The Scottish National party suffered its largest backbench revolt in its 15 years in power over the vote on its bill making it easier for transgender people to change their legal sex, with one minister resigning in order to vote against the plans.
The community safety minister, Ash Regan, quit, prompting Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister, to accuse her of failing to raise her concerns with colleagues. Seven SNP members voted against the party whip and two abstained.
However, the gender recognition reform bill was voted through stage one to applause across the Holyrood chamber, following an intense and at times emotional debate on Thursday afternoon.
The plans introduce a system of self-declaration for obtaining a gender recognition certificate (GRC), removing the need for a psychiatric diagnosis of gender dysphoria, reducing the time someone must have been permanently living in their gender before they can apply, from two years to three months, and dropping the age at which people can apply from 18 to 16, in line with wider Scots law on legal capacity.
Supported by every party in Holyrood bar the Scottish Conservatives, it was a red line for the Scottish Greens in their cooperation agreement with the SNP following last May’s Holyrood elections.
It was voted through at stage one by 88 votes for to 33 against, with four abstentions, including seven SNP members voting against the party whip and two abstaining. This significant rebellion is reflective of the febrile public discourse that has taken hold around the bill, which is contested by some campaign groups, who argue it will fundamentally alter who can access women-only services and believe they have not been adequately consulted.
In the chamber on Thursday afternoon, supportive MSPs urged colleagues to seek out the testimony of transgender people and suggested that Scottish government delays had allowed a vacuum to develop allowing people “to interpret the bill as something it is not”.
As MSPs debated the bill for the first time, members on both sides of the debate suggested amendments for the government and scrutinising committee to consider at the next stage of the legislative process, underlining that the bill may yet undergo significant revisions.
Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, warned the government should “address the concerns outlined today if they wish to continue to command support right across the chamber”. In her concluding remarks, the social justice secretary, Shona Robison, who has responsibility for the bill, pledged to “give all a fair hearing” at the next stage.
Robison and Joe Fitzpatrick, the convenor of the equalities committee that scrutinised the draft bill before Thursday’s debate and recommended its key principles to MSPs, assured the chamber that many concerns raised were beyond the scope of the bill, and that they were satisfied the bill itself would not change any of the protections or definitions set out in the Equality Act 2010, a key concern of critics.
But the Scottish Conservatives’ equalities spokesperson, Rachael Hamilton, who voted against the plans in committee, warned of critical voices not heard, unanswered questions and overlooked implications of the bill, including uncertainty about what it means to live in the acquired gender. She also referred to concerns raised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission about its cross-border impact and urged the Scottish government to “listen to the legitimate concerns of women and the Scottish public”.
In a deeply personal speech, the Scottish Conservatives’ shadow justice secretary, Jamie Greene, a gay man, broke party ranks to support the bill. He told colleagues: “I know how it feels to be told how you feel is just a phase, or to be suppressed … or is a mental illness.” He described his sadness at hearing the same bad faith arguments used against transgender reform as had been employed against gay rights, but challenged the government to be “more honest” about the bill’s interaction with women’s rights.
Scottish Labour’s Pam Duncan-Glancy, who also sits on the equalities committee, said that “as a disabled woman I know that all rights are hard fought and hard won”.
There were a number of areas in which the bill could be improved, she said, including arbitrary time periods for waiting and reflection, data collection, and the detail of guidance to ensure that medicalisation cannot be reintroduced to the process. She added that her party would propose an amendment to the bill stating categorically that nothing in it affects the protections of the Equality Act.
Responding to calls from Conservative members to delay the bill until the conclusions of the Cass review into care for gender-questioning young people, Robison said clinical services and decision-making bore no relation to the bill under consideration.
Following reports that senior SNP figures had pushed for a free vote on the issue, and with a number of ministers and backbenchers known to have significant doubts about the changes, Regan resigned as community safety minister immediately before the debate, in order to vote against the government.
Accepting her resignation and thanking Regan for her contribution to government, Sturgeon accused her of failing to raise her concerns with colleagues.
An SNP spokesperson said: “As is normal practice, SNP MSPs are expected to support government legislation,” but would not comment on the possible consequences for those who broke the whip.