Anas Sarwar said there was clearly "anger and frustration" around the case of Isla Bryson, the double rapist who was initially held in Cornton Vale women's prison. He said rape "can only be committed by a man" and Bryson, who was previously known as Adam Graham, should never have been allowed anywhere near a women's prison.
Elsewhere, Mr Sarwar insisted Nicola Sturgeon's arrogance was "damaging Scotland" as he launched an attack on her treatment of councils. He said the Scottish Government was "growing more arrogant and out-of-touch every single day" and people across Scotland were paying the price.
Mr Sarwar, who has led his party since 2021, spoke to The Scotsman ahead of the Scottish Labour Party conference in Edinburgh this weekend.
Asked how he felt the First Minister had handled the gender row, and what he would have done differently, Mr Sarwar said: "More direct answers are always a better approach. I think there is clearly an anger and a frustration around what's happened with the individual situation. Look, as far as I'm concerned, this individual is a rapist. A rape is done by a man, and that individual should be treated as such and therefore be nowhere near a women's prison.
"And anyone who has posed a danger to women in the past or risked posing a danger in the future shouldn't be anywhere near a women's prison, and I think we should be really robust about that."
The Scottish Labour leader said the Bryson case had been conflated with the gender recognition legislation passed by MSPs before Christmas, which his party voted for. This legislation aimed to make it easier for trans people to change their legal gender, but has since been blocked by the UK Government.
Mr Sarwar said it was "wrong" for the Scottish Government to oppose amendments to the legislation around sex offenders and the protection of single-sex spaces.
He said: "The overarching feeling I get is that everyone's a loser in this. I think women who are campaigning around the protection of single-sex spaces will feel like the losers in this. I think the trans community who face huge amounts of prejudice on a daily basis – I don't think anyone could realistically argue that the fight against that form of prejudice hasn't got worse over the last couple of months; I think it has. And I think politically, we have got ourselves in a really, really bad place where I don't think we have people acting in good faith.”
Mr Sarwar said Labour had “tried to act in good faith” throughout the legislative process, adding: “We said at stage one of the GRR [Gender Recognition Reform] Bill that we thought it was a deeply flawed piece of legislation, but we supported the principles.”
He said Labour got “more safeguarding into the Bill” during its passage through Holyrood, but added he was “still disappointed” that other amendments were not backed by the Government.
Mr Sarwar added: "I think getting back to that good faith approach is where we should be if we are going to move forward from this."
Asked if Bryson is a man, he said: "To be honest with you, I don't care what way this individual identifies themselves right now. What I care about is the fact that they were found guilty of rape. Rape can only be committed by a man, and therefore they should be treated in such way by the criminal justice system. And therefore an individual who commits such a horrific act should be nowhere near a women's prison. I don't think that's controversial to say.”
Elsewhere, Mr Sarwar was asked about the cuts facing local authorities, and whether they should limit council tax rises given the cost-of-living crisis. He said: "I just find the whole issue, to be frank, horrifying. We argued for a rent freeze in the Parliament because people were struggling with their household bills. We won that argument. That came with challenges, but we won that argument based on the extent of the cost-of-living crisis.
"What is being offered right now by the SNP Government is 'pay more, get less'. So people's income taxes are going up in certain circumstances. Now, I support progressive taxation, but people need to see a change in outcome.
"My fear on the council tax issue is that people are going to see their council tax bills go up, but they're still going to see their services reduced and many services cut. And I think that 'pay more, get less' approach is not right for our country, and in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis we should be keeping those council tax rises as low as practically possible.”
Mr Sarwar said he was listening to the warnings of SNP councillors more than Ms Sturgeon is, adding: "Nicola Sturgeon seems to have this view now that she is right about everything and everyone else is wrong about everything.”
He continued: "And frankly that arrogance is going to damage Scotland, and it is damaging Scotland. I think people were willing to see through that when we were coming through the pandemic, but now I think that is having a real life, real lived experience.
"And as I say, I think I'm defending SNP councillors even more than the SNP leadership is. I don't think councillors across the country want to make these unthinkable decisions. I don't think they want to make these drastic cuts, but they're being forced to make it, not because of themselves – not because of, somehow, lack of care for their local community – they are being forced to make these cuts because of an uncaring, out-of-touch, arrogant SNP Government."
He said the Government was "growing more arrogant and more out-of-touch every single day, and who is paying the price? People across this country".
Mr Sarwar said he would be an "open-door and open-arms" First Minister, and not "face my back to half the population".
He said: "I want us to have a government again that's working in the interests of everyone in our country, and not just for the half that agree with us."
You can listen to The Scotsman’s interview with Anas Sarwar in this week’s episode of The Steamie podcast, released on Friday.