Lucy Hunter Blackburn: Speech to Forth Valley Feminists’ Women’s Festival, 4 February 2023

Women and the Scottish Parliament: what the Gender Recognition Reform Bill taught us

So first of all thank you for inviting me to speak on behalf of the three of us who make up MurrayBlackburnMackenzie. Before I do anything else, I want to thank anybody and everyone in the room who has at any point offered us any sort of support, whether that’s financial or moral support, or information or asked us questions that have made us think or look into something further. Without those interactions and that support we simply could not have done what we have done.  

The title of this talk I gave to the organisers a month ago. And at that point I had assumed that around now in early February we would be standing back, taking stock, working out where we might go next. That we would be in something of a moment of pause with time to look back at what happened over the last year or so. I did not anticipate that we would have a month like the one we’ve just had. The government will be facing day after day of headlines and questions that go to the core of what it is trying to put into a policy and law. 

I probably would have anticipated, if you’d told me that was going to happen, that the ability of ministers including the first minister to answer these questions in a clear way was going to be very poor.  

But I’m not going to talk about the last four weeks. I’m going to stick with my title. Because just now, while it’s fresh in our memories, I want to stop and look back at what we saw as the bill went through the Scottish parliament and what we learned about the Scottish parliament and women. 

I’m not going to try and answer it in any conclusive way. There are two reasons for that. One reason is that the way the last month has been, to be honest, the time to write this has been blown away. 

But the other reason is that what I would like to do for the next 20 minutes or so is start a conversation among ourselves about what we learnt in the last year. Talk, but leave time at the end. 

 So just as my starting point to get an idea of the room, can you please put up your hand if you did any of these things after the bill was introduced into the Scottish Parliament in March of last year. 

Did you 

  • attend any of the proceedings in person?
  • add to that people who watched any of the proceedings online  
  • did put in written evidence to the committee?
  • speak to your MSP?   
  • write to MSP?

Can you please keep your hand up if you did any of those things any of them for the first time – you did something you’ve not done before here. And I was anticipating in this room there will be a lot of hands. I wasn’t sure how many of you would have done something new here.

But what strikes me from that is MSPs really had a new audience, I think, to quite a significant extent with this bill. And that was predictable if you looked at the scale of response to the previous government consultations. Women especially were watching. 

But MSPs did not behave like people who thought anyone was watching.  

They seemed oblivious to that at minimum. They had some work to do to persuade people they were doing the right thing – just looking at opinion polling.  But there was never any attempt really at that sort of engagement with the wider audience and particularly with an audience of women who had felt frozen out of the process by the government over the previous several years. 

So going back to my question what did we learn. Here are three observations to start the conversation. 

At stage 3 in the week before Christmas at short notice the parliament sat until midnight and later for two days. 

I sat in the chamber while Megan Gallacher MSP pressed the parliament to think about MSPs making ad hoc childcare arrangements with no idea what time proceedings would finish and got to an entirely unsympathetic response from government benches.  

But the most shocking moment – Jeremey Balfour MSP – his carers that he relies on were stuck waiting with no idea how much longer they would be.  

So I don’t know what sex those carers are.  I do know that most people who work in care are women. He was barracked and jeered from the government benches for raising this point, twice. One of the single most shocking moments I’ve spent in a political environment. Not sure how far it comes through in the recorded footage, but if you were in the chamber at that moment the response from government backbenchers was ugly. Really as though no-one else could hear them. 

So, culturally we’re not looking at an institution that hasn’t got a lot of time for the real basics of the fact that women still carry a burden of care. 

Actions sometimes as you might say speak many times louder than words. 

It’s not as simple as saying that women’s voices don’t count in the Scottish parliament.  

I have the odd experience to be able to compare what it was like to be a woman civil servant going along to committees in the first decade of the century and what it’s like doing it now with a different hat on.. Now I would say that compared to myself 15 years ago I’m older and wiser I’ve got more experience of more things.  

But to channel the Wizard of Oz, what I ain’t got is a fancy badge from an institution or organisation.  

There are plenty of women who feel that they can go to the Scottish parliament and get listened to – they come with an official seal of approval of an employing organisation. And for them the doors will open. And their words will be recycled back endlessly to us by politicians. 

But from outside that system and especially if you start saying things to MSPs which they do not want to hear you will find it hard. Our parliamentarians are most comfortable with the people whose paid work brings them backwards and forwards and who offer pre-packaged policies and they are not comfortable with mess, dissent, contrariness, questions. 

That’s not unique to women but I will argue that it disadvantages women structurally, because women are far more likely to engage in public life not through paid employment but through voluntary campaigning. Professional culture round Holyrood creates a form of indirect discrimination. 

In the course of the debate we heard repeatedly women’s views dismissed, their arguments distorted, misrepresented. I spent the entire process it felt repeatedly trying to get across that women have an issue with maleness having played back to me as an issue with the people being trans, and it didn’t matter how much we said it. 

There was certainly little warmth in that chamber in those last few days before Christmas towards women saying uncomfortable things. At stage 3 I spent the better part of three days staring at the back of the first minister’s head from the cheap seats, that didn’t get a round of applause.  I had to miss part of it was that I already had tickets for the panto – sometimes you just can’t make things up. 

When it came down to it simply, we couldn’t get cut through to the governing coalition, with honourable exceptions, most of Labour, any of the Liberal Democrats, and parts of the Tories that women’s dignity and privacy, as well as our safety, matters, that fairness matters, and that our ability to set boundaries based on sex and to say no matters. We have a cultural mountain to climb with the political class. 

As specific examples, it never stops being shocking that we couldn’t get into the room with MSPs the extremely brave women who came forward saying they were willing to talk about their experience of self exclusion and why single sex spaces mattered to them and why taking risks with organisations’ willingness to provide those with a serious error. The only thing I would say is that that failure I think has come back to haunt the people who thought they could away with ignoring this group.  

In the same way Pam Gosal MSP put up with persistent dismissive treatment when she raised the risks for women from minority religious communities.  

To discover in the last week that a person’s sex matters when the risk is to the First Minister’s reputation hardly needs any further comment. So those are my points to put into the conversation. I would really like to open it up a bit and just to keep it a bit manageable to invite those of you who watched proceedings for the first time to put your hands back up.