman Liberal Democrat Cllr Sarah Brown succeeded in getting the council’s existing Equality policy changed.  The EA Single-sex exemption was set aside and women-only spaces and services in the city were abolished.

Once I knew, I spent several days trawling through council documents. I then wrote a briefing paper to the council’s leadership, including the CEO and the Labour Leader of the Council, setting out exactly where and how the Council was in breach of the EA and called for the immediate rescindment of the policy and the council’s return to lawfulness.

Eventually, it became clear that the council was determined to defer the issue until October.  I was outraged. Cambridge women had the right to know what had happened to their spaces and services but as a member of the ruling group I wasn’t free to speak – and that burdened my conscience.  Moreover, I had no confidence that the council would ever rescind the policy.  So, I stood down.

Women need the privacy, dignity and safety of women-only spaces and services. Including public toilets.  Why do we need these? I could speak in detail about the two occasions in Cambridge public toilets when I witnessed the shocked and distressed reactions of women, to an obvious male-born transwoman the first time, and to an aggressive male, actually dressed as a man, the second time.

Instead, I’ll focus on a friend’s experience. She was in Brighton, at a dance class and went to the mixed-sex toilets.  Wearing a leotard which had to be removed from the neck down, she was effectively naked.  She suddenly noticed a camera held in a man’s hand filming her under the cubicle partition.  She screamed, the hand disappeared and so did the man.  She was left distraught, too traumatised to go home alone and she never attended the class again.  Now, no matter how desperate she is, she won’t use a public toilet anywhere unless other women are in there, and never at all after dark.

On 4 Oct 2018, Cambridge Council altered its equality policy to bring it in line with the Equality Act.

  • It no longer refers to transgender people but to Gender reassigned and Transsexuals.
  • It refers to the single-sex exemption being applied when it is a proportionate response to achieve a legitimate aim.
  • It states that the single-sex exemption will be applied only where there is clear evidence that this is necessary.

Clear evidence. But women generally don’t report, so how will evidence be gathered? My friend who was filmed didn’t complain.  Neither did I, nor any of the other women present, about the two toilet incidents referred to above.  The grossly under-reported crimes of sexual offence or domestic abuse also demonstrate that women rarely report or complain.

Advocates of mixed-sex facilities label those who defend female-only spaces ‘transphobe’, and say that women hysterically point to dangers that don’t exist. But data obtained by the Sunday Times, by an FOI request, suggests that mixed-sex toilets are more dangerous for women and girls than single-sex facilities.

Dangers do exist, and women know they do. We also know that the majority of victims of violence and/or abuse are female, the majority of perpetrators male.

We know it’s not all men, but when we walk down a deserted, dark, silent street, or see a male in the female toilets or in female changing rooms, we don’t know which type of man is behind us, or next to us, and so we are fearful.  And when we are afraid our breathing changes, our hearts race, our stomachs clench and, as the involuntary physiological reaction of the ‘fight or flight’ response, also known as the ‘acute stress’ response, is triggered the hormone cortisol, which is known to be detrimental to health, is released and floods our bodies.

Women fought long and hard for the safe haven of female-only spaces and will fight to retain them.

Women have the right to the privacy, dignity and safety of women-only spaces and services.

November 2018