Gender Recognition Act reform: 'Conscience issues such as gender reforms should be removed from the whip', says SNP MSP John Mason
John Mason, the SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, told The Scotsman he had “not heard anything from the party so far” and hopes the issue will “blow over”.
He was one of nine SNP MSPs, including former minister Ash Regan, to cast their vote against the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill on Thursday evening in the largest rebellion in the party’s 15-year history in government.
The Bill passed the first stage in the Scottish Parliament despite the division, with 88 votes in favour, 33 against and four abstentions.
Although the SNP were whipped to vote in favour of the reform, a total of seven of the party’s MSPs voted against the Bill – Stephanie Callaghan, Fergus Ewing, Kenneth Gibson, Ruth Maguire, Michelle Thomson, Mr Mason and Ms Regan. A further two SNP MSPs – Annabelle Ewing and Jim Fairlie – abstained.
Ms Regan’s surprise resignation from the position of community safety minister was also announced just hours before Thursday’s vote, with the Edinburgh Eastern MSP saying her “conscience” would not allow her to support the plans.
The rebellion has created questions around the party’s unity and handling of disciplinary action when members defy the whip.
But Mr Mason said he believed “conscience issues” – he defined as issues such as the gender reforms and assisted dying – should broadly be free votes and not whipped by the party, which he claimed should be united around the sole issue of independence.
The SNP was elected in 2016 and 2021 with manifesto commitments to reform the Gender Recognition Act.
Since then, the party has been keen to push on as quickly as possible after previously having to shelve the plans.
Asked if he believed areas he defined as “conscience issues” should not be whipped, Mr Mason said: “I suppose, broadly, yes, but I accept there is going to be a grey area.
"So if you accept that the budget should and must be whipped, and we take assisted dying as the other extreme that should not be whipped, where in the middle do you draw the line?
"If there’s going to be grey areas, this [gender reforms] is going to be a grey area.”
Mr Mason said issues such as the Scottish Government budget should be whipped. However, there are issues such as assisted dying and gender reforms which should be free votes.
"My preference would have been that this should be a free vote, but I can understand why that wasn’t the case,” Mr Mason said, “It’s been a very long-running issue not just in Scotland, but internationally and I think a lot of us had thought about and discussed this, read books over a few years and came to different conclusions.
"It’s not a typical issue. It’s not like the budget or increasing childcare or any of these kinds of things, which we would all clearly support.
"It’s in with assisted dying and some of these other issues as one of that appears to be less of a party political issue and more of a conscience issue. Conscience is difficult to define and people can have different views for example on animal welfare.”
Mr Mason said the gender reform motion was discussed at an SNP group meeting on Tuesday where they talked about whether it should be a free vote or not.
The MSP said it was decided it should not be as, if it was, it would breach the Bute House Agreement with the Scottish Greens.
Asked if the Bute House agreement had been undermined by the SNP rebellion on the vote, Mr Mason said: “Clearly they won by an overwhelming majority, so that’s not been brought into question.
"The fact that seven or nine of us didn’t vote for the reform is quite small, but I accept it's still over 10 per cent of the group. But I think this is not your typical issue, so I don’t think it says anything about the bigger picture.”
Mr Mason said that in the party’s standing order, it outlined that “if something is party policy, it is possible to have a conscience vote in discussion with the whips”.
"I had a discussion with the whip via email, other people have verbal discussions, so it wasn’t as if the whips didn’t know this,” Mr Mason said, “My hope is, and so far it appears to be, the party can be quite relaxed about this as this is just one of these issues where there is a variety of views and we don't all have to go down the same path.”
It is not yet known what action the SNP will take against the rebels MSPs. An SNP spokesperson said: “As is normal practice, SNP MSPs are expected to support government legislation." It is understood issues involving the party whip are treated as an internal matter and dealt with on a case-by-case basis.
The legislation passed is aimed at making it easier for people to change their legally recognised gender.
The Bill will amend and “streamline” the way in which a trans person can obtain a gender recognition certificate (GRC). The reform is intended to make the process less intrusive, less bureaucratic and less medicalised, according to the Scottish Government, and will remove the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria from the criteria to legally change gender.
The minimum applicant age for a GRC will also drop from 18 to 16.
The Bill would also cut the applicant’s need to live in their acquired gender from two years to three months, with a further three month period of reflection.
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