Today I will make an order under section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 preventing the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill from proceeding to Royal Assent. This order will mean that the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament will not submit the Bill for Royal Assent. This Government believe, however, that trans- gender people deserve our respect, our support and our understanding.
My decision is centred on the consequences of the legislation for the operation of reserved matters, including equality legislation across Scotland, England and Wales. The Scottish Government’s Bill would introduce a new process of applying for legal gender recognition in Scotland. The changes include reducing the minimum age at which a person can apply for a gender recognition certificate from 18 to 16, and removing the need for a medical diagnosis and evidence of having lived for two years in their acquired gender. The Bill would amend the Gender Recognition Act 2004, which legislated for a single gender recognition system across the United Kingdom, and which received a legislative consent motion from the Scottish Parliament.
The approach taken in the Scottish Government’s Bill was the subject of intense debate in the Scottish Parliament. A number of significant amendments were tabled right up until the end of the Bill’s passage, and the Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend Kemi Badenoch, corresponded with and met the Cabinet Secretary, Shona Robison, to discuss the UK Government’s concerns before the Bill had reached its final stage.
I have not taken this decision lightly. The Government have looked closely at the potential impact of the Bill, and I have considered all relevant policy and operational implications, together with the Minister for Women and Equalities. It is our assessment that the Bill would have a serious adverse impact on, among other things, the operation of the Equality Act 2010. Those adverse effects include impacts on the operation of single-sex clubs, associations and schools, and on protections such as equal pay. The Government share the concerns of many members of the public and civic society groups about the potential impact of the Bill on women and girls.
The Bill also risks creating significant complications through the existence of two different gender recognition regimes in the UK, and allowing more fraudulent or bad- faith applications. The Government are today publishing a full statement of reasons alongside the order, which will set out in full the adverse effects that they are concerned about.
Let me now address the claims put forward by those who would seek to politicise this decision and claim that it is some kind of constitutional outrage—[Interruption.] And you can hear them, Mr Speaker; you can hear them. The section 35 power was included in the Scotland Act, which established the Scottish Parliament. This is the first time the power has been exercised, and I acknowledge that it is a significant decision, but the powers in section 35 are not new, and the Government have not created them; they have existed for as long as devolution itself.
We should be clear about the fact that the section 35 power was included in the Act by the architect of that devolution for a reason. Donald Dewar himself noted that the power struck an important balance. It provides a sensible measure to ensure that devolved legislation does not have adverse impacts on reserved matters, including equalities legislation such as the Equality Act 2010. This is not about preventing the Scottish Parliament from legislating in devolved matters, but about ensuring that we do not have legal frameworks in one part of the United Kingdom which have adverse effects on reserved matters.
We should also be clear about the fact that this is absolutely not about the United Kingdom Government’s being able to veto Scottish Parliament legislation whenever they choose, as some have implied. The power can be exercised only on specific grounds, and the fact that this is the first time it has been necessary to exercise it in almost 25 years of devolution emphasises that it is not a power to be used lightly.
I have concluded that the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill would have serious effects on the operation of the Equality Act, and, as I set out in my correspondence with the First Minister yesterday, I would prefer not to be in this situation. We in the United Kingdom Government do all that we can to respect the devolution settlement and to resolve disputes. It is open to the Scottish Government to bring back an amended Bill for reconsideration in the Scottish Parliament. I have made clear to the Scottish Government my hope that—should they choose to do so—we can work together to find a constructive way forward that respects both devolution and the operation of the United Kingdom Parliament’s legislation. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
This is an incredibly serious moment: it is the first time section 35 has been invoked. Donald Dewar, the father of devolution—who has already been mentioned—designed this section to protect devolution. It was passed by all parties in the House and has not been objected to since then. It was intended to be not a blocking but an enabling mechanism, allowing the Scottish Parliament to pass legislation in devolved competences without changing reserved functions. At the time, colleagues of the then Secretary of State expressed concern that it could be used as a “veto”, so a memorandum of understanding was agreed. It stated:
“Although the UK Government is prepared to use these powers if necessary, it sees them very much as a matter of last resort. The UK Government and the administration concerned will therefore aim to resolve any difficulties through discussion so as to avoid any action or omission by the devolved administration having an adverse impact on non-devolved matters.”
May I ask the Secretary of State whether this is a last resort? Did he have extensive discussions with the Scottish Government before taking this action? How many times has he met the Scottish Government before the Bill was passed, during its debate in Holyrood, and since its passage? It appears to me that this has become a last resort only in terms of the legal timing because both Governments cannot and will not work with each other.
The Secretary of State says that section 35 is being used—among other reasons—in relation to the Equality Act. Both the Scotland Act and the Equality Act are landmark pieces of Labour legislation, establishing devolution and enshrining rights to be free of discrimination in law. No one needs to question this party’s commitment to equality: we passed the initial Gender Recognition Act 2004, we brought in the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and we brought the world-leading Equality Act into law. Clearly, however, there is a need for laws passed by Holyrood and those passed by Westminster to interact, and in this case the trans community need that cross-border interaction to work.
The fact that, after 25 years of devolution, section 35 has never been exercised is largely due to the way in which devolution was set up and intended to operate, with Governments having their own agendas but also a common purpose in working together to serve the Scottish people. Now Scotland is saddled with an Administration in Edinburgh who are hellbent on breaking devolution, and a Conservative Administration here in London who are intent on ignoring it. Indeed, the Secretary of State seems to spend more time with Government lawyers trying to stop things happening than making them work, while the Scottish Government spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on lawyers challenging laws that they know are unchallengeable in order to manufacture political grievance.
In this case, it is the public who are let down. Trans people, who suffer intense discrimination, will now not see this legislation take effect any time soon—if at all—and women’s rights groups are likely not to see their concerns addressed or their fears alleviated, because the simple truth is that this has turned into a constitutional bunfight.
I also suggest that the SNP would be rightly screaming, as they are doing today and have done in the past, if a piece of legislation passed in this place had implications for devolved competences. They would challenge that, as is their right. If we are to accept the argument from the Scottish Government that there is no effect on the Equality Act, the courts will surely strike out this section 35 action, as we believe that the Scottish Government will take it to court.
Scottish Labour put the primacy of the Equality Act on the face of the Bill. May I ask the Secretary of State whether the statutory instrument that he mentioned in his statement will give the details of where he thinks it is incompatible? He said last night that there was a version of the Bill that the UK Government could support; what does that look like? However, he also said in his statement that there were complications with two different gender recognition regimes. Is he saying that the Scottish Parliament should not have the competence? As the Bill was being debated in Holyrood, was it not obvious to him and his colleagues that it could contravene reserved law? What did he do about it then?
During the Bill’s passage, Scottish Labour made clear that if it was to work, clear guidance was required. The SNP Scottish Government said that it was for the Equality and Human Rights Commission, not them as the Government, to provide such guidance. Why does the Secretary of State not instruct the EHRC to provide that guidance, look at the cross-border issues that he has mentioned, and provide recommendations in respect of the interaction with the Equality Act? Both Governments should commit themselves to accepting those conclusions—or is the Secretary of State saying that the ball is in the Scottish Government’s court to bring back amended legislation, and that he is now backing out of the process?
We support the principle of updating the Gender Recognition Act, which was world-leading when the Labour Government introduced it in 2004 but now, two decades on, requires modernisation to humanise it and remove the indignities involved in this dreadful process. We have ended up in a legal and constitutional impasse. My final question to the Secretary of State is this: what is he going to do to resolve it?
I shall answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions, hopefully in the right order. This is not a last resort. To understand the Scotland Act, section 33 relates to where UK legislation is directly changed, and section 35 to where it is adversely affected. We have 28 days to make a decision in either case before the legislation goes for Royal Assent. In this case, the legal test that has been given to us and approved by our officials is under section 35, which relates to an adverse effect on two parts of UK/GB legislation. That is where we are at. We have 28 days to make that decision and we have to make a decision in that timeframe. In this case, very senior legal opinion advises us that section 35 is appropriate. This will be seen in my statement of reasons, which we have laid with the order.
On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, officials have been meeting officials in the Scottish Government since the Bill was introduced. After the second stage, the Minister for Gender and Equalities wrote to the Bill Minister expressing her concerns and asking for a meeting. That meeting took place, and her concerns were again expressed at that meeting. Regarding the EHRC, it has said that it is willing to work with and support the Scottish Government if it can. However, it has made it clear that its ongoing concerns are still on record. That is where that rests. I think that addresses all the points that the hon. Gentleman raised.
The Secretary of State outlined in his statement how the UK Government had sought to engage constructively with the Scottish Government during the passage of the Bill prior to its being voted on in the Scottish Parliament, yet Nicola Sturgeon has tried to turn this into a political battle between the Scottish and UK Governments when, as I understand it, all that the Scottish Secretary and this Government are trying to do is protect women’s rights. [Interruption.] Despite the howls from the SNP, will the Scottish Secretary confirm that all the SNP has to do is bring forward a Bill in the Scottish Parliament that protects the rights of women and girls across the United Kingdom?
Yes, and fortunately that addresses one of the points that the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland raised. I can address it here. I have written to the First Minister and suggested that we meet to resolve these issues. It is the case that the Scottish Government’s Bill has adverse effects on those two pieces of legislation. We can see that in the statement of reasons that has been produced by our legal advisers. What is missing are sufficient protections and safeguards for women and children that are reflected in existing Westminster legislation, and that is why I have had to lay this order.
We now come to the SNP spokesperson.
The vetoing of this legislation is an unprecedented attack on the Scottish Parliament, which passed the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill by 86 votes to 39, including MSPs from every party. Gender recognition is a devolved policy area and this does not change the Equality Act 2010 or give any additional rights to those with a certificate. It shortens and simplifies the process and, particularly, ends the requirement for a psychological diagnosis of gender dysphoria. This is in keeping with the guidance from the World Health Organisation and from the United Nations, which recommends change to a legal statutory process based on self-identification. This change has already been made by many countries over the last decade, including neighbours such as Ireland, Belgium and Denmark. This Government are threatening to end UK acceptance of international certificates. I find this bizarre, considering that the former Prime Minister, Mrs May, suggested a similar proposal in 2017.
Will the Secretary of State explain exactly which parts of the Equality Act are changed by the Bill? Why did he not raise specific concerns during the two consultations carried out by the Scottish Parliament or in response to the Cabinet Secretary’s letter in October, rather than in a response that came three days before the final debate on the Bill? What modifications to the Bill is he suggesting that would not include a return to the outmoded medicalised process? Why is he using one of the most marginalised groups in society to pick a fight with the Scottish Parliament? Is he seriously, after 300 years of different marriage ages and voting ages, suggesting that there can no longer be legal or age differences north and south of the border? And does he recognise that vetoing the Bill simply highlights the hollow reality of devolution?
The hon. Lady will not be surprised to hear that I do not recognise much of what she says as being correct. I would point her to the statement of reasons, which will be laid alongside this order today. Our legal advice is clear: the Equality Act 2010 is reserved and there are adverse effects, some of which I listed in my statement only moments ago, including on associations, women’s safe spaces and single-sex schools. It was very clear what I said, and the hon. Lady will see what legal counsel have determined when she sees the statement of reasons.
A Conservative Government are standing up for women’s sex-based rights in Scotland. I congratulate the Government on this decision, which we know will protect women’s sex-based specialist services in areas such as rape crisis. Does the Secretary of State agree, given the verdict of the UN special rapporteur and the verdict of Dr Hilary Cass, which is not yet complete, that it is essential for every corner of the United Kingdom to reach an agreed position on the age limit for a gender recognition certificate?
I call the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee.
This is the single biggest attack on Scottish devolution and Scottish democracy since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999. A move to strike down a piece of legislation that is supported by every single party in the Parliament is as provocative as it is anti-democratic. When the Scotland Act went through Parliament back in 1997 and ’98, the Conservatives called section 35 the “colonial general rule”. Is the Secretary of State now the real-life colonial general imposing his view on a reluctant Scottish Parliament in the name of his and his party’s culture wars?
I come back to my original point. This is a decision that I did not take lightly. It was taken after much consideration of the legal advice that we received and it is based on a section 35 order, which is in the 1998 Scotland Act—an Act brought forward by the Labour party, led through Parliament by Donald Dewar and voted for by the Scottish National party.
Is not the central point here that devolution is not the same as independence? [Interruption.] To the disappointment of some, I accept, but in every devolution settlement, including ours, every devolved legislature has to legislate with consideration for the other parts of the United Kingdom. If that does not happen, section 35 is the appropriate instrument for the UK Government to consider the use of. Is not the visceral reaction to the Government’s temerity in even considering the use of section 35, when there are clear conflicts between the devolved approach and the UK approach, a demonstration that there is no acceptance of the devolution settlement on the part of the SNP at all?
My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. Devolution is about granting powers, not giving away or ceding them. That is what the devolution Act does. Through that Act, Westminster gave powers to the Scottish Parliament but the Act was very clear, and it kept section 33 and section 35 for when there were conflicts. A conflict has arisen here in terms of adverse effects on UK-wide legislation in the two Acts that will be referred to in the statement of reasons.
The Secretary of State claims there is a version of the Bill that the UK Government will accept. Indeed, it has been noted by the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee that the Bill is broadly in line with the recommendations made by the Committee following its inquiry into the Gender Recognition Act. Will the Secretary of State explain why he did not work with counterparts in Holyrood to avoid this unnecessary and unprecedented constitutional collision? Will he make a statement in this House on how the Government will reform the GRA across the UK if they are seeking to block progressive reform in Scotland?
I am carrying out my constitutional role as Secretary of State for Scotland, and this section 35 order is where the legal advice has taken me. The Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend Kemi Badenoch, who is sitting next to me on the Front Bench, is dealing with the policy, and the hon. Lady should raise the point with her.
There are many in this House who agree with the content of the Scottish Government’s Bill, and there are many in this House, including me, who object to its content, but that is not the point at issue. We live in a unitary state, so having different gender recognition certification processes in different parts of the United Kingdom is likely to produce conflict and confusion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it was never part of the devolution settlement that any one part of devolved government in the United Kingdom could effectively make a change, or require a change, for citizens across the whole of our unitary nation?
I welcome the Government’s invoking of section 35, as the Bill clearly conflicts with the Equality Act and would have repercussions for women across the UK. Does the Secretary of State recognise the strength of feeling among women, women’s rights groups and activists in Scotland that this Bill seeks to allow anyone at all to legally self-identify as either sex and, therefore, enter all spaces, including those necessarily segregated by sex, such as domestic violence settings, changing rooms and prisons? Given the previous urgent statement, does he not understand how vital this is at the moment?
The hon. Lady deserves a lot of respect for her courage in standing up on this issue. When she reads the statement of reasons later today, she will be proved right in what she says.
Having served as a Minister in the Scotland Office alongside my right hon. Friend for a couple of years, I know how compassionately and diligently he has looked into these matters. This is a complex issue with lots of consequences, but do we not owe it to everyone to look at these matters dispassionately, to work through the points of conflict and to turn down the dial on some of the heat that has been generated?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that tone is important in these matters, and I have not taken this decision lightly. I took it after due consideration of the legal advice. Yes, let us take the heat out of these matters by dealing with the legal issues, and then let us see if we can find a resolution.
We have had six years of wide consultation, and two thirds of MSPs supported the legislation. That includes MSPs from every single political party in the Scottish Parliament—the SNP, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats—so the Tory Government’s actions are shameful and, actually, quite scary. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that this decision sets a dangerous precedent whereby Westminster dictates and Holyrood must simply shut up and do as it is told?
No, obviously I do not. In 24 years, the Scottish Parliament has passed 347 Acts and the United Kingdom Government have never used a section 35 order. The legal advice deems that we should use a section 35 order this time, which is what we have done because there are adverse effects on UK-wide legislation.
“imposition of anti-discrimination laws has to be handled with great care, because it is all too easy to substitute one type of intolerance of minorities for another”.—[Official Report,
That is exactly what the SNP’s Bill does by denying the rights of women and girls. The important point is that the Labour Minister, Henry McLeish, one of the architects of devolution, responded by saying that human rights might be devolved, but equal opportunities should not be devolved, and that the Scottish Parliament should not
“be able to impose new duties or additional regulation in equal opportunities matters.”—[Official Report,
It was expressly debated in the House of Commons, it was voted on in the House of Commons and the SNP lost their amendment on this topic. Is it not time the SNP respected the devolution settlement? Will my right hon. Friend write to the official Opposition to ask them exactly what their response to his statement means? Why have the architects of devolution been replaced by weasels?
We are fortunate to have among us a colleague of great political sagacity who was there when the legislation was debated. He is right that that democratic Bill went through Parliament with the support of all parties. Section 35, the instrument we are using today, is part of that Bill brought forward by the Labour party and supported by the Scottish National party back in 1998.
Whatever our views about the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, Nicola Sturgeon’s obsession with independence has clouded her judgment and she is showing disregard for the rest of the United Kingdom and its laws. Her own party voted in favour of including section 35 in the Scotland Act. The rights of women and other vulnerable groups should not be pawns in her constitutional game.
Does the Secretary of State agree that invoking section 35 of the Scotland Act is deeply unfortunate but is, however, necessary because the GRR Bill does not take due consideration of UK-wide laws, and that it is Nicola Sturgeon who is failing to respect devolution and the UK-wide Equality Act with her dangerous actions?
I am a committed Unionist, like every Conservative Member, and I respect the devolution settlement, but the principle of one legislature intervening on another could set a significant and serious precedent. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that he is using a section 35 order because of specific legal concerns about the impact of this legislation on all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland, rather than to seek to undermine devolution?
When we hear talk of agreed positions across the UK, the Tory right wingers mean, “Scotland, do as you’re told.” Labour MPs who are being cheered by those guys over there ought to have a look at themselves.
We have had six years of consultation and discussion about the GRR Bill. When did the Secretary of State and this Government suddenly discover that the Bill somehow threatens equal pay? What part of equal pay does he think is under threat?
I believe the liberties and responsibilities of all citizens across the four nations of the UK are equal, which is why, among other things, I keenly supported the extension of same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland. I share the concerns about the rights of biological women to single- sex spaces, but I am most concerned about the capacity of children—minors—to determine their own gender and embark on potentially life-changing physical transformations. This dispute has been confected by the SNP in pursuit of its separatist agenda. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is shameful that the SNP has weaponised vulnerable children in pursuit of that agenda and would impose that agenda on the majority of children across the whole UK?
In my role on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I have, with others, been around the UK looking into scrutiny and the operation of devolution, of which I am a strong supporter. The state of relationships between the Tories and the SNP is deleterious and it is damaging all our rights. The SNP went to court to argue that sex was a legal construct, not a biological one. Therefore, the SNP has landed us in this position and it is trading on people’s rights—it is outrageous. The SNP is disregarding sex-based rights, which is exactly—[Interruption.] It is not acceptable for people who are standing up to talk about women’s sex-based rights to be constantly badgered—[Interruption.] Equally, I do not accept barracking from the men in the corner on the Conservative Benches. What we need to know now—it would be helpful to have the reasons before going forward—is what exactly the UK Government, who have not discussed this in advance of this coming here before us and have behaved outrageously, are expecting the SNP Scottish Government to do to help the rights of transgender people and women.
I will not go into the details of Lady Haldane’s judgment in December, but the hon. Lady is right to say that that has created part of the conflict. Again, that will be laid out in the statement of reasons. We would like the Scottish Government to address the concerns we have as to sufficient protections and safeguards for women and children across UK-wide legislation and for that to be reflected in the Bill.
I welcome the order the Secretary of State made today. I am sure that the legislation passed by Holyrood was well intentioned, but in their unwillingness—I do not know whether this was stubbornness or naivety—to accept that there will be a tiny minority of bad actors, passing that Bill without the amendments proposed by my hon. Friend Douglas Ross and his colleagues means that the Scottish Government are putting the sex-based rights of women and girls across the UK at risk. Is that not the point: this is affecting not just Scotland, but women and girls across the UK?
The real truth of the Gender Recognition Act 2004 discussion is that almost five years ago this Government opened up a consultation on GRA reform and did sweet nothing on it. They opened up that Pandora’s box of fear, hate and misinformation, and then when one part of our country takes action—we all should have taken action—they want to use it for a constructed constitutional crisis. Is it not time that this Government brought forward proper GRA reform on basis laid out in the Scotland legislation and put to bed, once and for all, the lie that this is about equalities?
In response to some comments from those on the SNP Benches, let me say that I am happy to look at myself, stand up here and speak about protections for 16 and 17-year-olds, who would be able to self-ID as a legal opposite sex, travel to this country and then become part of our society. There is a clear read-across to the Equality Act in our country. Having served in the Home Office and seen the desperate need for women and girls to be protected from grooming gangs, predators and sex offenders, I know that having protections for them to access those single-sex based services, which we thankfully have—[Interruption.]
Order. Let’s not have that. Mr Russell-Moyle, you may not agree with what people are saying, but please respect their ability to say what they want to say. That is what we should be doing in this House.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. This is absolutely about safeguards and protecting safe spaces for women and children. She is absolutely right about that, and she also makes the point about the risk of lowering the bar for bad faith actors.
The hon. Lady is right to say that this is unprecedented and there is a very high bar here; this was not a decision I reached easily or took lightly. However, the legal advice was very strong and it was for section 35 to be used, and I have used it. As I said earlier, 347 Acts have gone through the Scottish Parliament in the past nearly 24 years. The system works and the Scotland Act 1998 works. Whether the SNP likes it or not—let us remember that the SNP did vote for it in 1998—it does provide for a section 35 order, and it is for this type of event.
There will be those in this House who agree and those who disagree with the substance of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill. However, the SNP surely knew, as it rushed that legislation through Holyrood, that it would bring it into direct conflict with UK Parliament legislation and with the devolution agreement. Indeed, some may speculate that that was the SNP’s intention. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the SNP should respect the devolution agreement that it voted for and not use women, girls or transgender individuals as pawns in its separatist agenda?
Yes. This is entirely a legal debate we are having. It is about the Scotland Act 1998, and we should not be bringing into it or politicising the transgender community. I was disappointed by the First Minister’s remarks yesterday. We respect those in that community and we value them. This decision is entirely about the legal advice I have received.
We often hear about respecting the Scottish Parliament, but does this not absolutely demonstrate that power devolved is power retained? We accept that the Secretary of State has the powers enshrined in the Scotland Act under section 35, but what he has just done is ignored the fact that parties that voted for this Bill in the Scottish Parliament had a manifesto commitment. The Bill has the majority support of the Scottish Parliament and this absolutely demonstrates to everybody in Scotland that if we want to protect our Parliament, to protect the rights of the Scottish Parliament to legislate on devolved matters, we have to take the threat of action away from the Secretary of State. The only way that we can protect our Parliament is by Scotland becoming independent.
This latest debacle from the SNP just proves to me that it is not fit to govern in Scotland—it is absolutely pathetic. Does the Secretary of State agree that this so-called gender reform Bill from the SNP is just a pathetic, snidey, cynical attempt to use young people on its pathetic pathway to independence?
I listened very carefully to what the Secretary of State said, but I did not hear a clear explanation as to why the Government believe that the Scottish gender recognition legislation conflicts with the UK Equality Act, because all it does is simplify and de-medicalise the process of transition; it does not change the status of somebody who has transitioned. That used to be Conservative party policy. It is also the policy of many other civilised countries—a growing number of countries. It is not good enough for him to say that he will publish something later today. He speaks for the Government, so he needs to be able to explain the rationale for this drastic move here to the House now. The Government also need to explain what they will do with all those foreign nationals who come from countries that already have some form of self-identification. Are the UK Government seriously going to take away their rights retrospectively?
No, we are not. The Minister for Women and Equalities has provided a written ministerial statement on that. There are changes, which include 16 to 18-year-olds self-identifying without any medical diagnosis. But most importantly, in the legal advice that I have—this will be in the statement of reasons, but it is very detailed, so I do not want to bore everyone to death with it now—there is an adverse effect on two pieces of UK-wide legislation, and that is the reason why section 35 is deemed appropriate.
I thank my right hon. Friend for standing firm on the facts against the noise. Does he agree that, rather than manufacturing constitutional battles, the SNP would do better focusing its energies on fixing the failures across Scotland, not least in health and education?
I notice that the Secretary of State fails to mention that this is the most consulted upon piece of legislation that has ever gone through the Scottish Parliament, so this idea that it has been rushed through is nothing more than a lie. As I have said, this is already an attack on devolution. It is an attack using and weaponising the most vulnerable group in our society. On that note, can the Secretary of State say, in his own words, what he thinks the point of the Scottish Parliament is?
The point of the Scottish Parliament is to serve the people of Scotland in the areas that are devolved to it, but, to be clear, within the terms of the Scotland Act. It is not an attack on devolution to use a section 35 order, where that is deemed appropriate by legal counsel, when SNP Members themselves voted for that very Act with that order in it.
I warmly welcome the statement made by the Secretary of State. I also wish to place on the record my support for the heroines, such as J. K. Rowling and others, who stand up despite the continued aggression and violent abuse they receive from certain people in this place and across the Scottish Parliament. Does the Secretary of State agree that this is simply about protecting the right of young girls and women to have safety in single-sex spaces, and that the politicisation of that is an absolute abomination?
I have been contacted by Mackenzie, an inspirational woman I met recently in my constituency. She says:
“I did not choose to be trans. I did not choose to have my rights taken away, and I certainly did not choose to have my life up for debate from people who don’t even know or empathise with my community.”
Can the Secretary of State tell me why, in the absence of the UK doing anything whatsoever about improving trans rights, he is standing in the way of the Scottish Government making progress?
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if this House passed legislation that impinged on what should be a devolved competence, there would be howls of protest from the SNP Benches. [Interruption.] The fact that they are shouting down women in this House over UK-based equality legislation shows that this is not about equality at all; it is all about bashing the UK, and, for them, single sex-based rights is just collateral damage.
My hon. Friend makes a very fair point. For me, this is not about anything other than following the legal advice on the adverse effects on UK-wide equality legislation, which of course involves safe single-sex spaces.
Clearly, as we have heard, there is disagreement about the process contained within the legislation that the Scottish Parliament has passed. Will the Secretary of State clarify something? Whether or not one agrees with that, the net result is that someone would be issued with a gender recognition certificate. In evoking section 35, the Secretary of State argues that this would have serious adverse impacts on the operation of the Equality Act. Can he explain why the same certificate issued under the Equality Act 2004 does not have those adverse impacts?
I stand in full support of the Secretary of State’s decision this morning. Does he agree that the SNP is using this subject to deliberately cause division to further its single-issue campaign of creating an independent Scotland, regardless of the consequences for children and women across this nation?
Conservative Members impinged on devolved competencies in legislation last night when they voted for the anti-strike Bill. Can the Secretary of State tell us this: since the Scottish Parliament passed the gender recognition reform Bill and his decision today, what correspondence has he had with the Scottish Government to try to resolve the issue, or is it him who is a bad faith actor?
As I think I have said, the Minister for Women and Equalities and civil service officials had a number of engagements. My involvement comes after the event, because it is a constitutional involvement. On the gender policy area, it is absolutely for the Minister to have that engagement, and she not only wrote but had a meeting.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement today. Does he agree that it seems quite extraordinary that the criticism of his decision today seems to be that SNP Members would have him not act on legal advice that states that this legislation impinges on the rights of women, children and some of the most vulnerable in our community? If the Secretary of State was not undertaking this action today, that would be a bigger outrage than what we have heard here today. This Government are the defender of the rights of those who are the most vulnerable and who need protecting in our society. It is a disgrace that this has been painted in the constitutional light that it has been by the SNP for its own end, rather than for the rights of women and children in our country.
This Tory Government make me sick to my stomach. If this Secretary of State is going to come to this House and trample all over trans rights, Scottish democracy and equality, he should at the very least do his homework. Clearly, he knows as little about this Bill as he does about devolution. Are he and his Government so scared of democracy and equality that he really thinks it is justifiable to use one of the most marginalised groups in our society as political fodder in their anti-trans, anti-equality and anti-democratic endeavours?
I do not recognise any of those remarks. This is about following legal advice—and not taking the decision lightly—on the adverse effects that this Bill has on two UK-wide, or GB-wide, Acts. That is the position we are in. We have written to the Scottish Government to explain our position. We will lay the statement of reasons later. This has nothing to do with trampling over transgender rights. This is entirely to do with following a legal process and taking the legal advice that we sought.
The Secretary of State knows the value I place on the Union, so I am sure that he will understand how difficult this is for me. However, as a Scottish woman, as the mother of a Scottish daughter, and as someone who has campaigned and continues to campaign and work for women’s safety, I have heard the concerns. I have looked at every clause and amendment of this Bill and spoken with MSP colleagues from all parties, searching for the place where it undermines the Equality Act and the protections that Act offers me and every other woman I know, in single-sex and other spaces. I cannot find it. Some of the UK’s finest legal minds have pored over this hugely scrutinised Bill in great detail and found no conflict. What I can see is where the Bill guarantees that it will not challenge the primacy of the Equality Act. Can the Secretary of State point me to the exact lines of this Bill that he feels undermine my rights and those of every other woman, and justify why he is playing fast and loose with the Union and doing so much to hurt the most vulnerable people in our society?
That is simply not true. I am looking to protect the vulnerable, as the hon. Lady will see. Legal opinion may well be divided on this, but the legal opinion we have taken is that there are adverse effects on the Equality Act and the Gender Recognition Act 2004. I note the First Minister’s comments earlier today that she intends to take this matter to judicial review; we will find out whether the court of opinion that I have been hearing is right or wrong when we go to the legal courts.
I would love to hear more detail from the Minister on the legal advice that has been given, because I am still unclear how this Bill would undermine the Equality Act. Also, is it not true that the only reason we are here is because of the Government’s failure to listen to their own consultation and the 100,000 people responding to it, and because the Government are using trans people as a political football, for example by leaving them out of a conversion therapy ban until—conveniently—this week?
I urge the Opposition to reflect the tone here. This is a legal decision. We need to take the heat out of this debate. We are dealing with a reduction in safeguards for women and children. That is the legal advice we have, and later, when they read the statement of reasons, they will be able to draw their own conclusions.
I am sure that the United Kingdom’s first ever female First Minister is enjoying the lecture from the Secretary of State and the various Cicero tribute acts behind him on feminism and the protection of women’s rights. Is it not the case that we have here a decaying Government in their last months of office needing some red meat for their base, and an utterly supine Labour party trying to triangulate through all of this, while trans people are the collateral damage? Just as section 28 haunted Thatcher’s Government, section 35 will always be associated with the Secretary of State. He must have the statement of reasons in that folder on his knee—let him read it out from the Dispatch Box.
This is a calculated attack on devolution, democracy and trans rights. It is increasingly clear that this tired and bitter Tory Government will weaponise any issue, no matter how sensitive, to subvert devolution. If this is really about the Equality Act, Ministers would be referring this matter to the courts; they would not be withholding their own legal advice, but would be seen to have it tested in the courts, rather than taking, as they are, unprecedented unilateral action. What do they have to say to the Unionist Welsh Labour Minister Vaughan Gething, who today said that this UK Government undermines the Union?
I entirely disagree. We are supporting the Union. The Scotland Act is what we believe in. Section 35 was democratically put there and we believe we must take the legal advice we have. People are telling me to read out the statement of reasons: the statement of reasons and my order have been submitted to the parliamentary authorities, and they will be available within the timeframe that those authorities decide to release them this afternoon. Hon. Members will be able to read everything they want to read there about the reasons behind the decision, but essentially it is about protecting and safeguarding women and children where we believe there are adverse effects.
Against a background of rising hate crime, my trans siblings will be horrified and terrified at the level of misinformation and lies in this Chamber today. Given that the Secretary of State has had a lot of legal advice on this, presumably he has also had briefings. Can he tell us what is the effect of a gender recognition certificate? What does it entitle someone to do?
We believe, as the hon. Lady will see in the statement of reasons—I have made this point very clearly—that there is a reduction in safeguards for women and children. She will have plenty of time to read that today.
The reason the Government cannot tell us exactly what the conflict is with the Equality Act is that there is not one. The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill does not affect the operation of the Equality Act, and everyone in this House knows that full well, because Labour MSP Pam Duncan-Glancy put it on the face of the Bill with her amendment. Will the Minister admit that this section 35 order is really about fanning the flames of a culture war that is harming trans people across the UK?
No—that is an appalling thing to say. This order is entirely addressing the legal advice I have been given, and the legal advice tells me that there is a reduction in safeguards, conflicting with two UK-wide Bills. That is the reason for the section 35 order and that is why the advice was to use it. The advice will be available to all this afternoon.
As has been clarified by my hon. Friend Mhairi Black, this Bill has been under consideration by the Scottish Parliament for six years. If the UK Government thought there was some legal basis for challenging the Bill, why did they not do so in the Supreme Court through a section 33 order before now, as they have done previously?
I do not want to be rude to the hon. Lady, but I am afraid what she has just said shows that she does not understand the Scotland Act or what actions are available to the United Kingdom Government. We cannot bring forward a section 33 order, or invoke section 35, while a Bill is going through the Scottish Parliament. Once the Bill has finished its third and final stage, there is a 28-day process and the legal advice—which I must say is taken on all Bills that the Scottish Parliament passes as part of the devolution settlement—and then we decide what course should be taken, based on the advice we get. On this occasion, the advice is that section 33 is not appropriate, but that section 35 is.
I think it is exceptionally discourteous of the Secretary of State to refer consistently to a statement of reasons that nobody in the Chamber except him appears to have seen. This was not an urgent question or something he did not know about; this was a statement he brought himself. We should have had the statement of reasons before he made this statement. What is it about persistent electoral failure in Scotland that makes him so averse to following the principles of basic democracy?
I thank the Minister for his statement and agree that women and girls must be protected and safeguarded. He will be aware that a precedent was set for the circumnavigation of devolution when the UK Government brought in abortion on demand legislation for Northern Ireland. With great respect to my colleagues and friends—I call the hon. Members representing Scotland my friends—I do not recall those hon. Members defending the cause of Northern Ireland then. Will the Minister confirm that that precedent, supported by many who are opposing this decision today, means that the Government retain the right to step in on what they deem to be questions of equality or human rights?
You would think that before pulling the trigger on section 35 the Secretary of State would be absolutely across his brief, but it seems that he does not have a clue about this at all. We have heard very little about process and even less about substance. He says that the Bill would have a significant impact on, among other things, GB-wide equality matters in Scotland, England and Wales, so what consultation did he have with the Welsh Government or the Senedd before this drastic intervention, or is this really a priority issue for the de facto English Government? With independence looming larger than ever before this crumbling Union, is this not an act of desperate democratic vandalism?
No. The Minister for Women and Equalities, my right hon. Friend Kemi Badenoch, tells me that the UK Government consulted a number of years ago, and Wales would have been included in that consultation. The point is that there is no democratic vandalism, or whatever the hon. Gentleman was saying. The Act that contains section 35 is entirely democratic, and we are now using that order to protect women and children’s safeguards, which we believe are undermined by the cut-across in two GB-wide laws.
In his response to the shadow Secretary of State, my hon. Friend Ian Murray, the right hon. Gentleman said that section 35 of the 1998 Act was not an instrument of last resort, but the memorandum of understanding signed in 2012 made it an instrument of last resort by common agreement, so what discussions on a constitutional basis has the Secretary of State had with the First Minister of Scotland to avoid this impasse?
It is not the last resort. What I said to the shadow Secretary of State was that we have 28 days in which to take legal advice and act. Failing that, the Bill goes for Royal Assent. That is the timeframe we operate in. There is then the opportunity for further discussions with the Scottish Government to see if we can get the legislation in scope. We made the same offer with the UNCRC (Incorporation) (Scotland) Bill, which we took to a section 33 order, and that offer still stands. We are happy to discuss with the Scottish Government what amendments could be made to the Bill to get it in scope so that it does not have adverse effects on UK-wide legislation. There is never quite a last resort when you can go on talking, discussing and trying to resolve your differences.
It is true that under section 35, UK Ministers have the right to interfere in Scottish legislation on the grounds of defence, national security or international obligations, or if the Scottish legislation modifies or has an adverse effect on UK reserved law—that much is clear. But given that the Tory Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes said that the GRR legislation
“doesn’t change the Equality Act”,
and that the Scottish Secretary has been signally incapable of giving a single example of where it might do so, this is not a debate about process; it is a debate about principle. Would it not be better, instead of interfering and engaging in a rather crass culture war, if the Scottish Secretary apologised to trans people, apologised for trampling over Scottish democracy, folded up his little red folder, and removed the threat to interfere?
I stand in solidarity with Scottish colleagues across the political spectrum. It is worth pointing out that we work to harmonise equality rights issues, but the UK is not a unitary state in these matters. The Secretary of State has jumped backwards and forwards in describing the Equality Act either as UK-wide or Great Britain-wide, but to make very clear for the record, it does not apply in Northern Ireland. Does he recognise that similar legislation has been in place in the Republic of Ireland for more than seven years now? We in the UK have a common travel area with Ireland, which has reciprocal rights in freedom of movement, social security and other areas. If the Government can manage to live with Ireland’s different system for gender recognition, why can they not do so for Scotland?
Last time I looked, the Republic of Ireland was not part of Great Britain or the United Kingdom. It is absolutely the case that we are talking about British citizens being affected. I am told that no devolved Administration anywhere in Europe has different gender rules from the state.
It is regrettable that the Secretary of State has come here today with so little information on the issue. I think that all those in the very vulnerable group who are impacted by what he wants to do deserve significantly better than him standing up repeatedly with absolutely no information and telling us that a statement of reasons will be published later. Yet he is unable to tell us what those reasons are. It is his job to tell us what they are, and he has signally failed to do so. It is no wonder that his former colleague Andy Maciver, the former head of communications for the Scottish Conservatives, has described the UK Government’s intervention as
“an act of constitutional vandalism” that demonstrates
“Westminster’s superiority complex in overdrive”.
Does the Secretary of State recognise that people will reasonably and rightly feel that way, and that, as well as their concerns about this marginalised group, they will feel extremely unhappy about the overriding of our democracy?
No. I hope people will realise that the United Kingdom Government have been given legal advice that raises concerns for women and children, for their safeguards and protections, and about adverse effects to UK-wide legislation, and that we are acting on that advice and have the backs of women and children across the United Kingdom, including in Scotland, if safeguards and single-sex spaces and so on are impinged upon. If that is the concern in the statement of reasons, we believe it right to act on it for all citizens of Great Britain.
In 2021, the Women and Equalities Committee published a report stating clearly that the gender recognition certificate did not—as is still the case—impinge on the rights of women or girls. It stated unequivocally that the exclusions applied in all instances and that women and girls would continue to be protected regardless of the gender recognition certificate. The same applies in the case of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, and nothing in the proposals contradicts that. Will the Minister outline clearly to the House what legal advice he has been given? We are still waiting for an answer.
Is that it? These answers are absolutely pathetic. Why can states and territories in the US, Canada and Australia successfully operate self-ID without interference or complaint from either neighbouring territories or central Government, but it cannot happen here even though we are supposed to have the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world?
Why does the equalities unit fact sheet produced by the Government for their own consultation on self-ID state clearly:
“There will be no change to the provision of women-only spaces and services… This has been the law since 2010 and will not change”?
The Secretary of State is scrabbling around for legal advice to peddle myths in this Chamber, isn’t he?
Perhaps the Secretary of State could take some heat out of this argument by confirming a few matters of fact of which a lot of his colleagues seem to be unaware. Can he confirm that this rushed piece of legislation has been under six years of scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament? Can he confirm that during that period and the last Scottish Parliament elections, an overwhelming majority of MSPs were elected on explicit manifesto commitments in favour of this legislation? Can he confirm that there is absolutely nothing in this legislation that makes any difference to the rights or ability of anybody to go into any protected single-sex space in Scotland or anywhere else in the world? Finally, when he eventually has the courtesy to let us see what he intends to put forward and the advice on which it is based, will he guarantee that this House will have a further chance to consider and vote on what he is proposing?
I did not catch everything the hon. Gentleman said—my tinnitus gets the better of me sometimes. As to all the legal reasons, we have covered that a hundred times today. As to whether there will be a chance for another debate and another vote, my understanding of section 35 is that the Opposition have 40 days to pray against it, and that would then lead to a debate in this Parliament.
The Secretary of State for vetoing Scotland will be disappointed when he eventually gets to the House of Lords, because, even for all its faults, the House of Lords does not have the kind of veto power that he is exercising today. Even if the United States President vetoes a Bill, it is subject to checks and balances from Congress. Further to what my hon. Friend Peter Grant just said, if a motion is tabled praying against the section 35 order, will the Government guarantee that time will be made available for a debate and a vote on the Floor of the House?
In the Secretary of State’s statement, he said:
“It is open to the Scottish Government to bring back an amended Bill for reconsideration in the Scottish Parliament.”
What provisions would need to be added or taken away from the original Bill to make it acceptable to this Government?
Regarding any amendment to the Bill, if the Scottish Government want to bring it back, they have to address the central issue—I know there are difficulties for them with this—which is that we do not believe, in the cross-cut against GB legislation, that there are sufficient protections and safeguards for women and children, as reflected in existing Westminster legislation.
No, I want to get through the ten-minute rule Bill. I will take points of order after that, depending on what the House decides.