Sir Keir Starmer has expressed “concerns” over Scotland’s gender recognition law, as the UK Government considers whether to block the Bill passed in the Scottish Parliament last month.
The Labour leader said on Sunday he believes that 16 is too young an age to consider changing gender, which is one of the key reforms contained in the Bill.
Starmer’s comments come after the Scottish Parliament passed legislation just before Christmas that aims to make it easier for transgender people to change their legally recognised gender.
The Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill will allow trans people to obtain a gender recognition certificate without the need for a medical diagnosis.
Scottish Labour MSPs were whipped to support the reforms.
However, speaking to the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg programme, Starmer said: “I have concerns about the provision in Scotland, in particular the age reduction to 16 and in particular the rejection of our amendment in relation to the Equalities Act.
“But across the whole of the area, I think we should modernise the law.
“I think we need a respectful debate that recognises the different arguments that are being made. At the moment, this is being treated as a political football from start to finish and I don’t think that actually advances the cause of anyone.”
Asked about whether someone was old enough to change their gender at 16, he said: “No, I don’t think you are.”
He said Labour’s position was to “modernise the legislation to take out the indignities” involved with changing gender.
Starmer also said he would wait to see what action the UK Government would take when asked whether he would block Scotland’s gender recognition laws if he was prime minister.
Downing Street is understood to be considering legal advice on the impact of the Bill before deciding whether to block it.
UK transport secretary Mark Harper told the BBC on Sunday: “The Prime Minister set out the position very clearly this week when he was in Scotland.
“The decision will be for the Government, it is technically a decision for the Scottish secretary, and one of the things we are waiting to see is some detailed legal advice about the impact of that legislation on the rest of the UK.”
Pressed on whether he would individually want to see the reforms blocked, Harper said: “That was a decision that the Scottish Government made. We are not proposing to make those changes for England, but what we have to do is make a decision about whether that legislation impacts on legislation elsewhere in the UK.
“One of those pieces of legislation is the Equalities Act. That is why we need a detailed analysis of that, and that is the information the Government needs before it can take a decision.”
He added: “We are doing it carefully because I think these are subjects which are best approached with care. There are conflicting rights involved in this discussion and that is why I think it is right for the Government to take the decision in a careful, thoughtful way.”
Campaign groups have warned that the reforms could risk the safety of women and girls.
However, supporters of the changes insist that it is about simplifying the process and removing hurdles within the current requirements.
Under the reforms, the age limit for applications for a gender recognition certificate will be lowered from 18 to 16.
A requirement for a medical report, including a diagnosis of gender diagnosis, will be dropped.
Applicants for a certificate be required to live in their acquired gender for three months (six months for 16 and 17-year-olds) – down from the current requirement of two years.
But the passage of the Bill does not clear its path to the statute book, with Scottish secretary Alister Jack able to legally challenge the law if he believes it impacts on the UK, while private groups are also able to take legal action should they wish.
Speaking after the final vote in December, Jack said the UK Government would consider “a Section 35 order stopping the Bill going for Royal Assent if necessary”.
The new law also prompted rebellions across the Holyrood chamber, with nine SNP MSPs voting against it, including former minister Ash Regan.
Regan was joined by Michelle Thomson, Stephanie Callaghan, Annabelle Ewing, Fergus Ewing, Kenneth Gibson, John Mason, Jim Fairlie and Ruth Maguire.
Meanwhile, two Labour MSPs – Carol Mochan and Claire Baker – voted against the party whip to oppose the legislation.
The SNP’s Westminster leader Stephen Flynn said the UK Government must not block the Bill’s progress into becoming law.
Speaking to the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland radio programme on Friday, Flynn said: “This is not just a question about the GRR (Gender Reform Recognition) people’s individual views on it. This is about democracy.
“The Scottish Parliament has voted in favour of legislation that sits within devolved competencies, and it’s incumbent upon Westminster to ensure that legislation is passed in full.”
The Scottish Greens accused Starmer of “repeating Tory myths” and showing a “total disregard for devolution”.
Maggie Chapman, the party’s equalities spokesperson, said: “This is a shameful intervention from the Labour leader, who is showing a total disregard for the rights of trans people in Scotland and beyond.
“He is repeating toxic Tory talking points and legitimising the views of a hostile and anti-trans government that is threatening to overrule the Scottish Parliament.
“This is also an issue of democracy. Starmer is ignoring the views of the vast majority of the Scottish Parliament, including the Labour MSPs who rightly backed the Bill.
“The message that he is sending is that trans rights are not safe under Labour and nor is devolution. A lot of people in Scotland will never forgive him if he lines up with the Tories to block what is a small but important step for equality.
“Under his short tenure, Starmer has ditched almost every policy that Labour members elected him on. Whether it is his new-found support for Brexit, his U-turns on public ownership or his hostility to devolution, it is clear that he cannot be trusted.”