By Jonathon Van Maren
In what Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is calling a “full-frontal attack” on the Scottish Parliament, the U.K. Conservative government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has decided to block the Scottish National Party’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill under Section 35, stating that the draft law would conflict with the U.K.’s Equality Act.
It is an unprecedented move – while the U.K. government has previously challenged Holyrood laws on the premise that Members of Scottish Parliament have exceeded their powers, they have never stopped a bill due to its effect on U.K. law. In this case, the U.K. ministers explicitly cited the Gender Recognition Reform Bill’s impact on women’s rights.
Section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 prevents the law from proceeding to Royal Assent.
The Gender Recognition Reform Bill, as we reported last fall, is incredibly controversial even in Scotland, with a majority of Scottish voters opposing the move and many politicians decrying what they called an attack on female-only spaces. Despite that opposition, Sturgeon even voted against an amendment that would have barred violent criminals from legally changing their identity to female, a move that prompted cries of “Shame on you!” in Scottish Parliament.
Sturgeon, however, is vowing to “defend” her bill and will challenge the ruling in court, likely through a judicial review. “In doing so we will be vigorously defending something else, and that is the institution of the Scottish parliament and the ability of MSPs, democratically elected, to legislate in areas of our competence,” she told the BBC.
Secretary of State for Scotland Alister Jack laid out the U.K. government’s reasoning for the unprecedented move. While he took pains to affirm Westminster’s support of the transgender community, he also affirmed the concerns of critics that Sturgeon and her colleagues had rejected. The bill, he noted in a letter to Sturgeon, would have a “significant impact” on protections in existing law, and the BBC reported that he “cited concerns over its effect on legal rights to run single-sex clubs, associations and schools, as well as rules on equal pay for men and women. He added that having ‘two different gender recognition schemes in the U.K.’ risked creating ‘significant complications,’ including ‘allowing more fraudulent or bad faith applications.’”