UK block on gender bill an 'unprecedented attack' on Scottish Parliament, SNP say

Scotland is gearing up for a major legal battle with the UK government, Peter Smith reports

The UK government's decision to block Scotland's Gender Recognition Reform Bill has been called an "unprecedented attack" on the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish Secretary Alister Jack announced he will make a Section 35 order - a never before utilised section of the 1998 Scotland Act - to prevent the legislation from gaining royal assent.

He reasoned that the Bill, which was voted for by two-thirds of the Scottish Parliament, would be detrimental to the UK's Equality Act.

SNP Westminster spokeswoman Dr Philippa Whitford told the House of Commons: "Vetoing this legislation is an unprecedented attack on the Scottish Parliament, which passed the Gender Recognition Reform Bill 86 to 39, including MSPs from every single party."

She added: "Explain exactly which parts of the Equality Act are changed by this Bill."

Mr Jack claimed the reforms - which simplify the process for trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate (GRC) - could have "chilling effects on single-sex spaces" for women.

He also warned of "significant complications" from having different processes for obtaining a GRC in different parts of the UK.

The Scottish secretary added that the UK government is not seeking to veto Scottish Parliament legislation "whenever it chooses" by moving against the proposed reforms.

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Elsewhere, Downing Street suggested it was "forced" to block the law in order to uphold the Scotland Act.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: "It's with regret that we've been forced to take this unprecedented approach. It's significant that this is the first time we've ever had to consider using Section 35.

"And of course, it's important to understand that if we did not take this action, we would not be upholding the Scotland Act, which set out that Scottish Parliament should not legislate in areas where there may be adverse effects on GB-wide legislation and of course equalities is part of that."

The UK government would not accept any revised Bill that would have "such a significant impact" on equalities matters across Great Britain, the spokesman added.

However, Shona Robison, the Social Justice Secretary at Holyrood insisted that Scottish ministers are "very, very confident in our position of this legislation being competent".

The Bill was passed by an "overwhelming majority" at Holyrood last month, with MSPs from all political parties backing it, she said.

Shona Robison has criticised the UK government's decision. Credit: PA

"We are very confident in our legislation, this is legislation that is completely devolved, it is within the competence of the Scottish Parliament," Ms Robison told BBC Radio Scotland.

She argued blocking the Bill from gaining royal assent is "the action of an increasing draconian UK Tory Government", saying: "It is not just this they have done, this is the latest in a string of actions undermining rights, from laws to ban strikes to other areas of people's rights, to now using one of the most marginalised groups as a political weapon."

She accused Mr Jack of "wanting to throw his weight about", and claimed there are also some members of Rishi Sunak's government who "want to row back on human rights and equalities legislation".

But she declared: "We will not stand for it."

Mr Jack has urged the Scottish government to bring back an amended Bill for consideration, but Ms Robison said: "If Alister Jack wants to come forward with suggestions that do not undermine the principle of the Bill, that is fine.

"But I suspect this is about stopping a Bill they do not like, it is not about compromising around the margins of it."

The legislation allows, for the first time, transgender people in Scotland to obtain legal recognition in their preferred gender without the need for a medical diagnosis.

It would also cut the time they have to live in their acquired gender before applying for a GRC, and reduce the age at which an application can be made to 16.

Ms Robison insisted: "It doesn’t impact on UK equality law, it simplifies the process for obtaining a gender recognition certificate. It doesn’t affect the purpose or the use of that gender recognition certificate.

"The Bill itself had an amendment that put beyond doubt that this had no impact on the Equality Act of 2010, and the UK government itself had multiple opportunities to comment during the very extensive consultation on the Bill and its passage and they did not do so.

"Let’s be very clear here. If the UK government thought there was a legal basis to challenge the Gender Recognition Bill, they would have done so in the Supreme Court through a Section 33 Order, as they have done previously.

"Using what is this nuclear option, the Section 35, never used before, I think does reveal there is no legal basis to challenge it."

MPs clash over Bill in Parliament

Conservative MP Miriam Cates was accused of making “transphobic” comments after she said Holyrood’s proposed changes to the gender recognition process would make it easier for “predators” to access to children.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle was told to calm down in the Commons after he responded angrily to Ms Cates.

Lloyd Russell-Moyle is the Labour MP for Brighton Kemptown. Credit: PA

He said linking trans people with predators is “disgusting and you should be ashamed”.

Ms Cates, the Tory MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, said: “The government is very right to be concerned about fraudulent and malign applications with the implications for child safeguarding.”

“Predators will exploit any loophole they can find to get access to children. And that is, I’m afraid, what will happen with this Bill."

The MP said she had recently encountered a “man dressed as a woman” in a restaurant’s toilets and felt frightened at the time.

“I had an experience recently in a restaurant where a man dressed as a woman walked into the toilets. I was on my own in the toilets, he stood behind me and stared at me into the mirror,” she said, adding she had no idea if the person intended her harm.

After the same session, Labour MP Rosie Duffield criticised male party colleagues and said she was “shouted down”.

Ms Duffield (Canterbury) backed the government’s move to block Holyrood’s proposed reforms.She had to raise her voice to be heard above the noise coming from other MPs, including from her own party’s benches. “Absolute rubbish,” Labour former minister Ben Bradshaw could be heard saying from a seated position as she spoke.Ms Duffield said on Twitter afterwards: “Being shouted down in the Chamber by @UKLabour men who clearly don’t want women to speak up for our rights to single sex spaces. How very progressive.