A row over transgender rights emerged in the Commons after a Tory MP called for legislators to be “clear and courageous about what a man is and what a woman is”.
Sir Bernard Jenkin, one of the few male MPs present in the chamber for the annual International Women’s Day debate, said the rights of women in women-only safe spaces, such as public toilets, women’s hospital wards and women’s prisons are “threatened”.
He claimed violence against women is nearly always committed by men but stressed “there is a new and growing category of violence against women by people who calls themselves women but are biologically male”.
Sir Bernard also insisted “we, as legislators must be clear and courageous about what a man is and what a woman is”, before criticising Labour shadow women and equalities secretary Anneliese Dodds for being “unable or unwilling” to give a clear answer when asked to define a woman on BBC’s radio programme Woman’s Hour.
Ms Dodds, sitting on the Labour front bench, asked him to “provide evidence” for his statement, as she argued it is “quite easy” for her to define what a woman is, given she is one.
The debate also saw SNP MP Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) claiming there has been “some confusion” in the past about the extent to which single-sex services can be provided under the Equality Act, noting an “updated guidance from the Equality and Human Rights Commission” would be “very welcome”.
Sir Bernard told MPs: “The rights of women to women-only safe spaces is threatened, to safe spaces like public toilets, women’s hospital wards and women’s prisons.
“All violence against women is nearly all committed by men but there is a new and growing category of violence against women by people who calls themselves women but are biologically male.
“We should always respond positively to people with genuine gender dysphoria, and I deliver this speech with kindness in my heart. But the 2003 Sexual Offences Act defines rape as when, and I quote from the Act ‘a person intentionally penetrates the vagina anus or mouth of another person with his penis without consent’.
“Now, between 2012 and 2018, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) reports over 436 cases of rape recorded as committed by women. The penis is a male organ, so, these rapes are committed by men presenting themselves as women.”
The MP for Harwich and North Essex said, “bastions of feminism” are “bullied online” because they talk about this issue, adding: “But we, as legislators, we must be clear and courageous about what a man is and what a woman is.”
He went on: “We have to be clear about what words mean in our legislation. And astonishingly, some of us are reluctant to be clear. A woman is an adult female human. Only this week, the honourable lady for Oxford East who is in her place was asked to define a woman on the media and she was unable or unwilling to give a clear answer.”
Intervening, Ms Dodds said: “I would like to ask the honourable member for evidence of the statement he has just made. I would like him to provide a transcript of my comments, any quotes he can find from anywhere that would indicate that at any point, I have not been clear about what a woman is. It’s quite easy for me, given that I am a woman.”
She also argued Sir Bernard might have “consulted social media rather than looking at what I stated”.
Conservative former equalities minister Maria Miller also asked to intervene during Sir Bernard’s speech, as she made the point the issue of women-only safe spaces has already been practically dealt with.
She said: “Can he be clear in his remarks that for the past more than 10 years under the Equality Act, organisations like Women Aid and Refuge have been making sure those spaces are absolutely safe by using risk assessments on everybody who uses them, whether they’re men or women, or indeed trans people who may be trans and so this issue, while important is already being practically dealt with by organisations?”
Sir Bernard replied: “I think a great many women do not agree with her. And I’m speaking for them.”
Labour MP Kate Osborne (Jarrow) said it was “unfortunate” Sir Bernard “took today to make his views known to us” and criticised him for taking more time than “any other woman has done today” to make his speech.
She said: “I would say that it’s a pleasure to follow the member for Harwich and North Essex, but actually it isn’t. It’s unfortunate.
“It’s a real pity that the member took today to make his views known to us, which I found most unhelpful and out of stick with today’s debate and a real pity that he doesn’t use the opportunity to celebrate women rather than take more time than any other woman has done today to make his speech.”
In her closing remarks, Government minister Trudy Harrison spoke about the importance of protecting language.
She said: “My honourable friend the member for Harwich and North Essex referenced the importance of language and it is so important we protect the language of females, of women as he says. Adult human females, of girls, of mothers, of women who breastfeed and mothers who work.”