Cass Review

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 5:23 pm ar 15 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Victoria Atkins Victoria Atkins Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 5:23, 15 Ebrill 2024

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Cass review of gender identity services for children and young people. May I say how pleased I am that we are joined by parents of children who have been affected by some of the issues raised in this review? I hope all of us will bear the sensitivities of this debate in mind as we discuss it this afternoon.

This review strikes hard and sure at an area of public policy where fashionable cultural values have overtaken evidence, safety and biological reality. This must now stop. As recently as 2009, the NHS’s sole gender identity development service at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust received fewer than 60 referrals for children and young people, and just 15 for adolescent girls. Since then, demand has surged. By 2016, over 1,700 children and young people a year were referred—a 34-fold increase. More than half were teenage girls. In 2022, more than 5,000 children and young people were referred to gender identity clinics, and almost three quarters were female.

This exponential increase in demand is not a coincidence; it has been driven by a number of factors which I will come to later, but at its heart it was driven by a myth. This myth was that for children and young people grappling with adolescence who were questioning their identity, their sexuality or their path in life, the answer to their questions was inevitably to change gender to solve their feelings of unease, discomfort or distress.

That near-uniform prescription was imposed on children and young people with complex needs without full and thoughtful consideration of their wider needs, including, as is set out in the report, conditions such as neurodiversity, experiences such as childhood trauma or mental health conditions, or indeed discovering who it is that they may one day fall in love with. Indeed, the response from some of the people who should have protected them—some of the clinicians in charge of their care at the Tavistock clinic—was almost always to put them on an irreversible path: blocking puberty, then prescribing cross-sex hormones, and on to surgery as an adult. In other words, such professionals were not asking the right questions of themselves or of their patients.

That is why in 2020, with the support of my predecessors, my right hon. Friends the Members for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) and for Bromsgrove (Sir Sajid Javid), NHS England commissioned Dr Hilary Cass to examine the state of services for children questioning their gender. I would like to start by thanking Dr Cass and her team for undertaking a considered, comprehensive and courageous review into an extremely contentious area of healthcare. Since NHS England commissioned the review in 2020, they have meticulously unpicked what went wrong, what the evidence really shows and how to design a fundamentally different service that better serves the needs of children.

I must also thank those who raised the alarm and contributed to the review over the last four years: the clinicians who spoke up against their peers to blow the whistle about what was happening at the Tavistock clinic, even though it risked their careers; the journalists, academics and activists who listened to their stories and investigated further, even when they were derided as bigots and transphobes; the parents who were just trying their best to support their children, but were so badly let down by a service that vilified them for questioning whether the interventions offered were right for their children; and, of course, the young people themselves who have shared their experiences, including those who have gone through the pain of de-transitioning only to find out that the so-called “reversible” treatments they were offered are not in fact reversible.

The Cass review makes for sober reading. It is extremely thorough, so I will not attempt to cover all its recommendations today, but I genuinely encourage all Members to read the report in full. It should concern every single Member of this House that part of our public space—the NHS—was overtaken by a culture of secrecy and ideology that was allowed to trump evidence and safety. We say enough is enough; our young people deserve better, and we must do whatever it takes to protect them.

Since the publication of Dr Cass’s interim report in 2022, a series of important changes have been made, and I put on record my thanks to NHS England’s chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, and all those at NHS England who have worked hard with Dr Cass to implement them. On 31 March, the Tavistock clinic finally closed, having stopped seeing new patients a year earlier. Two new regional hubs have been opened, in partnership with the country’s most prestigious children’s hospitals, to ensure that children are supported by specialist, multidisciplinary teams. Indeed, another hub will follow in Bristol later this year.

In the past few weeks, NHS England made the landmark decision to end the routine prescription to children of puberty blockers for gender dysphoria. On the day of publication of Dr Cass’s final report, it announced that it is stopping children under 18 from being seen by adult gender services with immediate effect, and an urgent review on clinical policy for cross-sex hormones will now follow without delay. I also welcome NHS England’s plans to bring forward its full review of adult services, including Dr Cass’s recommendation for a follow-through service for young people up to the age of 25.

I also share Dr Cass’s concerns that clinicians who subscribe to gender ideology will try to use private providers to get around the rules. Let me give a very clear warning: prescribing is a highly regulated activity, and the Care Quality Commission has not licensed any gender clinic to prescribe hormone blockers or cross-sex hormones to people under the age of 16. Any clinic that does may be committing extremely serious regulatory offences for which its licence can be revoked and its clinicians can be struck off. My officials have been in contact with the CQC following the final report to ask that it looks again at the age thresholds in its licensing conditions.

The CQC has also reassured us that it will incorporate Dr Cass’s recommendations into their safe care and treatment standards for all care providers. That means that all new providers will be asked if their practices respect the Cass review, and all existing providers have to meet the same rigorous standards when they are reviewed by the CQC. My officials met the General Medical Council over the weekend, and will do so again in the coming days, to understand how it will ensure that every clinician on its register follows its code of practice and implements the wider findings of the Cass review.

It is morally and medically reprehensible that some online providers not registered in the UK have stated their intention to continue to issue prescriptions to children in this country. I am looking closely at what can be done to curtail any loopholes in prescribing practices, including legislative options. Nothing is off the table, and I will update the House in due course as we progress that work at pace.

Dr Cass also found that there was a lack of robust data on what happened to the 9,000 children who were treated by gender identity services between 2009 and 2020. Many went on to continue their treatment at adult clinics, and the University of York had been due to research the long-term consequences of treatment they received as children, so that we can properly support them through their journey into adulthood. It was expected to provide important insights into the clinic’s work, including how many patients de-transitioned and how many were also diagnosed with a mental health condition or an autism spectrum disorder.

This Government took the unprecedented step of changing the law to make it possible for adult gender clinics to share medical data with the university. All bar one of the adult gender clinics refused to co-operate with this vital research. To quote Dr Cass, that is “unacceptable”, but I would go even further: I think it is deplorable and a dereliction of their professional duty. I am pleased to update the House that following the publication of Dr Cass’s report, I have been informed that all seven clinical leads for the adult gender services now intend to fully participate in this important work.

Dr Cass also concludes that a cultural shift alone “does not adequately explain” the huge growth in young women being referred to gender services. She paints an alarming picture of digitally engaged young women who are frequently exposed to pornography involving violent, coercive, degrading and pain-inducing acts. Is it any wonder than more and more of them are looking for ways to opt out of becoming women? That is deeply troubling and, as Dr Cass makes clear, we have a duty to support those young women with considered, evidence-based care.

Our children deserve healthcare that is compassionate, caring and careful. Their safety and wellbeing must come above any other concern, and anyone who threatens it must be held to account. I will work with NHS England to root out the ideology that has caused so much unnecessary harm, to support those who have already received life-altering treatment, to give the next generation access to holistic care, and to protect our children’s futures. Anything less would be neglecting our duty to the next generation. That will not happen under this Government, and it will not happen under my watch.