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by Margaret Taylor
20 December 2022
Scottish Human Rights Commission at centre of row over gender reforms

Scottish Human Rights Commission at centre of row over gender reforms

A member of the Scottish Human Rights Commission (SHRC) has written to the Scottish Parliament’s Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee suggesting that the organisation’s response to a UN rapporteur's concerns about gender reform is not representative of all commissioners’ views.

MSPs are meeting today to discuss final-hour amendments to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill, after yesterday holding an emergency evidence session to hear from two UN experts who disagree on the potential unintended consequences of the legislation.

One – UN special rapporteur on violence against women Reem Alsalem – had previously written to the UK Government expressing her concern that enabling trans people to self-identify in their chosen gender without sufficient safeguards could result in violent men taking advantage of loopholes to abuse women and girls.

Having been asked by the committee to respond to Alsalem’s letter, SHRC chair Ian Duddy said at the beginning of December that the organisation continued to support the government’s reforms, with the SHRC also publishing a briefing note in which it said the “suggested reforms support best practice in human rights”.

However, in a letter sent to the equalities committee yesterday, SHRC commissioner Claire Methven O’Brien, a human rights expert at the University of Dundee, said that she and her fellow commissioners had not been consulted about that response.

She noted that the equalities committee had sought the SHRC’s response to “matters raised” by Alsalem and that Duddy “gave evidence that the SHRC stood by its evidence on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill given to the Equality Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee in June 2022 and that the SHRC was still working on its response to [Alsalem’s] letter”.

“As a commissioner of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, my role and responsibilities are defined by the Scottish Human Rights Commission Act 2006, the UN Paris Principles relating to the status of National Institutions, my terms of appointment by the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, and the SHRC Commissioner’s Handbook (2022), the latter incorporating the Nolan Principles,” she wrote.

“In this context, to supplement and update the oral evidence provided by SHRC on 6 December 2022, I am writing to clarify for committee members that neither the SHRC’s briefing on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill nor its response to [Alsalem’s] letter were subject to collective discussion or decision amongst commissioners.

“In addition, the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill was discussed by SHRC at its formal commissioners’ meeting on 7 November 2022. Whereas one commissioner tabled a paper addressing the legal analysis advanced by SHRC in its previous public positions on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, and proposed that this should be reviewed, following discussion, a vote was called, and the SHRC’s position was sustained on the basis of a majority vote (3:1).”

A spokesperson for the SHRC said: “The Commission welcomes internal debate and discussion on all our policy positions, as reflected in Commissioner Claire Methven O’Brien’s letter to the Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice Committee.

“Our position on the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill is clear and we believe the reforms support best practice in human rights. This long-standing strategic position was re-affirmed at a Commission meeting in November. Following which, we published a short statement and briefing on the progress of the Bill on 7 December and you can read it on the Publications page of our website.

“As Scotland’s National Human Rights Institution, the Commission promotes and protects everyone’s human rights. We recognise the range of views and strength of debate on this issue. We now await the decision of the Scottish Parliament.”

MSPs are expected to sit until 10.20pm tonight to vote on the raft of amendments put forward to the bill. Further debate will take place on Wednesday, with the government expecting the legislation to pass by tomorrow evening.

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