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UK Govt blocks Scotland’s transgender law in unprecedented move

In a constitutional first, Downing Street has blocked Nicola Sturgeon’s controversial transgender reforms after concluding that the new law would have “chilling effects” on the safety of women-only spaces across Britain.

The move will stop the new law, approved in December, in its tracks, which lowers the age people can apply to legally change their gender to 16, and makes it easier and faster to obtain a gender recognition certificate. Women’s groups have strongly opposed the measure, saying it would allow bad-faith actors or predatory men to gain access to women-only spaces because of the ease by which gender could be legally changed. 

The decision, approved by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, along with Scottish Secretary Alister Jack, means that the controversial Gender Recognition Reform Bill will now be vetoed. Jack said he had reached the conclusion that the Bill would be of detriment to the operation of British-wide equalities legislation after he took in-depth legal advice on the impact it would have.

Writing to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, a strident advocate of the Bill, he said that an order stopping the legislation, would outline “in full the adverse effects” of the proposals, including the impact the law would have on “the operation of single-sex clubs, associations and schools, protections such as equal pay and chilling effects on single-sex spaces”.

He also highlighted the complications the Bill could create, arising from a scenario where a person would be regarded as legally male in Scotland but female in England, or vice-versa, adding that this was “significant”.

Complications would be further exacerbated, he said, by the legislation permitting those as young as 16 to change their legal gender, unlike in the rest of the UK. He said this would result in “more fraudulent or bad faith applications”.

The Scottish Secretary said he recognised the decision was “significant” – it is the first time that an order will be tabled under Section 35 of the Scottish Act to veto a Holyrood Bill. 

He said that the decision was made on the basis of the legislation’s consequences for UK-wide protections. He also said he hoped that he and Ms Sturgeon could work together to bring forward an amended Bill to address the underlying problems – adding that those seeking to change their gender “deserve our respect, support and understanding”.

First Minister Sturgeon seemed unaccepting of Mr Jack’s olive branch – as she took to Twitter to describe the blocking of the Bill as a “full-frontal attack on our democratically elected Scottish Parliament and its ability to make its own decisions on devolved matters”.

She said she would “vigorously defend” the legislation as it is by applying to the Court of Session in Scotland for judicial review. It is possible that Sturgeon could ultimately appeal the case to the UK Supreme Court. 

Just hours before the decision was announced, she had told a media briefing that she was “very, very very confident” that the Bill would succeed, while making the claim that the UK government was using transgender people as “a political weapon”.

The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill sought to amend the Gender Recognition Act 2004 of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, making it easier for people to legally change their gender.

Under the terms of the proposed new legislation, those wishing to change their gender legally would no longer be required to have a diagnosis of gender dysphoria to apply for a gender recognition certificate.

The proposed amendment would also have allowed a reduction of the period that trans people seeking legal recognition of their gender must have lived in their acquired gender from two years to three months. The requirement that a Gender Recognition Panel consider and be satisfied by the required evidence would also have been removed.

Subsequently, the applicant would obtain a gender recognition certificate that certifies them legally in that gender. 

Transgender activists have argued that the current process to legally change one’s gender is too complicated and invasive. However, campaigners have long expressed worries about the gender recognition reforms – with a United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, who, in November wrote to the Scottish Parliament, issuing a stark warning that such reforms could allow violent males to “abuse” the system.

Despite concerns and warnings, the Bill went on to be passed by 86 votes to 39 at Holyrood days before Christmas.

Speaking when he visited Scotland last week, Mr Sunak said that it was “entirely reasonable and standard” to look at the impact the Bill would have on the rest of the UK.

The Scottish Secretary is today expected to lay the order in the Commons, along with a statement of reasons explaining the UK Government’s concerns around the legislation. He is also expected to issue a parliamentary statement.

“I have not taken this decision lightly,” he said on Monday. “The Bill would have a significant impact on, amongst other things, GB-wide equalities matters in Scotland, England and Wales. I have concluded, therefore, that this is the necessary and correct course of action”.

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