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Cornton Vale, where local women offenders are sent to prison.

By Bill Heaney

Changes to public policy on gender recognition are taking place without there having been a change in the law, according to one Labour MSP.

Elaine Smith told the Holyrood parliament this week: “Those changes are unregulated and unscrutinised, and they specifically affect women in prison who are especially vulnerable.”

She asked Justice Minister Humza Yousaf: “Is the cabinet secretary aware that the Scottish Prison Service  implemented its policy on gender identity with an equality impact assessment that neither considered the effect on women prisoners nor consulted them?

“Does he agree that that process was deeply flawed? Will he ensure that the current review, which was referenced in the report by Women and Girls Scotland, will carry out proper equality impact and risk assessments on any new policy proposals and involve a wide-ranging consultation that includes female prisoners?”

Humza Yousaf replied: “I will ensure that the concerns that Elaine Smith has reflected are part of that review. She is right to say that a review is going on. It should also be said that the SPS gender identity and gender reassignment policy, which was published in 2014, was developed in partnership with a number of organisations including Stonewall and the Transgender Alliance. Five years on, it is right that it is under review, which is happening. The review will include a consultation that will be open to members from across the chamber to feed into.”

Conservative MSP Margaret Mitchell said: “Given the high incidence of women in prison who are survivors of childhood sexual abuse, does the cabinet secretary agree that cutting the availability of prison-based specialist services such as those provided by Open Secret, which is now Wellbeing Scotland, is a retrograde step that has resulted in such prisoners’ underlying problems, which have often led to their using alcohol and drugs to self-medicate, not being addressed?”

Humza Yousaf replied: “Of course, it would be better if the vast majority of such women were not in custody. Some 90 per cent of women who are in custody are there for 12 months or less, so they would be affected disproportionately—in a good way—by the application of the presumption against short custodial sentences, which Margaret Mitchell does not support.

“It would be better if Ms Mitchell and the Conservatives supported the presumption, which would mean fewer women being in custody and, instead, being treated in the community for their problems with substance abuse and so on.”

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