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by Andrew Learmonth
27 January 2022
Nicola Sturgeon questions equality watchdog intervention in trans law reform debate

Nicola Sturgeon questions equality watchdog intervention in trans law reform debate

Nicola Sturgeon has questioned the UK’s equality watchdog after it urged the Scottish Government to carry out "more detailed consideration" of plans to reform gender recognition laws. 

The First Minister said the intervention from the chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was a marked change in the body’s position. 

A number of LGBTI organisations have distanced themselves from the organisation following the statement, with Stonewall calling it “an attack on trans equality”.

However, 15 feminist groups have released a joint statement welcoming the body’s letter to social justice minister Shona Robison, and have accused the government of failing to “engage with concerns about the impact of proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) on women and vulnerable young people.”

The new proposals - which could be in front of MSPs within weeks - seek to simplify the process of obtaining a gender recognition certificate by removing the need for a formal diagnosis of gender dysphoria and the requirement for a trans person to live in their acquired gender for two years. 

On Wednesday, Baroness Kishwer Falkner, the chair of the EHRC, wrote to Robison to say there were concerns “on the potential consequences for individuals and society of extending the ability to change legal sex from a small defined group, who have demonstrated their commitment and ability to live in their acquired gender, to a wider group who identify as the opposite gender at a given point.”

“As such, we consider that more detailed consideration is needed before any change is made to the provisions in the Act,” the crossbench peer added.

Tory MSP Meghan Gallagher raised the letter with Sturgeon during First Minister's Questions.

Gallagher said: "[The EHRC] outlined the need to improve healthcare services for transgender people and potential consequences of self identification such as collection of data, participation and drug testing in sports, measures to protect barriers facing women and practices in the criminal justice system. 

"Does the First Minister acknowledge the concerns raised by the EHRC and which part of society does the First Minister believe will bear the brunt of these consequences and how does she propose to mitigate those impacts if her government maintains its current plans?"

The First Minister said the letter represented a "significant change in the position" of the EHRC.

She pointed to the body’s submissions to the Scottish Government’s two previous consultations held on GRA reform.

She said: "In response to the 2017 consultation it said this - ‘the Gender Recognition Act 2004 is far removed from reflecting best practice and has a significant negative impact on the lived experience of trans people’.

"In the 2019 consultation on the draft bill it said, ‘the Commission considers that a simplified system for obtain legal recognition of gender would better support trans people to live their lives free from discrimination and supports the aims of the draft bill’.

"Obviously it’s for the Commission to say why its position has changed but I think it’s important for me to narrate that it is a change in position.

"I’m also slightly concerned at some of what I consider doesn’t accurately characterise the impact of the bill.

"What the bill seeks to do or will seek to do is simplify an existing process. It doesn’t confer any new rights on trans people, nor does it change any of the existing protections in the Equality Act, so it doesn’t change the current position on data collection or the ability of sports organisations to take decisions, for example.

"We’ll continue to engage with a range of organisations but let me stress again this is a bill designed to simplify an existing process to reduce the stress, trauma and the anxiety and often stigmatisation that trans people suffer in our society, and of course the Government will set out its plans for the timetable of that legislation in due course."

Following FMQs, fifteen groups, including Fair Play For Women, FiLiA, For Women Scotland, Keep Prisons Single Sex, LGB Alliance Scotland, and MurrayBlackburnMackenzie, released a statement calling for the government to work with “interested parties to support a careful and respectful discussion of potential changes to the law”. 

Marion Calder, co-founder of For Women Scotland, said: “Despite the fact that there have been two consultations, the minister gave us no confidence that she had considered the impact of these reforms on women. 

“At every turn, she shirked responsibility for maintaining existing legal protections for women and girls. The reality is that it will be low-paid, frontline workers who are left to make on-the-spot decisions to gatekeep women only spaces. 

“Nor would she be drawn on whether sports should be segregated by sex, choosing instead to shunt responsibility to sports governing bodies. The message we took from our meeting is that the Scottish Government has not been listening to women, and given that draft legislation will be introduced in a matter of weeks, this ‘listening’ exercise has been nothing but a sham process.”

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