Gender reform bill pantomime is no laughing matter

Politics

The inevitable Commons row over Rishi Sunak blocking the Scottish Gender Recognition Reform Bill quickly descended into a pantomime.

And not just because the SNP’s Westminster leader, Stephen Flynn, and his MPs repeatedly mocked the Scotland secretary, calling him “Baron Jack”.

That’s a reference to widely reported claims that Alister Jack is on his way to the House of Lords, courtesy of a peerage from Boris Johnson.

But the Commons proceedings were also a pantomime at times because a 13-page legal document explaining the reasons for the veto, referred to several times by Mr Jack, was initially kept under wraps and withheld from MPs.

MPs clash over veto of controversial Scottish gender reform bill – politics latest

Even when Mr Flynn was about to open a two-hour emergency debate he’d secured on the gender row between Westminster and Holyrood, the document – “statement of reasons” – was nowhere to be seen.

A set of feeble excuses from Mr Jack about the delay and an even more feeble offer to email it to senior MPs only made matters worse. And at one point an exasperated Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, appeared poised to postpone the emergency debate.

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Yes, that’s right. Sir Lindsay was urged by some MPs to postpone a debate that was so urgent it was an emergency. You couldn’t, as they say, make it up.

Eventually, Mr Jack’s much-sought after document miraculously appeared on the government website. But that didn’t bring an end to the pantomime. If anything, the farce got worse.

It was “not worth the paper it’s written on”, complained the SNP’s former Westminster leader, Ian Blackford. It was “a load of mince”, declared Kirsty Blackman. Undercooked mince as well, no doubt.

The SNP’s veteran jester Pete Wishart said the document’s claims were “specious” and “hypothetical”.

He claimed the UK government seemed to be arguing that under the bill a man might change gender so that he could qualify for lower pay. Howls of laughter at that, not surprisingly.

But Mr Jack claimed the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill was in conflict with UK equality laws and could have an impact on single sex clubs, schools, equal pay and even – according to the document – tax, benefits and state pensions.

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UK to block Scottish gender bill

The Tories’ normally excitable Scottish leader, Douglas Ross, had a sensible suggestion, however. Surely, the Bill should simply be amended to protect the rights of women and girls in the rest of the UK.

Later, the Father of the House, the eminently sensible and wise Sir Peter Bottomley, called on Mr Jack and Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, simply to get together and sort it out.

But with such bad blood between the Tories and the SNP, the chances of that happening are near zero. And that’s why this pantomime is no laughing matter.

Read more: Why is Scotland’s gender recognition reform bill controversial?

Nicola Sturgeon’s opponents will claim she is relishing a confrontation with Rishi Sunak on this or any other issue to use as ammunition in her drive for a second independence referendum.

Some Tories also suspect that the new Holyrood gender legislation is not as popular with voters as the SNP would have us believe. Others argue that there are bigger issues than this to have a massive fight over.

Mr Sunak, we’re learning fast, is not one to seek confrontations and would prefer to avoid one on this issue.

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‘Completely reasonable’ to intervene on gender laws

This week, after all, he has retreated from a Commons showdown with rebel Tory backbenchers on online safety, after similar climbdowns on onshore wind farms and planning rules.

So this issue looks certain to be fought out in the courts now. Mr Jack acknowledged that. That’s right: another legal quagmire, to go along with the dispute over the legality of a second referendum.

In this row, the Scotland secretary is the pantomime villain, according to the SNP. But the prime minister will be hoping Nicola Sturgeon doesn’t emerge as the fairy godmother to the SNP’s controversial gender Bill.

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