Sturgeon’s political crisis deepens as she undermines her own gender laws

Nicola Sturgeon - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire
Nicola Sturgeon - Andrew Milligan/PA Wire

Nicola Sturgeon is facing a mounting political crisis after she undermined her own gender laws by refusing three times to say whether she believes a trans double rapist is a woman.

The First Minister is facing growing anger from within her own ranks over her handling of the case of Isla Bryson, previously known as Adam Graham, who was initially transferred to a women’s prison after being found guilty of two rapes committed before they claimed to identify as female.

Under Scots law, only those with male genitalia can commit rape but at Holyrood on Thursday, Ms Sturgeon claimed she “does not have enough information” to say whether she agreed with her Justice Secretary that Bryson should be considered female.

The findings of an “urgent lessons learned review” of the Scottish Prison Service’s (SPS) handling of the case is due to be completed on Friday ahead of publication next week, which could heap further pressure on Ms Sturgeon.

The SPS policy followed the same principles as the self-ID system which Ms Sturgeon tried to introduce across Scotland, before being blocked by the UK Government. She repeatedly dismissed fears that allowing Scots to change their legal sex without providing any evidence would pose a risk to the safety of women and girls.

Ms Sturgeon’s authority is seen as ebbing away, with the SNP rebellion against her gender reforms in December the largest in her party’s 15 years in power. In what was viewed as a desperate move, Alyn Smith, an SNP MP and Sturgeon ally, this week urged rebels to quit the party.

Isla Bryson was originally sent to Cornton Vale, a women's prison, but was later transferred to a cell for males in Edinburgh's Saughton jail - Andrew Milligan/PA
Isla Bryson was originally sent to Cornton Vale, a women's prison, but was later transferred to a cell for males in Edinburgh's Saughton jail - Andrew Milligan/PA

However, prominent critics such as MP Joanna Cherry and Ash Regan, a former minister who quit to vote against the plans, have continued to speak out against party policy.

Many more SNP figures are privately dismayed over Ms Sturgeon’s refusal to back down over an issue that opinion polling suggests puts her at odds with an overwhelming majority of the Scottish public.

Rishi Sunak on Thursday night intervened in the trans rights debate during an interview in TalkTV, saying that "biological sex really matters in women's spaces".

While Ms Sturgeon has previously been vulnerable during the height of her war with Alex Salmond, she maintained control of her party.

Bryson was moved to a men’s cell in Edinburgh’s Saughton jail last week, but only after a huge public outcry and the SNP leadership initially backing the SPS.

Douglas Ross, the Scottish Tory leader, told First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood that Bryson was cynically “exploiting” the SNP's policy of allowing people to self-identify their legal gender.

Although the UK Government has blocked her Bill, Mr Ross pointed out that the SNP administration's official policy already states: “It is the view of the Scottish Government that trans women are women.”

However, Ms Sturgeon repeatedly avoided questions over whether the rapist was male or female, arguing the two rape convictions were more important in determining which prison the 31-year-old is held in.

Pressed whether she agreed with her Justice Secretary that Bryson is a woman, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: “I think that rapist should be considered a rapist.”

Mr Sturgeon's refusal to answer the key question over Bryson's gender came despite her telling a TV interviewer earlier this week that “trans women are women” when pressed on the same issue.

Keith Brown, her Justice Secretary, was also asked if Bryson and Tiffany Scott were women. Scott, when known as Andrew Burns, stalked a 13-year-old girl and is one of Scotland’s most violent prisoners.

However, Mr Ross said: “Adam Graham, who wants to be known as Isla Bryson, raped two women. He is an abusive man seeking to exploit loopholes in the government’s current policy.

“When a man rapes two women, we don’t think he should be considered a woman just because he says so – we should call out criminals like this who are abusing the system.

“They are not trans people. They are violent and dangerous men.”