UK Government blocks gender reform bill
By Dec Magee
At the end of 2022, the Scottish Parliament passed a bill designed to make it easier for trans people to change their legal sex – the Gender Recognition and Reform (Scotland) Bill.
The bill, which proved controversial to say the least, was one of the most consulted on pieces of legislation in the Scottish Parliament’s history. After five years of consultation, it was passed in Holyrood by a vote with 86 MSPs supporting it, with 39 voting against it.
The UK Government has blocked the bill. It has the power to block bills passed by the Scottish Parliament if it believes that the bill makes changes on reserved matters (i.e. things that only the UK Government can legislate on) or if the bill would indirectly change a law which is reserved to Westminster.
No UK Government has ever used that power before. Meaning we find ourselves in unchartered waters.
Legally, the way forward is not totally clear. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said that she is willing to go to the courts to try and get it unblocked. The Scottish Government will say that nothing in the bill changes any aspect of UK-wide law.
Rishi Sunak’s government will likely say that it does. They may argue that because sex is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act, any law which makes it easier to change sex also impacts or changes slightly how the Equality Act is applied. And thus say that they are legally justified in blocking this bill.
The SNP and the pro-independence side in general, are already arguing that this is evidence of Scotland’s need to break away from the union.
It’s not just those on the pro-independence side that have taken issue with the UK Government’s move. Pro-union MSPs, including Labour’s Monica Lennon and Richard Leonard, and the Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Alex Cole-Hamilton have also criticised the decision from the UK Government.
The National Union of Students has also criticised the move; drafting an open letter, which has been signed by six UK student associations, saying that it is “undemocratic and unjustifiable to block the legislation.”
The fallout from this decision is extensive. But regardless of what happens next, it is undoubtedly the case that this move will be used as an argument for independence.
And this may not even be the only showdown we see between Scotland’s two governments concerning LGBTQ+ rights. This year, we expect that legislation will be introduced to ban conversion therapy.
It’s not clear who will be introducing that legislation. The UK Government has announced its intention to bring this controversial practice to an end.
Regardless, you can expect that 2023 will bring fierce debate, both in terms of LGBTQ+ rights and in terms of Scottish independence. And don’t be surprised if these two issues get brought together.