Downing Street appeared to dismiss the education secretary’s comments on the age at which people can choose their gender, after Gillian Keegan had suggested 16 was old enough, as the UK government prepares to block Scotland’s gender recognition bill.
Asked whether a revised legislation could be accepted if the age at which people could choose their gender was changed from 16, Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson said: “I think it’s important to emphasise, rather than focusing on the single issue of age, this is about the legislation having an adverse impact on equality legislation as a whole.”
The government’s position was that 18 was “the correct age” for people to change their gender, the official said.
Downing Street’s response comes after Keegan had made the comments on Sky News earlier on Tuesday.
Sunak has given the green light to use section 35 of the Scotland Act 1998 for the first time to halt the bill after a review by UK government lawyers.
Keegan appeared to backtrack when she later said she was not contradicting Sunak by her remarks but speaking only from personal experience, having left school at 16 and started work.
The Scottish secretary, Alister Jack, announced the decision to block the bill after UK ministers met in Westminster on Monday to consider how to approach the legislation. It would make official recognition of a person changing gender simpler – so-called self-ID – meaning people would not need a medical certificate and could change gender from 16.
Keegan urged sensitivity, especially concerning young people. She was asked if she would be content for children in schools at 16 to say whether they wanted to change their gender.
“We have to be very sensitive to children. We are actually going to publish some guidance and consult because it is a very tricky area to get right,” she said. “It has to be age appropriate, but children have to be supported as well.”
Pressed for her personal view, the minister was asked whether she thought 16 was too young. “No, I don’t, actually. I was working at 16, I was paying tax at 16, I was making decisions for myself at 16,” she told Sky News. “But it’s not really about what I think, it’s how we make sure we get that right balance of supporting children, but also making sure that what they’re getting taught in schools is age appropriate.”
But she said on BBC Breakfast the government was right to block the bill as the UK could not have “two competing gender and equality legislations”.
Keegan denied she was contradicting the government’s view and added, “all 16-year-olds are different”. She told Good Morning Britain: “I felt able to take decisions for myself at 16. But of course I was … I’d grown up quite quickly and I was actually working full-time at 16.
“So, no, I have not got a difference of opinion. Actually, I don’t have a strong opinion. My strong opinion is that we need to treat this very carefully, very sensitively, supporting children all the way along.”
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said her government was likely to mount a legal challenge in response, saying 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.
She called it “a full-frontal attack on our democratically elected Scottish parliament and its ability to make its own decisions on devolved matters”.
Shona Robison, the Scottish government’s equalities minister who steered the bill through Holyrood, said the order represented “the action of an increasingly draconian UK Tory government”.
Asked on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland whether there were plans to take the UK government to court over the order, Robison said her government would “take whatever steps we need to ensure that the democratic will of the Scottish parliament is not frustrated.
“We are very, very confident in our position of this legislation being competent, we’re very confident that it does not impact on UK legislation.”
Asked if she would consider Jack’s invitation to work with the UK government on an amended bill, Robison said: “If Alistair Jack wants to come forward with suggestions that do not undermine the principle of the bill, and that is to simplify the process for obtaining a GRC, that’s fine. But I suspect that this is about stopping a bill they do not like, it’s not about compromising around the margins of it.”
Announcing the decision to use section 35 of the Scotland Act to block the bill receiving royal assent, Jack said: “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.”
Labour has yet to say whether it will support the government’s move, despite Scottish Labour MSPs being whipped to vote in favour of the bill. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said on Monday that 16-year-olds should not legally be able to change gender, putting him at odds with his party in Scotland.
The shadow Scottish secretary, Ian Murray, said the issue was “too important to be reduced to the usual constitutional fight”, and questioned why ministers at Westminster and Holyrood did not work together on an amended bill “to avoid this unnecessary standoff”.