As the UK government’s first and only ever LGBT+ business champion, I am proud that the UK has a long history of being a world leader in championing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bi and trans people.
But there is some truth to the cliché that reputations – like mirrors – once shattered, cannot easily be put back together.
In recent years the UK has fallen down the international rankings for LGBT+ rights respecting countries. Time after time, reports from respected global bodies –whether the United Nations, Council of Europe or ILGA – cite the recent political and media treatment of trans and non-binary people as a reason for significant concern. I meet business leaders from around the world who simply can’t understand how the UK has slipped so far. They ask me: “what exactly is going on in the UK right now?”
Prime minister Rishi Sunak has pledged to govern with compassion, and I know he has a real opportunity to make UK a credible, progressive force in the world.
And yet he is staring into the precipice. His finger is hovering over a button that could cause constitutional crisis, all over the 0.2 per cent of the population who are trans men and trans women. His government is considering whether to block the recently passed Gender Recognition Reform Bill making it to royal assent, by taking a step unprecedented in 23 years of devolution and invoking Section 35 of the Scotland Act.
This is the nuclear option, which would rock the devolution settlement in the UK by undermining the Scottish parliament’s ability to legislate for the Scottish people. The Gender Recognition Reform Bill, which allows trans people from the age of 16 to legally define who they are without years of arduous medical consultations and de-humanising bureaucratic hoops, was passed resoundingly by 86-39 MSPs, with votes from every single party that sits in Holyrood.
I have seen suggestions that the vote was “rushed through”, or that the legislation hasn’t considered the impact of the legislation on the Equality Act. This is just not true. This is the most intensively scrutinised bill, perhaps in the entire history of the Scottish Parliament.
Over the past six years, there have been two consultations (with more than 32,000 responses). The Scottish Parliament’s Equalities, Human Rights and Civil Justice received 10,000 individual responses before hearing eight weeks of evidence from experts and advocates.
And over the course of the following months there would be 36 hours of debate over stages two and three of the bill, as parliament considered 155 amendments. We saw night after night of debate in the wee hours, to consider hundreds of amendments. They debated so long in the Scottish parliament that on one night the lights in the debating chamber literally went out.
Strikingly, all of the major women’s charities in Scotland argued in favour of the bill, including Women’s Aid, Amnesty International, Engender and Rape Crisis Scotland. And the vast majority of female MSPs voted in favour of the bill.
The UK government has had the entire length of this legislative process to engage constructively in the bill, and indeed Whitehall officials have engaged with their Scottish counterparts throughout. To suggest that this is “bad law” that has not been adequately considered is simply a cover for an attempt to use trans people as a political football, driven purely by prejudice and opportunism.
Unfortunately, the UK is not leading the world in this aspect of LGBT+ rights. Ireland passed the same laws back in 2015, and with no adverse consequences. A demedicalised process of gender recognition is now settled law there, as it is in Canada, Argentina, New Zealand, Malta, Norway and many other jurisdictions.
In none of these countries have we witnessed anything go wrong. All that has occurred is that trans people have been given the basic dignity of legally recogising that they know themselves better than anyone else.
This is particularly important when we consider the UK government’s current direction of travel: restricting the range of countries whose gender recognition process it recognises, and intervening to prevent implementation of the Scottish government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill.
The equalities minister’s move to review the list of countries where the UK government has reciprocal arrangements for legal gender recognition, implying that the 14 countries on this list that have adopted a de-medicalised approach are “less rigorous”, is likely to cause diplomatic strife with some of our closest trading partners and allies including Canada, Australia, New Zealand and most of the United States. Why do this now?
This is now a matter of the UK’s reputation internationally, among business, among LGBT+ people, and indeed among Scottish people who voted for a parliament where the vast majority of MSPs stood on manifesto commitments to pass this modest – yet important – bill.
I urge the prime minister to step back and respect the devolution settlement, and allow the bill to pass.
Iain Anderson is the first ever UK government LGBT business champion.