The final vote on the Scottish government’s long-awaited changes to simplify how someone can legally change gender has been delayed until Thursday after two days of fraught, chaotic and sometimes emotional debate among MSPs.
With discussion of more than 150 amendments continuing late into Wednesday night, the decision was taken by Holyrood business managers to reschedule the crunch vote for Thursday afternoon rather than have the session run on into the early hours. It concluded at about 1.30am.
It follows two days of marathon sittings, punctuated by angry protests from the public gallery, lengthy suspensions to consider parliamentary procedure and growing frustration at delaying tactics from the Scottish Conservatives, who have employed repeated interventions and points of order with the aim of postponing the vote into the new year.
Six years after it was proposed by the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, following two public consultations and amid an increasingly toxic and polarised political discourse, the bill is poised to remove the need for a psychiatric diagnosis of gender dysphoria in order to obtain a gender recognition certificate (GRC) and extend the application process to 16- and 17-year-olds for the first time.
Scotland’s new self-identification system will also reduce the time someone must have been permanently living in their acquired gender before they can apply – from two years to three months, or six months for people aged 16 and 17 – with a three-month reflection period during which an individual can change their mind.
Despite the concerns of SNP backbenchers, which resulted in the biggest revolt for the party in 15 years in power at the first reading, the bill is expected to pass comfortably with support from the Scottish Greens and the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
With doubts over the bill cutting cross-party, a number of Labour members – who will be whipped to vote in favour – are also expected to rebel, while a handful of Tories, who have been allowed a free vote, will support it.
After Tuesday’s lengthy sitting ended after midnight only when the Holyrood chamber’s lights went out on automatic timer, weary MSPs returned for a second day of technical deliberations.
There was another lengthy suspension early in Wednesday’s proceedings while the presiding officer considered whether to accept a last-minute amendment from the Tory equalities spokesperson, Rachael Hamilton. She wanted MSPs to consider the recent ruling from the court of session that, for the purposes of the Equality Act, the definition of “woman” extends to transgender women with a GRC.
Although her amendment was not allowed, Shona Robison, the Scottish government minister leading on the bill, said the ruling “made it absolutely clear that the Scottish parliament cannot modify the Equality Act”.
Robison also insisted that “trans rights are not in competition with women’s rights”, and that the proposals would be a “significant step forward in creating a more equal Scotland, where trans people feel valued, included and empowered”.
In a passionate intervention, Ash Regan – the former SNP minister who resigned in protest before the first stage of the bill – described the potential implications of the bill as “unprecedented” in expanding the group of people who can apply for a GRC, warning that – regardless of amendments – the bill “comprehensively undermines single-sex exemptions” and sent a message to women and girls that “you don’t matter”.
The session was suspended again just after 9pm when an MSP was taken unwell.
Later, the Scottish Tory education spokesperson, Stephen Kerr, characterised the amendments under discussion as desperate attempts “to make bad law less bad”, accusing the Scottish government of “ramming this through parliament with inadequate time for reflection, for amendments to be properly considered, for evidence to be gathered from witnesses who have thus far been denied a voice”.
As the debate commenced, about 500 protesters, mainly women and many dressed in the purple, green and white suffrage colours adopted by opponents of the bill, gathered outside the parliament building.
Amid chants of “Shame”, there was particular anger expressed that a clutch of safeguarding amendments had been voted down on Tuesday night.
SNP MP Joanna Cherry, an outspoken critic of the plans, said senior Scottish government ministers had said repeatedly “that this gives no new rights to trans people. What the bill does is give new rights to everyone so that anyone can self-identify as the opposite sex with minimal safeguarding”.
On Tuesday the Scottish government accepted a cross-party amendment from the SNP’s Gillian Martin and Scottish Tory Jamie Greene that would mean anyone convicted of a sexual offence who wants to apply for a certificate will need to be fully risk-assessed.