Comment: The prisons minister must take the blame for the failure to protect Tara Hudson

Data suggests that gay and transgender prisoners were at the highest risk of attack of sexual assault in prisons
Data suggests that gay and transgender prisoners were at the highest risk of attack of sexual assault in prisons

By Jane Fae

Following the case of Tara Hudson last week, pressure is mounting from trans activists for the resignation of prisons minister Andrew Selous. 

Hudson, who identifies as a woman, had been put in a male prison. A campaign quickly started to get her transferred before she could be assaulted or harmed. It finally happened on Friday, after much prevarication and delay.

Selous doesn't have the greatest record on equality issues – whether on trans or general LGBT rights. He opposed equal marriage at every turn. He voted for the retention of Section 28. And his opposition to transgender rights has been every bit as trenchant. According to those involved in 2004's Gender Recognition Act, he fought them every step of the way. In committee, he vexed about trans in changing rooms. In parliamentary debate, he suggested on more than one occasion that being transgender was some sort of lifestyle choice.

He is an advocate of the Evangelical Alliance and something of a campaigning Christian. He was also chair of the Conservative Christian Fellowship between 2001 and 2006 and in various public appearances has made the importance of his Christian faith very clear

The man is of course entitled to his views. The question is whether those views get in the way of the proper exercise of power. It is no crime to be Christian and a minister, just so long as you remember the useful dictum about rendering unto Caesar those things that are Caesar’s and not allowing your religion to intrude into public action.

But it's hard to avoid the suspicion that Selous’ personal beliefs are getting in the way of his conduct in office. Take the data suggesting high levels of sexual assault in prisons and that gay and transgender prisoners were at the highest risk of attack. Selous' response was deeply complacent. "Reported incidents of sexual assault in prison are rare," he said. "Where an alleged sexual assault is reported or discovered it will be investigated and reported to the police if required."

Circling the wagons around the minister, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has engaged in a masterly campaign of  misinformation and misdirection.

Hudson was at serious risk of sexual assault and rape, with her own mental health under constant siege, while kept in a male prison. From day one, the MoJ insisted the only issue was that Hudson’s documents were not in order. Or rather, this was pretty much the only issue they were prepared to mention on the record. This was despite legal precedent in 2009 and their own guidelines of 2011, which make it clear that trans people do not need "correct legal documentation" to be placed in the appropriate prison estate. Result: throughout the week, the press focus has been on documentation rather than the basic principle.

Their response was exposed for the nonsense it was when, on Friday, a judge rejected Tara's appeal against a custodial sentence and made it clear that which prison she went to was up to the MoJ. With MPs from every party baying for blood, and a hostile petition cresting 150,000 signatures in less than a week, the MoJ blinked and moved Tara to where she should always have been: the female estate.

More weasel words followed. An official MoJ statement explained: "Our guidelines allow room for discretion and, in such cases, medical experts will review the circumstances in order to protect the emotional wellbeing of the person concerned. Our top priority is the safety and welfare of those in our custody."

I have asked precisely what part of 'top priority' involves exposing a woman to the risk of rape for six minutes, let alone six days. But as so often over the last week, they have decided that discretion is the better part of valour.

So that's that? Not entirely. The past has fired the starting pistol on several important debates.

Let’s start with the prison minister. It may seem quaint – old-fashioned, even – to expect that one of the highest officials in the land might actually uphold UK laws in respect of diversity but it’s not an unreasonable expectation. If nothing is done about this minister, people will draw their own conclusions about the government's commitment to diversity. He may not have known about the original decision to place Tara in the wrong prison. Most likely he did not. But he would have certainly been made aware of it as pressure mounted.

Then there is the trans community. In seven days the MoJ has undone seven years of schmoozing. There is sparkling fury out there, of a depth and ferocity that I suspect would terrify Cameron and co if they came face to face with it on a dark and stormy night.

There's fear, too. Trans people who have been fully transitioned for twenty or thirty years were in tears, in panic, because they believed that the thin veneer of safety, accumulated gradually over the decades, was an illusion.

And there is unfinished business. If government thinks it has seen the limits of direct action this week, it should think again. Expect more, much more, until such time as every single trans prisoner now languishing in the wrong prison is sorted out.

Expect, too, action on gender recognition. The MoJ may have thought, with its ham-fisted attempts at sabotaging the parliamentary inquiry on transgender issues earlier this year, that it had put demands for gender self-identification back in the box.

It must now think again. Senior politicians, including Nicky Morgan and Maria Miller, may not have 100% bought into the idea, but they can see that there's a case. The public, extraordinarily for an issue on which there has been no real debate so far, seems fairly laid back about reform in this area. In a Telegraph poll this week, there was a narrow margin in favour of self-identification.  And the trans community wants it now, more than ever.

They are sick and tired of having their gender determined by a committee of faceless, white, middle-aged men. And they believe it is time for change.

Change in the law and change at the MoJ - new thinking on gender recognition and a new prison minister to restore faith in a system that has been shattered beyond repair over the past week.

Jane Fae is a feminist and writer on gender issues. You can follow her on Twitter here.

The opinions in's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.


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