A FORMER governor of the country's only women's prison has resigned from the SNP over the Scottish Government's Hate Crime Bill and its plans to make it easier for people to change their gender.

Rhona Hotchkiss, who had signed the party's Women Pledge, announced she had left as the party prepares for its annual conference this weekend.

Hotchkiss, a former govenor of Cornton Vale Prison in Stirling, directed a message to party leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

She wrote on Twitter: "@theSNP @NicolaSturgeon I resign. I cannot be in a party where the abuse of women goes uncommented on, where campaigning around retaining the meaning of ‘woman’ will become a prosecutable offence & where our most vulnerable women are sacrificed on the altar of men’s feelings."

Appearing before a Holyrood committee earlier this week Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf confirmed activists who promote the view that a trans woman is not a woman will be breaking the law if a court rules their campaign was intended to stir up hatred.

Yousaf said it would not be a crime to express the opinion that sex is immutable unless it was accompanied by behaviour that was intended to stir up hatred, which could include aggressive campaigning.

The Hate Crime Bill will criminalise threatening and abusive comments intended to stir up hatred against minorities. 

READ MORE: Section of Hate Crime Bill covering theatre performances to be removed

But it has provoked a backlash from actors including Rowan Atkinson and Elaine C Smith, the authors Chris Brookmyre and Val McDermid and the Scottish Newspaper Society, who fear it will have a “chilling effect” on public debate about divisive social issues.

Lucy Hunter Blackburn, founder of the women’s rights activists Murray Blackburn Mckenzie, raised concerns last week that anyone who describes a woman as an “adult human female” would face a police investigation.

Yousaf told the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee on Monday that expressing such opinions would be lawful unless accompanied by behaviour intended to stir up hatred.

The Government's gender reform plans have also led to tensions in the SNP.

Last year it emerged a number of senior figures in the party expressed concerns about its proposed changes to gender recognition laws, as they launched a pledge calling for women to have the right to discuss such policies.

Several women at the launch for the SNP Women’s pledge, which took place last year at the party's annual conference in Aberdeen, said they were close to quitting the party because of what they considered to be a refusal by officials to address concerns that women and girls could fall victim to predatory men or lose access to single-sex services.

At the private meeting some attendees spoke about being labelled transphobes for raising concerns, to the extent they felt “pushed underground”.

Hotchkiss was among those who attended the Women's Pledge launch, and said afterwards that the meeting had made her optimistic. “I think this will have an impact because we’re the first political party to come out saying women have the right to discuss these issues without being threatened or abused. This has stopped me from leaving the party. When you see a group of people together like this it gives me hope.”

The National revealed earlier this year that the Scottish Government was likely to put on hold its gender recognition reform plans amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Advocates for a law change say that making the process of acquiring a gender recognition certificate less intrusive and bureaucratic, for example by removing the requirement for medical evidence, will benefit transgender individuals without having any impact on services available to women.

Transgender rights groups also point out that there is already an absolute commitment from the Scottish Government to consult more widely on the changes, which has been welcomed by LGBT organisations, and that potential unintended consequences should be discussed openly.

The First Minister has previously stated that she does not see “the greater recognition of transgender rights as a threat to me as a woman or to my feminism”.