Sturgeon fists square

The Wibbly Wobbly Woman cannot hide her anger at being found wanting

WHATEVER ELSE you may say about the First Minister, she is a glutton for punishment. I can’t imagine she looks forward to First Minister’s Questions, but she unfailingly bobs up to every inquiry like a wibbly wobbly man – or rather, in these gender-sensitive times, woman. Her eyes widen and her head nods back and forth in proportion to the impertinence of the question; the most outrageous always come from her Conservative and Labour counterparts. She whacks every question away in wibbly-wobbly fashion: ignoring, deflecting, obfuscating, or downright lying.

Three themes stood out at yesterday’s FMQs. The highlight was undoubtedly the roasting Sturgeon received from her former minister Fergus Ewing over the deposit return scheme. The mild and ebullient Ewing is rapidly turning into a raging Rottweiler among the neutered poodles that fill the  SNP benches; earlier in the week he laid into the government over its “betrayal” of the Highlands by not dualling the A9 as promised in every manifesto since 2011 and called for a parliamentary enquiry into the poor performance of the government.

The Wibbly Wobbly Woman trotted out her usual schtick in response to the question: “We will continue to listen to and, where possible, address concerns that have been raised” – though if that were true, Ewing would hardly be raising the case of “600 drinks producers […] concerned about the impact on their businesses, and the survival of them”.

So the MSP expanded luminously: “Many of the 600 businesses that I referred to are in a state of fear and even despair. Some will close, some will fail, and others will no longer sell their produce in their own country of Scotland. Unless it is halted now, the scheme – most businesses believe it to be fatally flawed – will damage Scotland’s reputation as a place to do business. Will the First Minister therefore instruct a pause of this disaster of a scheme before it becomes a catastrophe …”.

The First Minister merely reiterated three times that “we will continue to listen”, denying that she had failed to do so and mentioning her “concern”. It’s hard to imagine a starker demonstration of not listening, and we look forward to what Fergus Ewing will do next.

Two other stand-out interlocutors yesterday were Anas Sarwar and Douglas Ross. These encounters always have a scripted flavour because they very largely are, as speakers have to give their questions in advance to the government. Nevertheless the Labour leader mustered genuine anger about the real-terms cut of £304 million to local government funding. The First Minister did not give a millimetre, insisting “we will continue to work with and support [Councils] as much as we can”; the old tune – attack, deflect, deny, blame Westminster – was replayed ad nauseum in her answers. Poor Sarwar was 100% right in saying “Nicola Sturgeon is not listening. As usual, she is right and everyone else is wrong … We can have an honest debate only if we get an honest answer from the First Minister.”

Faced with the Wibbly Wobbly Woman, the Labour and Conservative leaders seem equal gluttons for punishment. Douglas Ross’s performance reminded me of a rinse and repeat cycle as he made the transgender prisoner row his theme for the third week in a row. It’s become something of a tabloid refrain which Nicola Sturgeon is desperate to stifle, and Ross can hardly be blamed for playing to the gallery. Following Jim Spence’s “tadger” outburst on BBC Scotland’s Debate Night, Ross deployed the word “penis” in relation to Bryson/Graham to frame the thirteenth time Sturgeon was being asked whether he was a man. The SNP benches instantly jeered at Ross’s description of the double rapist as “a monster”; he quipped to the hecklers that “they should look at themselves”. The exchange encapsulated the fear that the government’s championing of trans rights for undoubtedly dangerous and abusive transwomen, and their mealy-mouthed refusal to call them men and treat them as such, will serve as a licence for further abuse of women. Monstrous, indeed.

The Conservative leader asked the First Minister three times to publish the review of how Bryson/Graham was allowed into a women’s prison. As ever, she refused to give a straight answer, waffling instead about procedure and claiming “there will be full transparency about the findings of the review, as is right and proper”. A red light should really flash above the Wibbly Wobbly Woman’s head whenever she goes on about transparency to warn her audience that the very opposite is being delivered.

Then late yesterday the Scottish Prisons Service (SPS) released a short summary of its case review on its management of Bryson/Graham. The headline, unsurprisingly, was that “at no point were any women in the care of the prison service at risk of harm”. The supposed lessons-learnt report entirely exonerated the SPS. It refused to release it in full (even redacted) as “there is a significant amount of personal detail relating to the individual and that of staff which would not be appropriate to disclose”. How handy for the Scottish Government! It allows the role of ministers in decisions over the prisoner transfer to remain obscure, as well as whether female staff had been put at risk when required to search Bryson/Graham, another point Ross had pushed at FMQs. Transparency, indeed!

In three of her answers Nicola Sturgeon averred the Equality Act (although she got the year wrong twice before correcting herself) in a characteristic ‘Blame Westminster’ move, insisting that any rights a trans prisoner has are not the result of Holyrood legislation (obviously not since the GRR Scotland Bill has not yet passed into law) and that further that that bill does not confer any extra rights – all the rights flow from the UK Equality Act.

A Glasgow University Lecturer in Public Law, Michael Foran, took to Twitter to explain that the idea that a Gender Recognition Certificate (GRC) does not give you extra rights is “flat out untrue”:

“It gives you any rights that the Equality Act confers on the basis of sex but not on the basis of gender reassignment. A GRC stating you are a woman gives you all rights in the Equality Act reserved for women. It will allow you to sue as a woman rather than a man if you’re excluded from a women only space. It will give you a right of access to female only associations and schools. It will give you a right to be treated as a woman for affirmative action policies and equal pay cases. The GRR bill proposes to give you a right to self declare into the legal status of woman/man and obtain all legal rights that that status provides.”

Foran concludes that the First Minister is “either completely ignorant of this or she’s being extremely misleading”. Yet it is Douglas Ross who ends up accused of “a lack of understanding of the law”.

Sadly, the format of FMQs does not seem to allow for the exploration of such technical points, and there is more research carried out by non-government funded civic Scotland which could have helped the Leader of the Opposition in his questions. Lucy Hunter Blackburn of MurrayBlackburnMackenzie, an independent policy analysis collective, made a speech to the No Males in Female Jails demonstration outside Holyrood as FMQs were taking place. She examined the First Minister’s much-vaunted confidence in the SPS’s “robust risk assessments” of trans prisoners. Drawing on an analysis by international human rights law expert Alessandra Asteriti, Blackburn points out the SPS risk assessment never refers to sex or the women prisoners likely to be impacted by transwomen. She cites nine cases where transwomen convicted of violent crimes were sent to women’s prisons, two of whom terrorised and assaulted female prison officers. The undoubted risks to women posed by these individuals were not picked up by the SPS in their “robust risk assessments”.

Meanwhile, inside the chamber the Wibbly Wobbly Woman was wrapping up her response to the Opposition leader thus:

“When it comes to searches in the prison estate, the Scottish Prison Service has been dealing with transgender prisoners—although they are very small in number—for many years now. It has been doing that safely and effectively and it is experienced in managing those situations. […]

The SPS has a trauma-informed approach to the management of those in custody, and an approach that supports staff as well as the inmates who are in their care. The SPS is experienced in these matters and I trust its handling of them.”

If you appreciated this article please share and follow us on Twitter here – and like and comment on facebook here. Help support ThinkScotland publishing these articles by making a donation here.


Weekly Trending

Scroll to Top