Scottish Parliament says sorry for throwing out women wearing suffragette colours

15 November 2022, 15:28 | Updated: 16 November 2022, 14:25

A women's rally outside Holyrood, where wearing the sufragette colours had some women ejected.
A women's rally outside Holyrood, where wearing the sufragette colours had some women ejected. Picture: Alamy

By Gina Davidson

The Scottish Parliament has apologised to women who were asked to leave a Holyrood committee room because their scarves were deemed "political".

Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone said there had been an "error" when they were told they could not wear striped or tartan scarves in the Suffragette colours of green, white and violet. One woman was also asked to leave because she was wearing a plain purple silk scarf.

The PO told MSPs that the colours of the Sufragette movement had "never been banned" in Holyrood.

Her apology came just hours after the row broke out while the equalities committee scrutinised potential amendments to the Gender Recognition Reform Bill.

The women were seated in the public gallery to observe the committee, which is tasked with looking at 150 amendments to the legislation. They believe the Bill will have a negative effect on women's rights - a stance which has been roundly rejected by the Scottish Government.

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One of them, who was wearing a knitted, striped green, white and purple scarf, told LBC: "I was sitting at the back and the committee had just started and I was live tweeting. Then a clerk came and asked me to remove my scarf. I asked why and she said she didn't know, just she'd been told to ask me.

"When I said no, she said I had to leave. I wasn't the only one who was spoke to and we asked at the parliament reception why we had to go. The security officer said it was his manager who had ordered our removal. I am still waiting to hear from him for an explanation.

"It's horrifying that the parliament thinks it can tell women what to wear. The rules state no political slogans, or banners, but I was just wearing a scarf. There were MSPs on the committee who were wearing rainbow lanyards, which to my mind is a political act."

The woman had tweeted her ejection from the committee, and it was raised in the room by Scottish Conservative MSP Russell Findlay, prompting the convener, SNP MSP, Joe FItzPatrick to break for 15 minutes.

Once the committee reconvened there was no mention made of the incident.

Mr Findlay said: “It’s shocking that the Scottish Parliament thinks it’s acceptable to police a woman’s clothing in this manner with the order to remove a scarf in the colours of the suffragettes.

“To do so during the discussion of a Bill that would limit the rights of women and girls makes it even worse.

“You can buy items bearing suffragette colours in the Scottish Parliament gift shop but for some baffling reason, you can’t wear these colours while listening to a committee.

“Nicola Sturgeon herself has worn a suffragette scarf in the Scottish Parliament, so this decision makes no sense.

"The Parliament fashion police need to think again. To call suffragette colours “political” is a complete overreach and troubling attempt to control people’s lives."

Scottish Green MSP, and co-convener of the committee, Maggie Chapman, said she had been unaware that people had been asked to leave - and that the request had not come from any of the MSPs.

She told LBC that some people in the public gallery had "colourful scarves on" and they were only aware of the issue during a comfort break.

"I think we were all just focused on the business of the day. I think it is right that there are precaustions against disruption of committee business but in my view wearing colourful scarves does not constitute such disruption."

Addressing MSPs in the chamber, Presiding Officer Alison Johnstone said the issue had been raised by MSPs with her.

She said at the equalities committee meeting "a visitor to the public gallery was asked to remove a purple, green and white scarf. Having declined to do so, the visitor was informed that she would not be able to return to the gallery. 

"This request was made by officials in connection with the Parliament’s code of conduct for visitors which sets out that the display of banners, flags or political slogans, including on clothing and accessories, is forbidden.

“Let me make one thing crystal clear, suffrage colours are not, and never have been, banned at the Scottish Parliament. We actively support and promote universal suffrage in a number of ways at Holyrood and will continue to do so.

“I would like to advise the Chamber that the action taken this morning was not prompted by any of the members of the Committee. “The action taken was an error, and I would like to apologise on behalf of the Parliament.

"The wearing of a scarf in those colours does not, in itself, breach the visitor code of conduct.  The Parliament wishes people to engage with the democratic process, including observing elected representatives debate and make the law of the country.”

Meanwhile the committee agreed a number of amendments - but rejected the majority.

The bill will be amended, with provisions for 16- and 17-year-olds being changed, so those in that age group will need to live in their "acquired gender" for a minimum of six months rather than three months before applying for a gender recognition certificate.

A new offence of making a fraudulent application for a gender recognition certificate will also be created.

However the committee, and the Cabinet Secretary Shona Robison, rejected an amendment which sought to prevent registered sex offenders from acquiring a gender recognition certificate.

Russell Findlay said the Bill as it stands would allow male sex offenders to change their identities, adding that "prisons are full" of men who seek to exploit loopholes in the law.

He also raised concerns that female victims of sexual offences may have to refer to male attackers as "she or her" in the dock.

Mr Findlay said: "It risks making a mockery of the justice system and re-traumatising victims of sexual violence."

But Ms Robison said she could not back Mr Findlay's amendment, though the Scottish Government would bring in other changes.

One of these was a new requirement under the sex offenders notification scheme for offenders to alert police if they made an application for a gender recognition certificate.

Applications could also be made to a sheriff if someone believed a certificate was being obtained fraudulently, she said.

The minister also said the Government backed the "principle" of a new offence of fraudulently applying for a gender recognition certificate.