Prime minister Rishi Sunak said on Friday that it was “completely reasonable” for the UK government to assess Scotland’s gender recognition bill, a piece of legislation that makes it easier for individuals to legally change their gender.
The bill was passed by lawmakers in the Scottish parliament by 86 votes to 39 on Thursday. The rules reduce the age at which people can apply for a Gender Recognition Certificate from 18 to 16, and also remove the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria.
The bill has sparked fierce debate within first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National party, prompting the resignation of one minister who voted against it.
A handful of SNP lawmakers in Edinburgh rebelled but the legislation passed easily as it had the support of the Greens, Labour and Liberal Democrats. Only the Conservatives opposed it.
Speaking to broadcasters while visiting a homeless shelter in London, Sunak said that “lots of people” had concerns over the legislation and its possible impact on “women’s and children’s safety”.
“I think it is completely reasonable for the UK government to have a look at it, understand what the consequences are for women and children’s safety in the rest of the UK, and then decide on what the appropriate course of action is,” he said.
The bill was approved after heated debate with Sturgeon saying it was probably the most scrutinised piece of legislation to pass through the Scottish parliament.
Some critics of the legislation argue that it will allow any male who self-identifies as female to gain access to women-only spaces. Others say it could infringe equality legislation by allowing a broader group of people to access rights reserved for women, such as on company boards.
However, supporters of the bill say its opponents are unfairly stereotyping a marginalised minority.
The Scottish government said the changes were administrative in nature and sought to reform a system that was “intrusive, medicalised and bureaucratic”.
Scottish secretary Alister Jack and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch have both hinted that the UK government could attempt to block the legislation from becoming law by preventing it from receiving Royal Assent.
Badenoch said she had concerns over the impact of the bill on the “functioning of the Equality Act”.
Jack said the UK government would “look closely” at the ramifications for equality rules and other UK-wide legislation in the coming weeks “up to and including a Section 35 order stopping the bill going for Royal Assent if necessary”.
The Section 35 order gives the secretary of state the authority to block a Scottish parliament bill if there is “reasonable grounds” to believe that it would interfere with the operation of a law reserved to the UK.
Shona Robison, Scotland’s cabinet secretary for social justice, told the BBC on Friday that any challenge from London would be an “unfortunate” attack on the democratic will of the devolved parliament and would be resisted.
The gender recognition bill did not change the 2010 Equality Act, Robinson said. “We are very confident of our position, and it would be unfortunate to say the least if the UK government was to go down this road.”