The UK government will block a bill passed by Scottish lawmakers that was set to make it easier for people to make decisions under their legal gender – a move that could lead to workplace tensions between colleagues with opposing views on the issue.
The bill, which was passed in December, saw Scotland become the first country in the UK to back a self-identification process for changing gender, including removing the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and lowering the minimum age to 16 from 18.
Similar laws already exist in 18 nations across the globe, including the Republic of Ireland, New Zealand, Denmark and Argentina.
The move, which is the first time the UK Government has invoked the power to veto a Scottish law, has been met with mixed reviews for both the gender issue and the devolution aspect. Alister Jack, Secretary of State for Scotland, confirmed he was invoking Section 35 of the 1998 Scotland Act, which allows the UK government to prohibit a bill becoming law if Westminster deems it has an adverse effect on matters where the national government retains ultimate jurisdiction.
"I have not taken this decision lightly," Jack said in a statement, adding it would "have a significant impact" on equalities matters across Britain.
"I have concluded, therefore, that this is the necessary and correct course of action."
The announcement was greeted with fury by Scottish Social Justice Secretary Shona Robison, who called the decision to block the bill "outrageous".
Arguing that the bill does not affect UK-wide equalities law, she said the "political" move demonstrated the UK government's "contempt for devolution".
"This is a dark day for trans rights and a dark day for democracy in the UK," she added.
Why this impacts the people function
Although the issue is primarily being fought out at a governmental level, the decision has left many people devastated and angered. And on the other hand, whether rightly or wrongly, it can’t be denied that some will agree with the UK Government’s decision. As such, many firms will have employees who have strong feelings about the situation, and emotions will be heightened in many workplaces at present.
It’s crucial, therefore, that HR leaders consider how to ensure any and all conversations about the gender bill (or the lack thereof) that might occur between colleagues don’t boil over into unsavoury territory.
Kirstie Beattie, Employment Solicitor at WorkNest, said: “Essentially the UK government has blocked the Bill on the basis that they think having two different equalities regimes within the UK would create too much disparity and confusion. This is the first time a Section 35 Order has been used in the 25 years since the Scotland Act 1998 came into force.
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“The Scottish government see this as an attack on devolution and it runs the risk of heightening the debate on Scottish independence. Regrettably there is a risk that trans rights – which ought to be at the centre of all of this – will become a pawn in a highly politicised game."
She continues: “For employers, there is nothing much to do other than to monitor any workplace conversations about the controversial topic. Bear in mind that employees can be discriminated against, not because of their own protected characteristic, such as gender reassignment, but because of their association with someone who has a protected characteristic, such as a trans partner or child.
“Dignity at work and using inclusive language is important now more than ever. It could be a good time to think about refresher equalities training, particularly as this helps employers defend themselves against discrimination claims in the event one of their employees treats another less favourably because they are trans.”
Data highlights LGBT+ concerns in the UK workplace
As the issue of trans inclusion grows larger at Government level, HR has a huge opportunity to step up and show LGBT+ employees and their allies that they are safe to express themselves and feel safe at work.
However, one in five (21%) workplaces do not have any policies in place to support their LGBT+ staff at work, according to a 2022 poll published by the Trade Union Congress (TUC).
The poll of around 1,000 HR managers – run for the TUC by YouGov, also found that just one in four (25%) managers said that they have a policy setting out support for trans (including non-binary) workers who wish to transition to live as another gender.
TUC General Secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Lesbian, gay, bi and trans people deserve to feel safe and to be respected at work.
“But it’s shocking so many workplaces don’t have specific policies in place to support their LGBT+ staff. Without these policies, too many LGBT+ workers experience bullying, harassment and discrimination at work.
“A step change is long overdue," O'Grady continues. "Ministers must introduce a new duty on employers to protect all workers from harassment by customers and clients.
“And government should also introduce a statutory requirement for large employers to report on their LGBT pay gaps – in the same way they do their gender pay gaps – with action plans detailing how bosses will address these inequalities.”
'Government action needed'
The TUC has previously called on the government to introduce a range of measures to support LGBT+ people at work, including:
LGBT+ pay gap reporting: Ministers should introduce a statutory requirement for large employers to report their LGBT+ pay gaps and employment rates – with regular monitoring and action plans detailing how employers will address these inequalities. Polling suggested that the LGBT+ pay gap is around 16%.
Protection from workplace bullying and harassment: The government must consult with unions on a strategy to make sure workplaces are safe for all LGBT+ people. As a minimum, the government should introduce a new duty on employers to protect workers from harassment by customers and clients.
Taking these figures into account, it’s essential to recognise that for an LGBT+ inclusive workplace environment, educating others, encouraging allyship and being vocal about inclusivity are just a few fundamental ways to push for inclusivity in businesses for employees.