Parliament’s women and equalities chair Caroline Nokes has given a dressing down to Rishi Sunak and Suella Braverman over jokes about trans people.
Earlier this month, Suella Braverman joked in the Commons chamber that “we can’t rule out” Keir Starmer “running to be Labour’s first female prime minister” – while a leaked recording surfaced of Rishi Sunak last month telling Tory MPs in the 1922 Committee that the Liberal Democrats were “busy trying to convince everybody that women clearly have penises”.
Ms Nokes, a Tory MP who chairs the Women and Equalities Committee, told news podcast What the Trans?: “I think it’s hugely othering, it’s very dangerous, and it’s seeking to make a group of people the butt of jokes. I just think it’s unacceptable.”
Addressing Ms Braverman’s remark, Ms Nokes said: “To be quite frank, it was a ridiculous comment. I thought it was very telling that there was silence in the House, there was tumbleweed rolling down the aisles… let’s not use the House of Commons chamber to poke fun at marginalised groups or some sort of school debating society, we should be setting ourselves higher standards.”
Of Mr Sunak’s remarks, she said: “I just think we need to be better than that, we really do.”
The MP – who attended Cabinet under Theresa May but has remained on the backbenches under Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – acknowledged that her argument “may be failing within my own party at the moment” but stressed some Tory MPs are supportive of transgender people.
She also expressed “grave concerns” about the state of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the nation’s equality watchdog, after a Channel 4 News investigation unearthed claims of a toxic environment and a rapid staff turnover.
“I get reports from EHRC staff anonymously that it is not a happy ship,” Ms Nokes revealed.
She expressed concerns that there was a “very particular direction of travel when it comes to gender critical views” at the regulator since the organisation’s chair Baroness Falkner was appointed in 2020 by then-equalities minister Liz Truss.
Ms Nokes said: “I look at the appointment now through the prism of, this was an appointment done by Liz Truss, who had a very particular agenda when it came to equalities.”
She also warned that plans floated in the media earlier this year to amend the Equality Act to define sex as “biological sex” – endorsed in April by Baroness Falkner – would be “hugely contentious and hugely complicated”. Government sources claimed the proposal would offer greater “clarity” around women-only spaces.
But Ms Nokes said: “I think this is the Government opening a can of worms out for itself that to be quite frank, I don’t think needs opening. I fail to understand why it should be a priority for anyone at the moment, unless you’re just looking for a wedge issue. We have a general election coming in the next 18 months… and I do not understand why anybody would think that this was a good issue to make front and centre in any general election campaign.”
Of attempts to exclude trans people from single-sex spaces, she said: “This is a classic bully tactic, we’re going to go after the small group who too few people care about, and we’re going to other them, and we’re going to make it all but impossible for them to access services the rest of us take for granted.”
Ms Nokes added: “We all want there to be safe spaces for women who have been victims of domestic abuse, and of course, I believe that refuges should be able to do that. But under the equalities act at the moment they can, so I’m failing to see whatever conflict is there.”
A Government spokesperson said: “Transgender people, including those who are going through the process to change their legal sex, deserve our respect and support. They are rightly protected through the comprehensive and robust legislation in the Equality Act.
“The Government is also committed to protecting women’s rights and access to single-sex spaces.”
Downing Street declined to comment on behalf of Mr Sunak. In a past statement, Mr Sunak has said he believes “we should always have compassion and understanding and tolerance for those who are thinking about changing their gender… but when it comes to these issues of protecting women’s rights and women’s spaces, I think the issue of biological sex is fundamentally important.”
A spokesperson for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: “It is our legal duty to uphold the equality and the human rights of everyone in Britain, and this is at the heart of everything we do.
“As recently as October 2022, we were again graded ‘A status’ as a National Human Rights Institution. This is clear recognition of our independence and our compliance with the Paris Principles (the international standard for human rights organisations).
“Our job is also to explain the law, which, in relation to sex and gender issues, can be complex. Where people’s rights may compete, we have a duty to advise on how best to strike an appropriate balance. In some cases we do so in difficult, technical areas of law that can attract strong views and disagreement. We provide this advice impartially, even when matters might be contentious.
“In April we advised the Minister for Women and Equalities that clarifying the definition of sex in the Equality Act 2010 merits further consideration. We suggested that the UK Government carefully identify and consider the potential implications of this change, if it is taken forward.
“There is a clear need to move the public debate on issues of sex and gender to a more informed and constructive basis. We look forward to working with the Government and others to find a way forward on these important issues, but recognise that these decisions sit with the UK Government and UK Parliament.”