Nicola Sturgeon has accused the Scotland secretary of acting “like a governor general” in a further escalation of hostilities between the Westminster and Holyrood governments.
Scotland’s first minister said Alister Jack’s decision to block her government’s gender recognition law marked “a new and more dangerous phase for devolution”, hours after he refused an invitation from the Holyrood equalities committee to discuss the move.
In a speech to the Business for Scotland annual dinner in Glasgow on Thursday night, the Scottish National party leader said: “The Tories have broken cover. The stealth attacks have been joined by a full-frontal assault – the decision of the Tory government to strike down a law clearly within devolved competence which was passed overwhelmingly in the Scottish parliament, and which was supported by MSPs from all parties.”
Jack told MPs on Tuesday he was making a section 35 order under the 1998 Scotland Act, which created the devolved parliament, to prevent the gender recognition reform bill – passed by Holyrood at the end of December – from receiving royal assent.
This prompted a furious response from nationalists and supporters of the bill’s key aim to simplify how an individual changes their legal gender, who accuse the UK government of dragging trans people into a cynical attack on devolution.
Jack argues the Holyrood bill has significant implications for UK-wide equality legislation, which is reserved to Westminster, with ramifications for equal pay, single-sex schools, and single-sex membership of cross-UK clubs or associations.
Sturgeon added: “Through his actions the UK government secretary of state for Scotland is demonstrating he is sadly not interested in working in partnership. He’s decided to act like a governor general: treating the Scottish parliament as a subordinate body and deciding which democratic decisions and laws to veto.”
Also on Thursday, Jack told Holyrood’s equalities committee, which scrutinised the gender bill last year, that he was unable to attend its meeting next Tuesday. He suggested Kemi Badenoch, the UK equalities minister, was the more appropriate minister to invite and the committee has done so.
Immediately after, Holyrood’s constitution committee wrote to Jack, asking him to give evidence on 26 January at a session about the constitutional implications of the section 35 order.
Speaking on a levelling up visit to the Palace theatre in Kilmarnock, Jack said the “ball is in [the Scottish government’s] court”, suggesting it could “look at the legislation again”.
He said he did not take the decision “at all lightly”, adding: “This is not about trans, it’s not a culture war, it is entirely about a bill which legally cuts across UK-wide legislation.”