By Lucy Hunter Blackburn

THE SNP’s manifesto promise to reform the Gender Recognition Act by working "with trans people, women, equality groups, legal and human rights experts to identify the best and most effective way to improve and simplify the process by which a trans person can obtain legal recognition" felt like a welcome chance to replace conflict with consensus-building.

Launching the manifesto, the First Minister also promised a “period of discussion”, noting how polarised the debate had become. Until this point, a close relationship between the Government and those advocating for reform based on self-declaration (often termed "self-ID"), had contrasted with the indifference shown towards those raising concerns.

Yet just nine months on, it appears the commitment to building consensus has faded.

The Autumn Programme for Government rang the first warning bell, declaring that legislation would be brought forward "within the next year, removing all medical requirements". Still, the timeline suggested further deliberations might take place.

More recently it has emerged that in September 2021 officials told representatives from several LGBT organisations that legislation would be introduced as soon as February 2022, adding “it is unlikely there will be big changes to the bill” compared to the 2019 draft bill, which had proposed removing all medical oversight. Earlier this month, the Scottish Government then reiterated its intention to proceed on a self-declaration basis in a statement to BBC Woman’s Hour.

Did then, any "period of discussion" precede this decision, as promised by the First Minster?

It has now emerged that since May the Cabinet Secretary, Shona Robison, has met only with five LGBT groups. Officials have also met the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and National Records of Scotland officials, which itself reports to ministers.

The Government has implied that the problem of one-sidedness lies with others, for not asking. This is unreasonable. Responsibility for fulfilling a manifesto commitment cannot be placed at the door of groups run on a shoestring, mainly by volunteers, with no history of easy access to government, nor insight into the bill timetable. Only the Scottish Government, and those it selected to tell, knew it was working towards the introduction of a largely unchanged bill as soon as next month.

Nor will those groups have been encouraged to take the initiative by past experience. It took campaign group For Women Scotland more than a year and extended correspondence to obtain a meeting with the previous Cabinet Secretary.

The Government has now said that meetings will be arranged with those who ask. But the substantial decisions have already been made.

If a bill repeating earlier proposals is introduced as soon as next month, the pledge on which 64 SNP MSPs were elected, namely to work with different groups and bring forward whatever changes “arise from this work”, will not have been met.

With consistently low public support for removing medical oversight of the legal gender recognition process, abandoning a thoughtful manifesto commitment in this way is unlikely to create a less polarised environment for MSPs, as any bill proceeds.

Lucy Hunter Blackburn is a policy analyst