Nicola Sturgeon has been accused of using the festive season as cover to push through her controversial overhaul of transgender laws after the crucial final vote was scheduled four days before Christmas.
MSPs have agreed to a highly unusual timetable for the final parliamentary stage of the Bill, which if passed, will see Scots as young as 16 allowed to change their legal gender simply by signing a declaration.
The unorthodox schedule will involve Holyrood sitting until 8pm on December 20 to consider amendments before a final vote and debate on December 21.
Opponents have claimed holding the vote over the holiday season was an attempt to “railroad” the legislation through Holyrood at a time of year that the public would be distracted and not following the news.
One women’s group accused Ms Sturgeon of “positively Grinch-like behaviour” by choosing the winter solstice - the darkest day of the year - to “gift women’s rights away”.
While the legislation is expected to pass, there is likely to be a major SNP rebellion, with nine of the party’s MSPs defying the party whip in the first Holyrood vote on the legislation.
More SNP rebels are expected to emerge, while Scottish Labour is also coming under pressure to abandon its support for the legislation.
Around 20 women’s rights campaigners protested outside Labour’s Glasgow headquarters on Wednesday amid a heated internal debate over whether Anas Sarwar should allow a free vote or even order his MSPs to vote against it.
An attempt by the Scottish Tories to have the business programme amended to allow more time for debate was voted down on Wednesday night.
‘Huge disservice to women, girls and trans people’
Rachael Hamilton, equalities spokeswoman for the party, said: “By rushing this legislation the SNP are doing women, girls and trans people themselves a huge disservice.
“With the rights and safety of women and vulnerable young people at stake, the SNP should be prepared to commit as much time as necessary to hear all views and ensure they get this legislation right.
“Instead, they’re pressing ahead with this misguided bill before Christmas, in a blatant attempt to silence opposition and dodge proper scrutiny.”
The SNP has so far defied calls to delay the legislation until MSPs take evidence from Reem Alsalem, the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, who last month launched a scathing attack on the plans.
Calls to put off the final vote until Scottish courts issue rulings on cases which will shed light on the rights gender recognition certificates bestow on trans people have also been rejected.
The proposed system would remove the need for a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and instead allow Scots to change their legal sex simply by affirmation.
Feminist critics of the proposals have warned that the system could easily be exploited by male sexual predators to gain access to woman’s spaces such as changing rooms, refuges and prisons.
Alexander Burnett, Tory MSP, claimed on Wednesday that he had been told by the SNP’s parliamentary business minister that the schedule had been too busy to take more time over the gender Bill.
However, he said the SNP had delayed other legislation to allow a minister to fly to Egypt.
‘The First Minister who stole Christmas’
Marion Calder, a director at the For Women Scotland campaign group, said: “It seems fitting that Nicola Sturgeon has chosen the darkest day of the year, just before Christmas, to gift women’s rights away. This is positively Grinch-like behaviour.
“The question is will she, as the Grinch did, grow a heart and listen to women in Scotland, or forever be known as the First Minister who stole Christmas.”
George Adam, the parliamentary business minister, accused the Scottish Conservatives of attempting to shut Holyrood early “to create a Tory MSP Christmas holiday”.
He added: “There’s much talk that we’ve been trying to railroad this legislation through, rush it through. The reality is an extra week was given between stage two and stage three. There was also a request from the Labour party to have the debate for an extra hour, which I quite happily agreed.”