Feminist campaigner Emma Chesworth discusses a decision to trial gender neutral toilets in Middlesbrough Council buildings

THE Equality Act 2010 states it is lawful to provide single sex services when: “The services are of a type that you would object to someone of the opposite sex being there – for example, separate changing rooms or a service involving personal hygiene”. It is undeniable that toilets would come under somewhere involving “personal hygiene”.

And it is equally undeniable that women have more reasons to use a toilet than men. Contrary to popular belief, the queues for women’s toilets are not because we are all stood chatting or applying lipstick in front of the mirror.

No, the reality is that equal floor space for women and men’s toilets does not mean equal provision. More urinals can be fitted into a space than cubicles, so men will always have more space to urinate.

And, just as importantly, women are more likely to have to use a toilet because of menstruation, pregnancy, incontinence and having greater caring responsibilities for children and elderly relatives.

Yet, despite the Equality Act 2010 specifically allowing for single sex provisions, there has been a stealth-like move by organisations to bring in what are routinely called gender neutral facilities.

The Government has recently carried out a consultation on potential changes to the 2004 Gender Recognition Act.

No outcomes have yet to be announced. Yet, every day women’s only services are being opened up to anyone who self identifies as a woman in a bid to be seen as inclusive. Again, it is important to stress that no legislative change has been announced.

Middlesbrough Council has become the latest local authority to trial gender neutral toilets in its public buildings. This comes after newly elected councillor for Coulby Newham, Dave Smith, approached the newly elected Mayor of Middlesbrough Andy Preston.

After a meeting between the two men, it was announced that a trial would be introduced. Mr Preston said: “It’s really important that we look after minorities, while naturally we have to bear in mind what the majority want.

“Having had a number of discussions with those who use wheelchairs, they seem very comfortable with the idea of toilets for those with disabilities being labelled as inclusive facilities, regardless of gender.

“I’ve therefore agreed to introduce an initial trial period within Middlesbrough Council buildings in the near future. I’ll then reviews the arrangements with Cllr Smith.”

So, two men had a discussion and a trial is implemented after which the same two men will have a further discussion to look at what will then happen.

I concede a small amount of consultation was carried out by the Mayor. He had “a number of discussions with those who use wheelchairs”.

I would suggest he is woefully ill informed if he believes anyone who can legitimately use an accessible toilet must be a wheelchair user. A vast amount of disabilities are hidden and many people who may not outwardly look like they have a disability, already face enough negative comments and looks when they use an accessible toilet.

Womans Place UK is a group of people from all backgrounds campaigning to maintain women’s hard fought rights.

An expert on public toilet provision blogging on their website writes: “Relabelling the disabled toilet as ‘inclusive toilets’ creates more problems for people with disabilities.

“They have to wait even longer to use the accessible toilet if other groups now feel they are entitled to use their facilities too.

“People with disabilities of various sorts comprise 20 per cent of the population but they are lucky to find even one ‘disabled toilet’ (accessible toilet).”

The writer adds: “Women are concerned about the location of toilets, down corridors, in underpasses, and in unlit areas. Enabling potentially hostile men to enter the Ladies creates all sorts of personal safety issues. It is foolish to say ‘people already use mixed toilets at home’ as such toilets are not open to strangers.”

It is imperative that organisations recognise their duty to adhere to the Equality Act and not bring in changes which directly contravene the exemptions laid out within the Act.

Women have a right to single sex spaces. And that right must be upheld.

Ms Chesworth is a feminist campaigner writing in a personal capacity