Toilet provision: consultation response

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government launched a consultation over toilet provision for men and women. This is Labour Women’s Declaration’s response:

1. The key points in the call for evidence

“[T]here needs to be proper provision of gender-specific toilets for both men and women, with a clear steer in building standards guidance” We would be in full agreement with this statement if the word ‘sex’ were used rather than ‘gender’, as this term is undefined and generally conflated with ‘gender identity’, the claimed non-observable, non-testable, sense of being a man or woman despite one’s biology indicating otherwise. ‘Sex’ is the protected characteristic, and we want to see single-sex provision as a matter of right.
“The Equality Act provides that sex, age, disability and gender reassignment are protected characteristics. This does not mean that gender-specific toilets should be replaced with gender-neutral toilets. But there should be balanced consideration of how the needs of all those with protected characteristics should be considered, based on the mix of the population and customer demand.” We could not agree more with this statement and regard it as key to the provision of facilities in a respectful and considerate manner.

2. Gender-neutral toilets

As stated in the call for evidence, where existing provision is re-labelled as gender neutral (meaning ‘open to anyone’), women are placed at a significant disadvantage. Men then have access not only to all the cubicles but also to the urinals, whereas women, already disadvantaged in terms of the number of available facilities, now have to share their cubicles with men.
Many women are deeply uncomfortable using facilities where they may be observed by men, or vulnerable to men’s comments or inappropriate actions. Being heard using the lavatory can be a source of serious embarrassment, most particularly when men are present. Additionally, the specific female needs noted in point 3. require a space not available to men.
This discomfort and embarrassment is very much magnified in the case of adolescent girls contending with adolescent boys. Toilets are often a space for girls to meet, put on make-up, discuss the problems of menstruation, and, most importantly, get away from harassment by boys and older males. Gender neutral/open to anyone facilities reduce not only girls’ sense of safety, but their actual objective safety.
Quite a large number of men suffer from bladder shyness and may find it difficult to micturate with women around.
The Equality Act 2010, Schedule 3, Part 7, Paragraph 27, sets out conditions under which single and separate sex exceptions can apply. Among these is condition 6b:
“the circumstances are such that a person of one sex might reasonably object to the presence of a person of the opposite sex.” This applies to the provision of single-sex toilet provision.

3. Specific female needs

It is well-known that women are far more likely than men to suffer from urinary incontinence, as well as needing provision to manage menstruation. Waiting in a queue is an excruciating experience for a woman suffering from urinary incontinence.
Menstruating women may need to use washbasins in open areas to wash mooncups, rinse out stained underwear, or to wash bloody hands. These needs can only be properly addressed by sex-specific toilets or totally contained units where the washbasin is included inside a cubicle with walls fully enclosing the space, from floor to ceiling.
This discomfort and embarrassment is very much magnified in the case of adolescent girls contending with adolescent boys. Toilets are often a space for girls to meet, put on make-up, discuss the problems of menstruation, and, most importantly, get away from harassment by boys and older males. Gender neutral/open to anyone facilities reduce not only girls’ sense of safety, but their actual objective safety.

4. Ratio of female to male toilets

It has often been assumed that providing the same floor space for male toilets as for female toilets means that there is equal provision. This is very far from the case.
Firstly, of course, male urinals take up less space than cubicles and so more men can be provided for in the same space.
Secondly, women need longer in a cubicle than men need at a urinal, given the much greater clothing removal required.
It is generally estimated that there need to be 50% more female toilets (cubicles) than male (urinals plus cubicles).

5. Accessible toilets and gender neutral toilets

Progress has been made over recent decades in the provision of genuinely accessible toilets for people with various disabilities and needs. This is greatly to be welcomed. It is, however, the case that there are still not enough facilities useable and well set-up for all who require it, to allow for a very wide range of needs that cannot be accommodated in general lavatory provision.
The suggestion in some quarters that such facilities should be promoted as available to those who are trans-identified, and not wishing to use/objecting to toilets provided by sex (regarding ‘gender identity’ as the defining feature), is deeply concerning. There is good reason to include, where space permits, a gender neutral/open to all toilet area in addition to male, female and disabled facilities, and it is to be hoped that new public access buildings will build such provision in as a matter of course. It must not be conflated with accessible/Changing Places toilets.
Where, for reasons of size and space, there is limited toilet provision that cannot be differentiated into male, female, open to all, and disabled access, a single toilet area must be created of cubicles containing washbasins and with floor to ceiling divisions, with perhaps a gap under the door so that it can be identified if someone has collapsed. There should be one providing enough space for a carer to help a disabled person as well as accessible to wheelchair users..

6. Public sector equality duty

The PSED is part of the Equality Act 2010. It has three main elements, each of which need to be considered in the provision of toilets.
The first element, the duty to eliminate discrimination, harassment, victimisation etc, requires provision that takes account of the needs of people according to sex (and in this context particularly women), sexual orientation, those covered by pregnancy and maternity, age, disability, race, religion and belief, age, marriage and civil partnership and those for whom the category of ‘gender reassignment’ applies, as well as the other protected characteristics .
Protection for religion and belief requires single-sex provision for, particularly, Orthodox Jews and Muslims. Provision by self-identified ‘gender’ or solely with gender neutral/open to anyone toilets means that such people, particularly women, will be unable to use public toilet provision.
The protection for pregnancy and maternity requires both that women’s toilets are suitable and that either within women’s toilets or in an accessible toilet there is space and equipment to enable baby-changing. While not covered by this provision, it is to be hoped that such space, where available within a women’s toilet area, is also available for men who may be caring for a baby.
Much of the above also relates to the second point, to advance equality of opportunity between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it. Provision that is inadequate for women, for particular religious groups, etc is not advancing equality of opportunity and may in fact be reinstating the ‘urinary leash’ meaning that members of such groups are unable to go far from home.
The third point is the requirement to foster good relations between persons who share a relevant protected characteristic and persons who do not share it. One of the particular problems that has arisen through the conversion of so many toilets to ‘gender neutral’, or where there has been insistence that the toilets are provided for a ‘gender’ rather than a sex, is that women have become anxious and hostile to anyone who might be a man in what had previously been single-sex provision. This not only has created tension between women (protected characteristic of sex) and transwomen (protected characteristic of gender reassignment), but has also led to potential conflict between some women and those women, particularly lesbians (protected characteristic of sexual orientation), with what is perceived as a more masculine appearance. Thus it is clear that converting many toilets to gender neutral/open to anyone provision has worked against the requirement to foster good relations.

7. Provision of public toilets by local authorities

Since 2010, there has been a steady reduction in the grant income from central government to local government, a 38% reduction between 2009-10 and 2018-19. As there are also caps on how much county, district, borough and unitary authorities can increase their council tax precept, in many areas where there are parish councils, they are being asked to take on the management and maintenance of public toilets in their areas, previously provided by a district council.
This entails raising parish precept, which some small parish councils are most reluctant to do. Also, many parish councils do not have more than one or two employees (the parish clerk and perhaps one other) and may be daunted by the obligations of employing cleaning and maintenance staff to run public toilets. and, as a result, in some areas there is a chance that existing toilets will be closed. Those living in such areas are seriously concerned about potential closures. Serious consideration needs to be given to national funding for such public provision.

8. An international human rights issue

The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals cover the need for separate toilets for women and girls explicitly at 6.2, which includes the key phrase “paying special attention to the needs of women and girls”. It would indeed be shameful if the UK lagged behind the ambitions of the UN for provision internationally, or, rather, rolled back on the provision that has existed until the relatively recent move toward gender neutral provision.

REFERENCES

Clara Greed Expert exposition on the requirements for public toilets for women

Nowhere to Go. Includes an excellent range of resources concerning toilet provision for those with disabilities

Climacteric. The prevalence of urinary incontinence

Fair Play for Women. Toilets and changing rooms

 

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