Rishi Sunak’s government has blocked legislation passed by the Scottish parliament that would make Scotland the first part of the UK to introduce a self-identification system for people who want to change gender.
The Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, announced that he would use section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 for the first time to halt the gender recognition bill after a review by UK government lawyers.
Westminster’s decision to use the “nuclear option” of blocking the bill from going for royal assent represents a significant escalation of tensions, and will enrage supporters of the changes and nationalists.
UK ministers, who met in Westminster on Monday to consider how to approach the legislation, are concerned the bill will “adverse impact” on UK-wide equalities law.
However, Nicola Sturgeon said there were “no grounds” for the UK government to block the legislation, claiming that it did not affect the operation of the Equality Act.
Scotland’s first minister has said her government is likely to mount a legal challenge in response, warning the use of section 35 would create a “very, very slippery slope indeed” and would embolden the UK government to do the same in other areas.
In a statement, the Scottish secretary said: “After thorough and careful consideration of all the relevant advice and the policy implications, I am concerned that this legislation would have an adverse impact on the operation of Great Britain-wide equalities legislation.
“Transgender people who are going through the process to change their legal sex deserve our respect, support and understanding. My decision today is about the legislation’s consequences for the operation of GB-wide equalities protections and other reserved matters.
“I have not taken this decision lightly. The bill would have a significant impact on, amongst other things, GB-wide equalities matters in Scotland, England and Wales. I have concluded, therefore, that this is the necessary and correct course of action.”
He added: “If the Scottish government chooses to bring an amended bill back for reconsideration in the Scottish parliament, I hope we can work together to find a constructive way forward that both respects devolution and the operation of UK parliament legislation.”
Jack, who will lay the order at Westminster on Tuesday, has written to the Commons speaker, the Scottish parliament’s presiding officer and Sturgeon to set out his plans.
The law, which was backed by MSPs by 86-39 just over three weeks ago, would make it easier for transgender people to obtain official gender recognition certificates, including by reducing waiting times, removing the need for a medical diagnosis and bringing the minimum age down to 16 from 18.
Speaking to reporters earlier on Monday, Sturgeon accused Sunak’s government of “using trans people as a political weapon”. Government sources, however, claimed that the legislation could have an adverse impact across the UK in areas like equal pay, single sex spaces and prison transfers.