Civil service trying to 'erase women' with gender neutral language in new laws, ministers warn

·4-min read
Downing Street is preparing a crackdown on the spread of 'militant wokery' in Whitehall - George Clerk/iStock
Downing Street is preparing a crackdown on the spread of 'militant wokery' in Whitehall - George Clerk/iStock

Ministers have accused civil servants of erasing women from new laws, as Downing Street prepares a crackdown on the spread of "militant wokery" in Whitehall.

This week, the Government is expected to announce that it is rewriting guidance on drafting legislation to make clear that gender-neutral language should not replace terms such as "woman" and "mother".

The move follows a cross-party revolt over a government bill last year that referred to pregnant "people" rather than "mothers".

A Government source said ministers were concerned that "militant" guidance issued by Stonewall, the equality charity, had "crept into the civil service with a political agenda to erase woman and the concept of biological sex".

The use of gender neutral language in legislation is the latest area in which senior Tories have sounded the alarm over a growing threat to women's rights.

Last month, the equalities watchdog ruled that trans women can be excluded from female-only changing rooms and lavatories, after many organisations urged the watchdog for guidance surrounding single-sex spaces, amid pressure from trans campaigners.

Terms like women must not be 'cancelled'

The Cabinet Office is expected to announce that ministers have rewritten Whitehall-wide guidance on drafting legislation to make clear that terms such as women must not be "cancelled" by officials.

A Government source said: "We want to see tolerance and respect for everyone, but women should not be erased or cancelled from public discourse – including Parliament’s own laws.

"Whilst the Government supports the desire to avoid stereotypes on positions of authority, gender neutral language such as ‘pregnant people’ undermines women and their experiences.

"Ministers are determined to push back on the spread of militant wokery which insults and degrades women."

Ministers are understood to agree with the approach of the Labour Government in 2007 which decided to stop the use of male pronouns in contexts where legislation was intended to refer to both men and women. But they are concerned about the use of "gender neutral" terms in place of nouns such as "woman" and "mother".

The change to the guidance follows a review that stemmed from the passage of the Ministerial and Other Maternity Allowances Bill last year. At the time, Conservative, Labour and crossbench peers expressed outrage at the initial form of the legislation, which referred to a pregnant "person" rather than "woman".

'Quite simply got it wrong'

The legislation was intended to enable Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, to keep her post after having a baby. Previously, she would have had to resign in order to take time off after the birth.

At the time, Baroness Hayman, a crossbench peer, said: "I believe the drafters of this bill have quite simply got it wrong. The price of so-called gender neutrality in this Bill is an awkward and ugly distortion of the English language and an affront to common sense.”

Baroness Fox of Buckley, a non-affiliated peer, said: "Erasing women from public discourse on maternity is not ahead of the curve; it is regressive and demeaning... If we erase the word 'women', the danger is that we erase the struggle for women’s rights that got us here."

Stonewall's advice to employers includes using "gender neutral language" in order to be inclusive towards trans staff.

A series of government departments have now quit the equality charity’s 'diversity champions' programme, which includes guidance on gender-neutral spaces and the use of pronouns, following controversy about its value for money and the extent of its influence on Whitehall.

But Stonewall has insisted that the scheme simply "provides guidance and support on making HR policies inclusive for LGBTQ+ employees", adding: "It has no bearing on the drafting of legislation, which is the responsibility of the relevant government department. To suggest otherwise is to fundamentally misunderstand the legislative process."

Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA, the civil servants' union, said ministers could simply veto language to which they object, before any legislation reaches Parliament.

"There is no subterfuge around this stuff. Language develops all the time and ultimately civil servants advise and ministers decide," he said.

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