Suella Braverman: 'People fear they will lose their job if they point out the basic facts of biology'

·16 min read
Suella Braverman - Paul Grover
Suella Braverman - Paul Grover

Some civil servants are resisting post-Brexit reforms because they cannot imagine “life outside of the EU”, the Attorney General claims today.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Suella Braverman says there is a “great opportunity to peel back ... onerous rules and bureaucracy to actually help the consumer”, as a result of the UK’s departure from the EU.

However, she says some of her “biggest battles” in government are with officials, rather than “political battles” in the House of Commons.

“That was something I didn’t expect, if I’m honest,” says Mrs Braverman, who campaigned for Brexit in 2016.

Elsewhere in the interview, she accuses organisations such as the Halifax of letting a “collective frenzy” over some gender rights “take hold of common sense” and she speaks of her fears as an MP and a mother of the “gender dysphoria spreading by social contagion” through schools.

She also rejects demands by some pro-Brussels rebels for a new “meaningful vote” provision in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and she signals a potential constitutional clash with the Scottish Government over a change, being prepared by Nicola Sturgeon, that would make it easier for people to change their legal sex in Scotland.

Boris Johnson identified post-Brexit deregulation as a key mission of the Government, and the 2019 Conservative manifesto promised a “Red Tape Challenge” that would ensure that regulation is “sensible and proportionate”, and to use “our new freedom after Brexit to ensure that British rules work for British companies”, she says.

‘There is a Remain bias’

Examples of EU law retained in the Westminster statute book include key elements of the UK’s VAT regime, which remains underpinned by the Brussels definition of “business” and the EU legal concept of “abuse”. Brexiters fear that, under the status quo, UK rules would change according to relevant rulings by the European Court of Justice, with ministers having to adopt domestic versions of EU legal concepts.

Mrs Braverman says the Brexit Opportunities Bill will be “absolutely critical” for deregulation and make it easier for ministers to rip up or adapt retained EU laws. But she adds: “I’ve learnt, not only during my time as Attorney but also during my time as a Brexit minister ... Some of the biggest battles you face as a minister are, in the nicest possible way, with Whitehall and internally with civil servants, as opposed to your political battles in the chamber.

“There are thousands of civil servants. In large part, they are brilliant. They work really hard. I’m supported, in particular, by a team of brilliant lawyers and officials ... Don’t take this as an opportunity to bash the Civil Service. But what I have seen, time and time again, [is] that there is a Remain bias.

“I’ll say it. I have seen resistance to some of the measures that ministers have wanted to bring forward.

“Because there’s an inability to conceive of the possibility of life outside of the EU.”  

‘People are terrified of pointing out the basic facts of biology’

Suella Braverman has had enough of the “collective frenzy” over some rights that sees the “basics of biology ...turned upside down”.

The Attorney General sees this phenomenon in Halifax’s “flippant” statement last week that customers unhappy with their staff wearing badges displaying their “preferred pronouns”, should close their accounts.

“What is the impact on the old lady in Fareham, who actually depends on that bank to get her cash? I think Halifax’s position is flippant and doesn’t take account of the real-world impacts on many members of our society.”

Braverman, 42, is preparing a significant intervention in the equalities debate, in a keynote speech at a Westminster think tank. Sitting in the dimly lit Commons office of the attorney general, she sets out her concerns in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph, with the deliberateness of someone who has been exploring the topic in some depth. One of the conclusions she has drawn is a risk of gender dysphoria  – the unease or distress experienced by those who feel at odds with their sex – spreading by “social contagion” in schools. She says she is concerned both as a politician and as a mother of two young children.

The MP for Fareham, on the south coast, and former Brexit minister, is becoming increasingly influential in government, where she is at the heart of decision-making over issues ranging from post-Brexit negotiation with the EU to Westminster’s response to Nicola Sturgeon’s push for a second referendum on Scottish independence. Last month, The Telegraph revealed that it was Ms Braverman and Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, leading a charge to toughen up domestic legislation designed to override the Northern Ireland Protocol.

British Attorney General Suella Braverman (L) and British Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries - ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
British Attorney General Suella Braverman (L) and British Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Nadine Dorries - ANDY RAIN/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Convention dictates that the Attorney General cannot discuss specific legal advice that she has given to ministers – such as the advice she is thought to have given to ministers such as Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, as he navigates the issue of trans rights in schools, and Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, who urged sports governing bodies to stop transgender athletes competing against women.

But she does say that she believes that a “rights culture” in Britain has “spun out of control”. Braverman partly blames this on the European Court of Human Rights, which, she says, is responsible for an “expansionist, politicised application” of the European Convention on Human Rights. At the same time, Gordon Brown’s Equality Act, which introduced new “protected characteristics”, failed to anticipate just how much those protections might clash with each other, such as the battle between trans and women’s rights.

“The culture, the litigiousness around the rights-related culture, has turned on its head a lot of common-sense decisions, which are consistent with British values,” says Braverman, who was a barrister specialising in immigration law, before becoming an MP in 2015. “The root of that, I believe, has its origins in the elastic, expansionist, politicised application by the Strasbourg Court of the European Convention of Human Rights.

“We’re seeing so many problems play out in the UK now, because of stretched and strained interpretations of Article Eight, the right to a private family life, and Article Three, the prohibition against torture, and so many other rights, whether it’s in the field of our ability to deport foreign national offenders [or] the deportation of illegal migrants. We saw a few weeks ago how the Strasbourg Court cut across decisions made in English courts, to halt the take-off of the flight to Rwanda.

“The rights-based claims have stymied a lot of our immigration and asylum policy.”

Meanwhile, Braverman signals a potential constitutional clash with the Scottish government over a legal change prepared by Nicola Sturgeon that would allow people to change their legal sex in Scotland. Braverman indicates that she is considering a move to challenge or block the change.

“I think there are incredibly serious implications of what the Scottish government is proposing, and I will be considering whether there are constitutional issues,” she says. “Effectively the Scottish Parliament, if this is enacted, will be approving a form of self-identification. And we will have a two-tier system within the United Kingdom.

“I can’t foresee how that is workable, whereby north of the border, you may be able to self-identify but a bit south of the border that might not be recognised. What effects does that have on our public institutions, our state? It is incredibly worrying and causes a huge amount of uncertainty.”

But her concerns about contemporary clashes over rights are not confined to legal wranglings. As a mother of a soon-to-be three-year-old boy, George, and 16-month-old Gabriella, Braverman says she is concerned both as an MP and a parent about the way in which gender debates are playing out in schools, where, she says, some teachers are concerned about a “takeover”. Zahawi is currently drawing up guidance to help head teachers on issues including whether trans girls have a right to attend all-girls schools and use female changing rooms.

The current legal uncertainty, says Braverman, stems from a lack of clarity in the Equality Act over the protection afforded to “gender reassignment”, which the legislation says relates to someone who is “proposing to undergo, is undergoing or has undergone a process ...for the purpose of reassigning the person’s sex”.

“I think at the time of drafting and enacting the Equality Act in 2009 and 2010, it was not foreseen how that would be interpreted,” says Braverman. “You don’t have to have undergone surgery, you don’t have to have obtained a gender recognition certificate. So it’s quite a broad category.

“That is posing a lot of practical problems for authorities, schools, sporting bodies, prisons and the NHS. That’s why the guidance emerging from Government is incredibly welcome. She adds: “I think the risks as well of social transitioning were not anticipated.”

Referring to the potential implications of teachers and health-service staff taking an “unquestioning” approach to children who say they are trans, she insists: “It’s not to be seen as neutral or passive. It can be dangerous if it’s prematurely undertaken. I think there’s also an issue about social contagion, actually, and that, particularly among children, there’s a risk of gender dysphoria spreading by social contagion, within a school, for example. And fundamentally, I think this also comes down to the ethos of respect for truth and reality, respect for freedom of thought, conscience, belief and speech.”

Braverman says she has heard from teachers who “feel their freedom of speech has been hugely impinged upon” because they could, they believe, be sacked or accused of a hate crime if they described a trans girl as biologically male.

“I think that’s a way in which this rights culture, and the proliferation of that rights culture has spun out of control,” she says. “We cannot be living in a society whereby people are terrified of pointing out the basic facts of biology, for fear of losing their job, and that is happening within schools. I know it to be a fact. I’ve heard from people who want to remain anonymous, because they are very scared of the repercussions.

Attorney General Suella Braverman speaks to Christopher Hope - Jamie Lorriman
Attorney General Suella Braverman speaks to Christopher Hope - Jamie Lorriman

“And I think we are seeing a cultural creep whereby a minority group, which has been very well organised – and there are very activist charities lobbying for this minority group – have accumulated an influence, which I believe is disproportionate, and is dictating what the majority should be doing.”

Braverman adds: “I have huge amounts of sympathy for a child, an adult who is going through the process of realising that they may well be in the wrong body, and they’re suffering from gender dysphoria, and they want to go through the sometimes irreversible, incredibly intrusive treatment of surgical gender reassignment ...However, I do have fears about what’s happening in our schools, as a parent, and I have heard of many stories in my own social circle in my own constituency.

“It seems to be more prevalent amongst girls ...teenage girls are presenting with emotional challenges, and that’s being played out through gender dysphoria.”

She adds: “Teachers are sometimes acting without the knowledge of parents. They are allowing these teenagers to proceed down a route, which can be very damaging for them in the long run.”

Braverman believes that there are varying approaches in different schools, reflecting a “cultural approach” by some local education officials. “We also know that many teachers don’t necessarily subscribe to this takeover, as they see it,” she adds. “And that’s why I think guidance will be welcomed from the Secretary of State on the subject.”

Similarly, Braverman says Dominic Raab’s Bill of Rights will go “some way” to address the “rights culture” but warns: “Ultimately, we are still subject to a very interventionist court.” She will not say whether she backs withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether, or making changes to the Equality Act itself, simply stating that “all options are always on the table.”

When Braverman and Rael, her husband of four years and a manager at Mercedes-Benz, discovered that she was pregnant for the second time in 2020 she was “nervous” about telling Boris Johnson. There was no provision for the Government’s most senior legal adviser to take formal maternity leave.

“The constitutional and political importance of the law office of the Attorney General is such that you can’t just job share, and you can’t dip in and out – there needs to be an Attorney General in place. So I would have had to have resigned, just because I was pregnant.

“It’s always very nerve-racking, telling your boss that you’re pregnant and saying, ‘Boss, I’m going to need a bit of time off.’ But telling the Prime Minister is on a whole other level.

British Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, Attorney General Suella Braverman and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak listen as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses his cabinet - Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS
British Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, Attorney General Suella Braverman and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak listen as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson addresses his cabinet - Leon Neal/Pool via REUTERS

“From the moment I told him, he was so supportive and incredibly reassuring.” Johnson gave his approval for a bill, devised by officials, to enable Braverman to take six months’ paid maternity leave. The bill provoked controversy in the House of Lords because, as Braverman puts it, “politically correct drafting” resulted in the legislation peppered with gender-neutral references to a “pregnant person” rather than simply, “pregnant woman”.

“It was a really disappointing distraction, because actually, the bill, and what that bill represented, was groundbreaking. It was a moment of celebration, when Parliament came together to support a woman having a baby.

“Unfortunately, because of politically correct drafting, the debate became about trans rights.”

Having arrived in Parliament fresh from the morning nursery run, Braverman says she disagrees with Stella Creasy, the Labour MP who wanted the freedom to bring her baby into the Commons chamber when she was looking after her.

“I have never brought either of my children into the chamber. That is a workplace, and I don’t believe that a baby should be in the workplace.”

Braverman has little time for claims by Theresa May that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which seeks to unilaterally override the post-Brexit agreement, is unlawful. Braverman quit as junior Brexit minister under May over the then Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, despite parliamentary colleagues claiming that the move would amount to “suicide for my political career”. She was later among 34 pro-Brexit “Spartans” to vote down the deal in an act of defiance she admits was “quite uncharacteristic”, having never set out to be a rebel.

“I don’t think I have felt as much pressure before or since in my professional life,” she recalls of the conversations with Conservative colleagues and Number 10. Now, she says of May’s opposition to Johnson’s Brexit legislation: “What Theresa May and her allies advocate is for more negotiation. I’m afraid we’ve been doing that for two years, and it hasn’t worked.

“I have a lot of respect for her – she had a great tenure as Home Secretary – but her time in Number 10 was no success.

“When she started talking to Jeremy Corbyn, and when she started talking about a second referendum, that was one of the factors as to why I held out on the MV3 [third ‘meaningful vote’ on the deal] and became a Spartan, because I was sickened by the prospect of talks with Jeremy Corbyn, a second referendum, extending article 50 yet again, paralysis within Parliament, [and a] breakdown in our constitution and our democracy.” She adds: “Losing our majority and leading us to one of the worst results in our 300-year history takes some doing.”

The Attorney General rejects demands by some pro-EU rebels for a new “meaningful vote” to give Parliament a say on any new arrangements the UK might agree with Brussels.

“I think a meaningful vote would take us back to the days of Oliver Letwin and Speaker Bercow, and I actually think it would be very damaging for the raison d’etre of this bill. We need to get these powers on the statute book.”

In 2016, Braverman took a risk in defying David Cameron to back Brexit – no easy decision for an ambitious MP less than a year into the job. “Many of my friends and colleagues told me not to do it,” she says. “I’m glad I stuck to my convictions.”

Now Braverman cites the Government’s speedy roll-out of Covid vaccines and sanctions against Russia, together with its freeports policy, as evidence of Johnson taking advantage of Brexit freedoms. But she clearly believes that much of the work is still to be done. “I think we are flexing our muscles as a new democracy,” she says. “And, like someone getting back into the gym, it takes a bit of time and maybe a bit of pain to get those muscles back into shape. Our Parliament has been subjugated for 40 years.”

There is, she says, “a great opportunity to peel back” some of the “tens of thousands” of EU regulations that still apply in the UK,  in order to reduce costs on consumers.

“That consumer can be your pensioner in Fareham who has extra burden and extra costs on their pension fund because of the compliance costs flowing from EU directives. I think there’s a direct benefit to the cost of living.”

Ministers are, though, struggling to get some of these changes through the civil service, Braverman says.

Attorney General Suella Braverman - Paul Grover
Attorney General Suella Braverman - Paul Grover

“Something I’ve learnt not only during my time as Attorney, but also during my time as a Brexit minister, is that some of the biggest battles that you face as a minister are, in the nicest possible way, with Whitehall and internally with civil servants, as opposed to your political battles in the chamber. That was something I didn’t expect, if I’m honest.

“There are thousands of civil servants. In large part, they are brilliant. They work really hard. I’m supported, in particular, by a team of brilliant lawyers and officials at the Attorney General’s office. Don’t take this as an opportunity to bash the civil service.

“But what I have seen time and time again, both in policymaking and in broader decision making, [is] that there is a Remain bias. I’ll say it. I have seen resistance to some of the measures that ministers have wanted to bring forward.

“Because there’s an inability to conceive of the possibility of life outside of the EU.” It sounds like a challenge ripe for a Spartan.

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