A Holyrood committee tasked with scrutinising the Scottish government’s gender recognition reform bill has given its support to the key principles for simplifying how transgender people can update their birth certificates – including the introduction of self-declaration.
The report comes a day after the Equality and Human Rights Commission, in its second public intervention on the bill, detailed concerns about the cross-border impact of the legislation and raised the prospect the Westminster government may not recognise the new Scottish certificates in the rest of the UK.
Thursday’s report by Holyrood’s equalities, human rights and civil justice committee recommends, by a majority of five to two, the move to statutory self-declaration before the registrar general for legal gender recognition, thus removing the need for a psychiatric diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
It also supports reducing the age at which people can apply for a gender recognition certificate (GRC) from 18 to 16, in line with wider Scots law on legal capacity, as well as reducing the time someone must have been permanently living in their gender before they can apply, from two years to three months.
After a series of lengthy evidence sessions, the committee’s recommendations will now be debated by all MSPs on 27 October, after which the bill will be subject to further scrutiny and amendments.
The Gender recognition reform bill is supported by every party in Holyrood bar the Scottish Conservatives, but has been fiercely contested by some groups who argue it will fundamentally alter who can access women-only services, and believe they have not been adequately consulted.
As several hundred protesters gathered outside the Holyrood parliament building to demonstrate against the plans on Thursday morning, JK Rowling – an opponent of self-declaration – posted a photograph of herself on Twitter wearing a T-shirt reading: “Nicola Sturgeon destroyer of women’s rights” and declared her solidarity with them.
The report acknowledges these concerns about single-sex spaces, but argues they go beyond the scope of the bill’s provisions: most of the committee is satisfied the changes “will not change any of the protections or definitions set out in the Equality Act 2010, including the ability to exclude trans people from single-sex services where proportionate and appropriate”.
The committee said: “The majority is satisfied that the bill will not change or remove women’s rights, make changes to how toilets and changing rooms operate, redefine what a man or a woman is, nor change or expand trans people’s rights … Further, the majority recognise that, when asked about evidence of abuse and concerns, no witness was able to provide concrete examples.”
The report concludes that the legal status of a statutory declaration, along with the fact that making a false declaration is an offence, create a sufficiently robust process in line with international human rights best practice.
The report also acknowledges concerns about lowering the age of access from 18 to 16, but concludes “based on the evidence gathered, it is clear that most young people reach decisions about their gender identity long before they consider applying for a GRC”, while calling for extra support to be put in place for younger applicants.
Vic Valentine, the manager of Scottish Trans, welcomed the report and urged MSPs to vote in favour of the reforms “to make a real difference to the lives of trans people in Scotland”.
The Scottish government’s social justice secretary, Shona Robison, said the bill aimed to improve the current system, which many trans people found “intrusive, medicalised and bureaucratic”, and that the government would carefully consider the committee’s report before the next stages of the bill.
The report also notes the need for smooth cross-border operation, something called into question by the EHRC on Wednesday, when it published correspondence to the Scottish and UK governments, calling on them to “work constructively together” before the legislation proceeds.
The commission warned it “may be difficult for trans people with Scottish GRCs to be certain of their legal status and rights”, and could cause confusion for employers and service providers navigating two systems alongside the Equality Act, with a potential for further litigation.
But the Holyrood committee report highlighted what it described as “inconsistent evidence” given in session by the EHRC, which supported the changes until early this year, stating MSPs “are not persuaded that it has provided justification in oral or written evidence of their change of view”.
The director of Stonewall Scotland and Northern Ireland, Colin Macfarlane, responded that the commission had “failed to provide any credible evidence as to why Scotland would be an outlier” given that the UK already recognised equivalent certificates from all EU/EEA countries, including by countries that had a de-medicalised model of legal gender recognition.
On Tuesday, the Scottish government’s expert advisory group on conversion practices recommended a comprehensive criminal ban on attempts to change someone’s sexuality or gender, suggesting that Scotland will further diverge from the rest of the UK in terms of transgender law reform.