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by Kirsteen Paterson
03 June 2024
Labour will 'modernise' gender laws but would not lift Section 35 veto, Ian Murray says

Ian Murray was interviewed by Mandy Rhodes. Photography: Louise Haywood-Schiefer

Labour will 'modernise' gender laws but would not lift Section 35 veto, Ian Murray says

Labour shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray has said he would not lift the Westminster veto against Scotland's gender recognition reforms.

However, he signalled that the Labour manifesto will contain provisions to "modernise" some equality laws.

Proposals to introduce a system of self-identification making it faster and easier for transgender people to change their sex on legal documents were passed by the Scottish Parliament in late 2022.

But it was blocked from becoming law by Scottish Secretary Alister Jack in what was the first ever use of Section 35 powers enshrined in the devolution settlement.

The power allows UK ministers to veto an act of the Scottish Parliament where it believes that the legislation could conflict with reserved legislation.

The Scottish Government called the move an "attack on devolution" but Jack said the proposals would impact the UK-wide Equality Act, which includes protections for women-only spaces and services.

The Conservatives have now pledged to rewrite that Act due to "confusion around definitions of sex and gender".

The move would see the Act redrawn to specify that the protections it offers against discrimination on the basis of sex apply only to biological sex.

And it would see gender reassignment reclassified as a reserved issue under the control of the UK Government.

First Minister John Swinney called that an "explicit, outright threat" to devolution and accused the Conservatives of "using any excuse they can to erode the powers of the Scottish Parliament".

Labour shadow defence secretary said his party will produce "clearer guidance" on the Equality Act.

And, speaking to Holyrood, Murray - who is seeking reelection in Edinburgh South - has said he would not overturn Jack's veto if he succeeds him as Scottish secretary.

Murray said: "The simple thing is I wouldn't lift the Section 35. We didn't oppose the Secretary of State using it in the first place, what we did oppose was the fact that we waited.

"He shouldn't have had to use it, but in the end, he did and the courts have determined that he was right to do so and therefore we wouldn't lift it. The ball is in the court of the Scottish Parliament, in the Scottish Government now to do something about it, if they so wish to do so. I suspect, like all of these issues - and this is something that the Tories are guilty of as well - the SNP won't do anything about it because it's better to have the issue boiling in the background than it is to actually try and resolve it."

When asked "what is a woman", Murray said: "It's a biological adult female.

"I always felt sorry for Keir [Starmer] when he got the 'does a woman have a penis?' question because he answered it as a lawyer, not as a politician. And actually, he was he was right - his answer was bang on. You know, people in law who are classified as women could have a penis. And that's probably true technically, but that's not the answer people were looking for. 

"I think those kinds of questions have pretty much undermined the quality of the debate to a certain extent, because that's not what the debate should have been about. And the other thing I keep reminding people is the Gender Recognition Act of 2004 was ours, the Equality Act was ours, the Disability Discrimination Act was ours. We've always done stuff to improve things by bringing people with us."

On the need to reform the Equality Act, Murray said legislation is "never perfect". 

He went on: "I think the position that we're going to be in, in terms of our manifesto provisions, will be in the right place trying to do something about the modernisation of the GRA [Gender Recognition Act], whilst respecting women's rights and women's single-sex spaces, and trying to clarify all of that so that trans people get what they need but at the same time, women get the protections that they require."

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