An LGBT pride march in Paris. Photo: Getty
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We won't have truly equal marriage until we get rid of the spousal veto

Although gay couples can now marry, the law still distinguishes between heterosexual and same-sex marriages - and that can cause problems for trans people. 

With same-sex couples getting hitched in England and Wales at last, it would be easy to think, “job done, marriage is equal at last”. And you’d be wrong. It’s not really “equal marriage”.

For example, there’s a continuing distinction between “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” marriages. One of the areas where this surfaces is in the area dubbed “spousal veto” by trans campaigners.

The new law allows for trans people who are already married to gain gender recognition without having to get divorced, which is extremely welcome and long overdue. However, because there remains a distinction between “same-sex” and “opposite-sex” marriages, the spouse also must consent. The trans person cannot gain gender recognition until either the spouse consents – or they get divorced.  That's what campaigners call the "spousal veto" – although government doesn’t like the term, even though it's defined in my ancient Collins Dictionary as “to refuse consent to”.

Sadly, most marriages involving trans people break down, and some do so acrimoniously, with divorce proceedings stretching out over several years, mainly due to the difficulties in agreeing over access to children and distribution of property. The new law makes no exception for divorcing spouses, so in these cases the trans person’s legal right of recognition is on hold. They can only get gender recognition when the divorce is finalised - or if their potentially hostile soon-to-be-ex-spouse agrees to the change from an opposite-sex marriage to a same-sex one. The trans person can lose out quite considerably in entitlements and personal wellbeing during this time. 

There is only one other area in English law which requires spousal consent for a partner’s actions – a rarely used process for changing names. Trans people therefore feel singled out by the Government. As Baroness Gould said in the House of Lords, “[t]here is no need for spousal consent to end a marriage, move abroad, financially destabilise the family, apply for distant jobs, or for medical treatment".

The argument underpinning spousal veto is that gender recognition changes the marriage contract, therefore the spouse has to agree. But no such requirement exists should one partner change their name. When I took my wedding vows, they most definitely included names. Also, trans people have contracts with pensions companies, to give just one example, which also change on gender recognition, but I don’t see any request for corporates’ consent – and pensions companies have a financial interest here. So the hang-up must be to do with the terms “husband” and “wife”.

According to Blacks, the legal dictionary, the definition of “husband” is “one who has a lawful wife living”. Obviously now, with same-sex marriage lawful, that legal definition is somewhat out-of-date. (Don’t think about it too hard in relation to lesbian couples – it will make your head hurt.)

Trans people must wait for at least two years after changing gender role before they can apply for gender recognition. In that time, trans women will have moved so far away from the functional definition of “husband”, and trans men from “wife”, that the argument that the spouse needs to consent to gender recognition and gender recognition alone is rather strange.

The law also makes no distinction for marriages entered into after 29 March this year, where gender is apparently irrelevant unless, apparently, you’re trans.

If there really was no distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex marriages, if marriage was truly equal, then there wouldn’t be a change in any kind of legal relationship upon gender recognition. The marriage would simply carry on, and if either party became uncomfortable with the arrangements, then they have the usual route through the divorce courts. The trans person’s rights wouldn’t get trampled on in the meantime.

What of the spouses? Well, in an admittedly non-scientific poll of 18 spouses, not one supported the veto. Only one wanted some kind of say in their partner’s gender recognition process. Typically, these were supportive spouses who had stayed with their trans partners. Most trans people agree that spouses should be informed of a gender recognition application. Indeed, that was the outcome of a consultation with civil servants. But there’s a vast difference between “informing” and “requiring consent from”.

When the Scottish Parliament debated these issues, and after their Equal Opportunities Committee said that “spousal consent for gender recognition is unnecessary and should be removed”, they came up with a workaround. A trans person who doesn’t have spousal consent for gender recognition can, after they have been issued with an interim gender recognition certificate, apply to the sheriff’s court who can issue full gender recognition. There really is no spousal veto in Scotland.

However, in Northern Ireland, where there isn’t same-sex marriage at all, trans people who are married still have to get divorced before gaining gender recognition.

Don’t get me started on the issues trans people in civil partnerships face.

Helen Belcher is one of the founders of Trans Media Watch and also sits on the Parliamentary Forum on Gender Identity. She runs a software company in her spare time.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.