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Sunak denies stoking culture war with pledge to change law around biological sex

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Jonathan Brady/PA)
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Rishi Sunak has denied stoking a culture war with his pledge to overhaul equality laws, while the women and equalities minister could not say what kind of paperwork people would need to show to use single-sex spaces under the plans.

The Conservatives announced an election campaign proposal to amend the Equality Act to make clear sex means “biological sex” rather than gender.

They say the change will make it simpler for service providers for women and girls, such as those running sessions for domestic abuse victims, to prevent biological males from taking part.

But opposition parties criticised Mr Sunak’s party for waging “phony culture wars”.

Asked about the accusations, the Prime Minister told broadcasters: “No. It builds on our track record of treating these issues sensitively and with compassion, as of course we should, but ensuring that our laws are right, our guidance is right to protect the safety and security of women and girls and the wellbeing of our children.

“And I think that’s paramount in all of our minds.”

Pressed on why the Tories have not acted in the 14 years they have been in power, Mr Sunak blamed the SNP’s gender recognition legislation.

“We were also of course dealing with the SNP’s aims to try and make gender recognition on a self-ID basis, which wasn’t right,” he said.

Rishi Sunak with parliamentary candidate for Wokingham Lucy Demery, left, and parliamentary candidate for Henley Caroline Newton, right, speaking to rowing club members during a visit to the Leander Club in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire
Rishi Sunak with parliamentary candidate for Wokingham Lucy Demery, left, and parliamentary candidate for Henley Caroline Newton, right, speaking to rowing club members during a visit to the Leander Club in Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire (Jonathan Brady/PA)

Women and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch stressed that the Conservatives are seeking to clarify the Equality Act, not change it.

The Cabinet minister told Sky News on Monday: “We have seen quite a lot of changes in terms of terminology in the law. Sex and gender we used interchangeably, now we don’t do that, so what we’re doing is making sure people understand what the law says. We have seen a lot of problems with people misinterpreting the law.”

The Tories want to change the Act to apply to biological sex, and say those who are biologically male but identify as female should be barred from using single-sex spaces.

Ms Badenoch could not answer questions on whether someone’s original birth certificate – or one amended after a legally-recognised gender change – would define biological sex in such cases.

Pressed repeatedly, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What you are describing is a hypothetical scenario, assuming that when people go into rape crisis centres they’re bringing in birth certificates, they’re bringing in gender recognition certificates.

“What is happening at the moment is that people come to the centres and they are visibly of a different sex. You don’t always need your birth certificate when you’re going to the toilet and so on and so forth.”

She continued: “This is not a paperwork issue. This is a practical issue.”

CityUK International Conference – London
Women and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch could not say what paperwork would define biological sex (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The governing party says the proposed change to the law will not remove the existing and continuing protections against discrimination on the basis of gender reassignment provided by the Equality Act.

Speaking to LBC radio, Ms Badenoch said: “We want people who are trans to be protected as well, people who want to change their clothes should not be able to exploit the scenarios we have prepared and the laws we have put in place to protect those people who are genuine transgender people, those who suffer gender dysphoria.

“Just putting on a different set of clothes does not make you transgender.”

Labour frontbencher John Healey said his party would not amend the Equality Act if it wins the election because there are already provisions to protect single-sex spaces.

The Liberal Democrats criticised the Tory policy as a “cynical distraction from their failings on so many issues”.

Deputy leader Daisy Cooper said she did not believe there was a demand or a need to “unpick” the Act.

Daisy Cooper
Deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats Daisy Cooper (Lucy North/PA)

“I think the Government is failing on so many counts – time and again we have seen how it tries to wage these phony culture wars,” she said.

Meanwhile, Sir Keir Starmer is pitching Labour as the “party of national security” as it seeks to switch attention to defence.

He has been attempting to shift perceptions of Labour’s defence stance following the party’s time under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, a long-standing critic of Nato and Trident.

In a speech at the Fusilier Museum in Bury on Monday, the party leader said a “new age of insecurity” has begun, with the rumble of war in Europe as Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine.

General Election campaign 2024
Sir Keir Starmer and shadow defence secretary John Healey speaking at the Fusilier Museum in Bury (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

He said he was “absolutely committed to peace” but that “for peace, you have to be prepared to fight” and signalled that he would be prepared to use nuclear weapons if needed.

“Nobody who aspires to be prime minister would set out the circumstances in which it would be used. That would be irresponsible, but it is there as part of a vital part of our defence, so of course we would have to be prepared to use it,” he said.

Sir Keir has reaffirmed his commitment to a “nuclear deterrent triple lock” as well as his ambition to increase defence spending to 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP), a measure of the size of the economy.

Mr Sunak has made clear he wants to meet the 2.5% target by 2030 although Labour has so far declined to outline its timeline, only noting it would do so when economic conditions allow.

Sir Keir insisted his whole shadow cabinet is behind him on nuclear weapons when challenged over previous opposition from some of his front bench, including his deputy Angela Rayner and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy.

Elsewhere, Nigel Farage’s intention to make an “emergency” General Election announcement has fuelled speculation he will stand as a Reform UK candidate.

The Lib Dems are meanwhile seeking to prevent damage closer to home, as they call for new protections for rivers and coastlines to end “environmental vandalism”.

The party has announced an expansion of marine protected areas and a new Blue Flag status for rivers will be included in its General Election manifesto.