The Chair of the UK’s equality watchdog, Kishwer Falkner, is set to be investigated following a series of complaints about her from current and former staff members at the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
According to Channel 4 news, Baroness Falkner has been subject to over 40 complaints, resulting in a king’s counsel (KC) being drafted in to investigate her. It is alleged that the ex-Lib Dem peer has created a “toxic environment” within the EHRC.
It is said that staff have become concerned about an apparent “lack of trust in the impartiality and independence” of the organisation in recent years. Falkner was appointed as the Commission’s chair in 2020 by then-equalities minister, Liz Truss.
Last year, one in four staff members who worked directly in the enforcement of equality and non-discrimination laws left the commission, indicating that there has been some unease about the organisation’s direction for some time.
One of the biggest concerns from staff members in recent years has related to how the commission has tackled LGBT+ issues. Last year, the EHRC wrote to the Scottish government telling them to pause their plans to make gender recognition simpler via self-identification.
Not long after, the EHRC published controversial guidance which stated that transgender people could be excluded from single-sex services, such as toilets, hospital wards and changing rooms, if the reasons are “justifiable”.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for staff members may well have come last month when Kemi Badenoch, the equalities minister, wrote to the EHRC asking for advice on whether sex should mean biological sex in law. Falkner wrote back to Badenoch saying that the commission would support that line of thought.
According to Vice News, this resulted in seven senior officials resigning from the commission citing the “transphobic direction” they perceived Falkner to be pushing.
This was amplified by the fact that 30 LGBT+ groups wrote the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) saying that Falkner had “completely failed to engage with significant recommendations given to it for improvement to their governance and conduct”.
Her comments about the LGBT+ community haven’t been great either. According to the Channel 4 report, in one meeting the baroness labelled a transgender quiz show contestant as a “bloke in lipstick.”
Speaking exclusively to Chamber UK, Caroline Nokes MP and Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, asserted “I am very concerned to read of the allegations of bullying and discrimination at the EHRC. The equalities watchdog should be beyond reproach, and I am relieved an independent barrister has been brought in to investigate what appear to be very serious allegations”.
“Obviously the rate of staff turnover is calling into question the management style at the Commission, and this is an area the Select Committee I Chair has both highlighted to the Commission and asked for further detail. The EHRC is next scheduled to give evidence to the Committee on 12th July and I have no doubt staffing issues will be examined in detail at that meeting”.
The commission’s response
In light of the looming investigation, the Chief Executive of the EHRC Marcial Boo said “We are disappointed with ongoing media reporting concerning an internal investigation. We have a duty to deal with complaints in confidence. We are also required to protect the integrity of internal investigations. We urge all media to avoid prejudicing the outcome.
Our staff operate with neutrality and professionalism. Some legal issues on which we advise, particularly relating to sex and gender, can be very complex, and there are a range of views among our experts, as in society.
We treat allegations of bullying and harassment with the utmost seriousness, following the proper process, and instructing independent investigators where appropriate, in order to provide assurance to all parties concerned.
It would be wrong to comment on specifics when investigations are ongoing.”
Baroness Falkner has also released a statement, amid calls for her to immediately resign. Standing firm, though, she said “It was considered appropriate to investigate the allegations through an independent investigator. While that process continues, all I can do is explain that allegations were received in February in my capacity as Chair of the Commission.
I, of course, take these allegations very seriously and with humility. I will be cooperating fully with the investigation and have every confidence in being exonerated.
I am always prepared to take criticism, to reflect on my decisions and to hear from those I may have inadvertently upset by my actions or those of the Board.”
The investigation into the allegations against Baroness Falkner and the EHRC highlights the importance of maintaining impartiality and independence in the workplace, particularly in an organisation tasked with promoting equality and human rights.
While it is important to respect the privacy of the complainants and the investigation process, it is also crucial to address the concerns raised and ensure that the EHRC operates in a fair and inclusive manner. The allegations of a toxic environment and transphobic direction are serious and should be thoroughly investigated.
It is essential for the EHRC to maintain the trust and confidence of its staff and the public it serves and if nothing else, this investigation should give the commission a nudge to reaffirm their commitment to supporting the LGBT+ community.