IF any Yes supporters imagined the heated debate around gender identity would be dampened down by Shirley-Anne Somerville making a statement in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, they will be sorely disappointed today. This issue – which has divided SNP members, councillors, MSPs and even ministers – is not going away.

The Equalities Secretary was due to provide the chamber with an update on the Scottish Government’s review of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act (GRA), but in the end she went further and touched on some related issues that have emerged from the wider public debate about gender identity.

Significantly, she announced that schools guidance issued by LGBT Youth Scotland (which bears the Scottish Government logo) would be replaced with the government’s own, saying the charity’s guidance “was produced in good faith”, but that “the complexity of these issues means valid concerns have been raised”.

READ MORE: Scots transgender reforms delayed after backlash from women's groups

Meanwhile, as many trans rights campaigners had feared, the can of GRA reform has been kicked down the road. Not only have the reforms proposed in a 2018 consultation been amended, but a further consultation on the draft bill will take place before it begins its journey through parliament. This should ensure more detailed scrutiny of what the proposals will mean in practice, and not just for the small minority of people who identify as trans.

Only time will tell how this period of extra scrutiny – and the long-awaited Equality Impact Assessments that go along with it – will shape the bill. In the meantime, what can be learned from the current mess the Scottish Government finds itself in? What guiding principles could prevent further almighty policy headaches in future?

1. Don’t make promises you might not be able to keep

Campaigners have reacted with anger to the news that the GRA reform they were promised by the end of the parliament may not materialise. After responses to an initial public consultation backed these changes, they were confident it was only a mater of time. The Scottish Government could almost certainly have pushed a bill through Holyrood, given every party made manifesto commitments to reform the GRA, but what Somerville made clear yesterday is that she wants public support too. That means at least attempting to answer the valid questions that have been asked about the impact of allowing people to simply self-declare their legal sex rather than submit medical and other evidence to a professional panel.

2. Consider unintended consequences

When the Scottish Government brought forward its flagship Named Person proposals, the intentions were clear: multiple child protection reviews had identified a lack of information-sharing by agencies as a key factor in horrific deaths. The intention was never to undermine the rights enshrined by the European Convention on Human Rights, but good intentions do not override legal obligations and the plans were halted in their tracks by the UK Supreme Court.

Just as the Named Person policy was designed to protect at-risk children, GRA reform is designed to make life easier for trans people who wish to be recognised in law as the opposite sex. But each policy has potentially far-reaching implications.

Somerville is confident that reforms to the devolved GRA will have no bearing on the sex exemptions enshrined in the reserved Equality Act, which allows organisations to discriminate on the basis of sex where this is a “proportionate means to achieve a legitimate aim”, such as when recruiting for a specific role. However, what has not yet be adequately explained is how a person’s actual sex can be ascertained once their birth certificate has been altered.

3. Bear in mind “good faith” is no substitute for good policy

Few would imagine that LGBT Youth Scotland had anything but good intentions in producing guidance on trans issues for schools. Who wouldn’t want teachers to be briefed on how to respond sensitively to children who identify as trans? But good faith does not guarantee good policy. When the grassroots group Women and Girls in Scotland carried out a children’s rights impact assessment, it found the guidance potentially breached more than a dozen articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Scottish Government appears to have taken note. But why was this work left to ordinary women, working for free, and not carried out long before now by the civil servants who are paid to scrutinise policy?

4. Consult widely

The original public consultation on GRA reform may have been highlighted in these pages, but it’s fair to say most members of the Scottish public had no idea it was happening. Or, if they did, they had no sense of how the proposals might impact on women’s rights. Analysing consultation responses is not just a counting exercise – it’s an invaluable opportunity to identify unintended consequences and take steps to address them. Where the “usual suspects” in a given policy area are funded by the same government that is doing the consulting, it is all the more important to hear other voices.

5. Say what you mean

Some of those who did access the 2018 consultation may have been stumped before they even began, as it conflated “sex” and “gender” and failed to define key terms. Given the central importance of language in the debate about gender identity, drafting a fresh consultation document in neutral terms will be tricky. To whoever is landed with that challenging task: good luck.