Trans intervention nothing to do with ‘culture wars’ or leadership ambition, says health secretary

Victoria Atkins has denied that her intervention this morning on the trans debate had anything to do with opening up a new “culture wars” front in the general election or her own leadership ambitions.

The health secretary was wheeled out by the Conservatives this morning to respond to Labour’s plans to modernise the laws regarding changing gender.

It comes after a poll last night again showed the Tories even trailing Reform in third place and still 25 points behind Labour as the gambling scandal on the election date continued to hit their credibility.

Ms Atkins is already being discussed as a future leadership option after what now seems to be an inevitable defeat for the Tories with polls suggesting that it could be the worst in their 346-year history.

Health Secretary Victoria Atkins spoke about the protection of women and girls in public services and society (Lucy North/PA) (PA Wire)
Health Secretary Victoria Atkins spoke about the protection of women and girls in public services and society (Lucy North/PA) (PA Wire)

Asked if this was just a desperate attempt to use the culture wars to close the gap on Labour after many of the criticisms she made were of policies introduced by the Tories themselves, Ms Atkins reiterated the anger she felt on a visit to a maternity ward where a transgender adviser had got the words “mum” and “mother” banned and replaced with “service user”.

She said: “We [women] are half the population. You know, I as a woman, when I walked into that maternity unit and I saw that women had been eradicated from the language that midwives and clinicians wanted to use. I felt, I felt very upset, actually, because we can, we should, of course, have a respectful debate about that.

“In fairness, that is always what we as Conservatives have strived to do. But this debate has been taken over by ideologues, and we have seen in the context, for example, of children and young people, it has had incredibly dangerous circumstances for some children and young people who have been prescribed these puberty blockers without the evidence to back them up.

“But any any talk of culture wars, that is what the left does to shut down debate. And we are saying as Conservatives, we are half the population. We have our hard won rights, we will protect them, and we do not believe that conversations such as this should be shut down with accusations and culture wars.”

Asked if it was linked to her leadership ambitions, she said: “I'm not entertaining any questions about my leadership [ambitions]. Come on! I'm off to campaign anyway.”

Ms Atkins used her hastily arranged press conference to allege that Labour plans to ban conversion therapy would risk stopping parents, teachers and therapists from "comforting and counselling" children and adults "in gender distress".

In its manifesto published earlier this month, Labour promised a "full trans-inclusive ban on conversion practices", branding conversion therapy "abuse".

But Ms Atkins said while conversion therapy in the context of sexuality "is dreadful and must be stopped", there must be "thoughtful conversation" on whether any further legislation is needed.

She stated care must be taken not to criminalise "those who are doing their best to support people with gender distress".

Speaking to reporters, she said: "This is ripe territory for the law of unintended consequences, which is something you'd think the Labour leader would understand, but clearly does not."

A ban on conversion therapy, which aim to suppress or change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity, was first promised in 2018, by former Conservative prime minister Theresa May.

It was later downgraded to not include transgender people by Boris Johnson but the Conservative Government under Rishi Sunak said in January 2023 that it would ban conversion therapy for "everyone", including transgender people.

The Conservative manifesto said while it deems conversion therapy to be "abhorrent", legislation around such practices "is a very complex issue, with existing criminal law already offering robust protections".

The Tory party said it is "right that we take more time before reaching a final judgment on additional legislation in this area".