Gender Recognition Reform Bill: SNP could work with UK Government to fix Bill's flaws, but a stairhead rammy looks more likely – Jo Mowat

On Saturday, I met some of the girls I was at school with for dinner. As we have had or hurtle towards our 50th birthdays, a trip north by one of our number was the catalyst for a small reunion.

During the usual catch-up conversations, there came the inevitable questions: what do you do, what does that involve? Once I’ve finished reporting bin and pavement-related issues for constituents, I then spend a lot of time making decisions – on policy and also on individual planning and licensing issues that directly affect individuals.

At a policy level, the advantages and disadvantages are usually presented in a more abstract way. How we make decisions and recent ones made by our legislators are very much in the news this week.

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The Scottish Secretary’s use of a section 35 order to prevent the sending of the Gender Recognition Reform Bill to the King for Royal Assent erupted across the airwaves on Monday night and across newspaper pages on Tuesday. A wall of fury has been unleashed from the First Minister down, declaring what an affront to democracy and devolution this is.

Section 35 of the Scotland Act (1998) was debated at the time and is part of the framework under which the Scottish Parliament operates. It is not new, nor is the mechanism by which every law in the Scottish Parliament is checked to ensure that there is no conflict with those matters reserved to Westminster.

In this case, the Secretary of State for Scotland has indicated that there is a conflict with the Equalities Act of 2010 and equalities are reserved to Westminster. He also stated in his initial statement that there is a willingness to work with the Scottish Government to look at ways of amending the Bill so it can be brought back with this issue resolved. At the time of writing, it appears that the First Minister is determined to see Alister Jack in court rather than try to find the necessary accommodation to allow the matter to progress.

The passage of the GRR Bill has exposed deficiencies in the Holyrood committee system which need to be reviewed. The issue of the interaction of the Bill with the Equality Act 2010 was raised in submissions to the committee examining evidence in 2019 and this matter has remained unresolved.

The use of a section 35 order should not be seen as a “nuclear option” – using a provision written into the statute that devolution operates under is devolution in action. It is unfortunate that its first use should be over such a highly controversial Bill, and many will be dismayed because it is unlikely that the necessary cool heads needed to address this will prevail. We risk further shouting at each other rather than constructive work to resolve an unaddressed issue. Had this been addressed at a committee or chamber stage, the Secretary of State would be unable to issue the section 35.

Nicola Sturgeon should realise the sector 25 order over the Gender Recognition Reform Bill is part of the devolution process (Picture: Lesley Martin)

It is my sincere hope that the First Minister and Scottish Secretary can work together to find the necessary accommodation and address the deficiencies in this Bill but, given the propensity for a stairhead rammy in the current state of Scottish politics, that seems unlikely.

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Jo Mowat is a Conservative councillor for the City Centre Ward