Keir Starmer accuses Rishi Sunak of using trans rights as a ‘political football’ in final debate

Labour leader Keir Starmer has accused prime minister Rishi Sunak of using trans rights as a “political football to divide people” in the final BBC election debate.

During the often-tetchy final head-to-head debate ahead of next week’s general election, the topic of trans rights – particularly single-sex spaces and the definition of sex in the 2010 Equality Act – came up.

Sunak told the audience at Nottingham Trent University he would “unequivocally” change the law “so that the old Equalities Act recognises that sex means biological sex”. Starmer said he would protect female spaces but the law did not need to be amended to do so.

“Don’t use this as a political football to divide people,” the Labour leader went on to say in the 75-minute debate shown live on BBC1.

Starmer also brought up an anti-trans jibe that Sunak made during PMQs in February.

“What I will also say is that I do recognise there are a small number of people who are born into a gender that they don’t identify with, and I will treat them, as I treat all human beings, with dignity and respect,” Starmer said.

“I’ll tell you why, because if you don’t, we end up with the prime minister of the United Kingdom standing in parliament making an anti-trans joke in front of the mother of a murdered trans teenager.”

His statement was met with cheers and applause from sections of the audience.

Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak went head-to-head live on the BBC. (Phil Noble – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Sunak made the “joke” while accusing Starmer of “breaking every single promise he was elected on”.

The PM said: “Pensions, planning, peerages, public sector pay, tuition fees, childcare, second referendums, defining a woman – although in fairness that was only 99 per cent of a U-turn,” Sunak told MPs.

In response to Starmer’s comment during the BBC debate, Sunak said: “That’s not what I did. I was pointing out that you’ve changed your mind on this question multiple times.”

A snap poll after the debate suggests neither man won, with members of the public split 50/50.

Trans rights key battleground this election

Trans rights have come up again and again during what has been a sometimes-bitter, and scandal-rocked election campaign. Some party manifestos pledged equality while others seemed to want to scrub transgender people from public life altogether.

The Green Party promised to introduce self-ID – enabling a change to a gender marker without the need for surgeries or a medical diagnosis – as well as formally recognising non-binary and intersex people on legal documents through an “X” gender marker.

At the other end of the spectrum, Reform UK took aim at “transgender ideology” – a term widely considered an anti-trans dog-whistle – vowing to ban it in primary and secondary schools because “transgender indoctrination is causing irreversible harm to children”.

Starmer weighed in on the topic earlier this week, telling reporters he was not in “favour of ideology being taught in our schools on gender”, adding: “We need to complete the consultation process and make sure there is guidance that is age appropriate. That is helpful for teachers and has, at its heart, the safeguarding of children.”

A spokesperson for Labour went on to tell The Times: “Nothing should be taught in an ideological way in schools. Current RSHE [relationships, sex and health education] guidance requires that children are taught, in an age-appropriate way, the facts about sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity.

“Labour’s priority is the safety and wellbeing of every child.”

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