The UK government has blocked a new law designed to allow trans people in Scotland to change their legal gender without a medical diagnosis – a controversial move that added fuel to the already highly emotional debate over Scottish independence.
Scottish Minister Alastair Jack announced on Monday that Westminster had taken the highly unusual step of blocking the Scottish bill from becoming law because it was concerned about its impact on UK equality laws.
Here’s what you need to know:
Scotland passed a new law in December to make it easier for people to change their legal gender.
Under the current system, trans people have to jump through a number of hoops to change the gender marker on their documents. They must have a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria – a condition defined by the distress caused by a mismatch between a person’s body and their gender identity – and prove they have lived in their chosen gender for two years. They must also be 18 years of age or older.
The new rules will remove the requirement for a medical diagnosis, moving instead to self-determination. The waiting period will be reduced from two years to six months and the age limit will be lowered to 16 years.
Activists have long argued that the current process is overly bureaucratic, expensive and intrusive. The Scottish Government held two major public consultations on the issue and proposed the new, simpler rules.
“We believe that trans people should not have to go through a process that can be humiliating, intrusive, distressing and stressful to be legally recognized in their gender identity,” the government said when it proposed the new rules.
In the end, an overwhelming majority of Scottish MPs voted in favor of the change – the final result was 86 for, 39 against.
The bill provoked an emotional reaction from both parties. The debate on the motion was one of the longest and most heated in the history of the Scottish Parliament and the final vote had to be postponed after it was disrupted by protesters shouting “shame on you” at MPs.
Many human rights and equality organizations and activists welcomed the new rules, pointing to a growing number of democracies where self-determination is the norm.
The Equality Network, a leading Scottish LGBTI rights group, said that “after years of growing public prejudice against trans people, things have started to move forward”.
But the bill has also drawn a huge amount of criticism, including from “Harry Potter” author JK Rowling, who said the law could have a detrimental effect on the rights of women and girls.
Rowling and other opponents of the bill argue that the new rules will weaken protections for spaces that are designed to make women feel safe, such as women-only shelters.
The Scottish Government has rejected this argument, saying the law does not change the rules on who can and cannot access single-sex spaces. He also said that experience from countries that have made similar changes shows no adverse impact on other groups.
The campaigns agreed. “There are no downsides,” the Stonewall campaign said. “For example, when Ireland did it, no one else was affected except trans people, who for the first time were able to have their gender recognized in a clear and empowering way by the state.”
Scotland has a devolved government, which means that many, but not all, decisions are made by the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood, Edinburgh.
Scots can make their own laws on issues such as health, education and the environment, while the UK Parliament in Westminster continues to be responsible for matters including defence, national security, migration and foreign policy.
The UK government can stop Scottish bills becoming law, but only in a few very specific cases – for example, if it thinks the Scottish bill would be incompatible with international agreements, with defense and national security interests, or if it thinks the bill will faced a UK-wide law on a matter outside Scotland’s jurisdiction.
Under the rules that determine how Scotland is governed, London has four weeks to review a bill after it is passed by Holyrood, after which it is sent to the king for royal assent, the last official step that must happen before to become law.
The issue is highly controversial as tensions between London and Edinburgh over Scottish independence are already high.
When Scotland last held a referendum in 2014, voters rejected the prospect of independence by 55% to 45%.
However, things have changed since then, mostly because of Brexit.
People in Scotland voted to remain in the EU in a 2016 referendum, and the pro-independence Scottish National Party has argued that Scots have been taken out of the European Union against their will, demanding another independence vote.
The UK government has said it will not agree to a new independence vote and Britain’s Supreme Court managed in November the Scottish Government cannot unilaterally hold a second independence referendum.
This is breaking news and will be updated.
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