LGBT+ Groups Launch Legal Challenge to Equalities Watchdog

A coalition of 19 LGBT+ organisations led by Stonewall and supported by the Good Law Project,  have submitted evidence to the UN, calling for the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to lose its ‘A’ rating.

In a 19-page submission to the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI), Stonewall said that they wanted the EHRC’s status as an independent group revoked, arguing that the EHRC has become “excessively” influenced by the UK government in the appointments of the chair and board members, who are chosen by the Minister of the Government Equalities Office, Liz Truss.

On Stonewall’s decision, Chief Executive Nancy Kelley commented “the politicisation of the UK’s human rights body has placed trans people in the firing line, but this attempt to create a hierarchy of human rights in the UK is a very real threat to everyone, particularly those of us protected by the Equality Act.”

In response to the move, the EHRC’s Chief Executive Marcial Boo insisted that “instead of criticising the statutory regulator that exists to protect the rights of everyone in Britain, campaign groups should work with us to identify discrimination against LGBT people, so we can take action together to stop it.”

Transphobia at the EHRC

This comes following two recent statements from the EHRC that were widely criticised as transphobic. One called for Scotland to pause plans to make it easier for people to change their sex on their birth certificate and the other called for the Government’s upcoming ban on conversion therapy to exclude trans people from its scope.  

An increasing amount of evidence has emerged in recent weeks, showing that the EHRC has been actively adopting a gender critical stance. Emails leaked to Ben Hunte, a reporter for VICE showed that executives of the Commission had met with anti-trans lobbyists from the LGB Alliance and Fair Play for Women. Further reports showed that a leaked guidance pack from the EHRC dated from the end of 2021 advised businesses and other organisations to “protect women” by barring trans people without a gender recognition certificate (99% of trans people) from their single-sex spaces.  

There have also been reports that staff at the EHRC have been complaining of a growing anti-trans culture, with some quitting their posts and others considering strike action.

A Change of Culture

The submission argues that since Liz Truss’ appointments to the EHRC took up their roles, there has been a marked change in the EHRC’s stance on trans rights. In 2018, the EHRC said that it was its “firm legal view” that reform of the Gender Recognition Act would not affect women-only services, a view that was reiterated by the Commission in 2020. However, in January 2022, the EHRC called for Scotland’s plans to be paused, citing concerns around single-sex services, without elaborating on what these concerns were.

A former employee of the EHRC told VICE News “I was seeing our upcoming publications and guidance pushing for trans rights being changed – or completely scrapped and shelved permanently – meanwhile the Board was building links to anti-trans groups. It was awful.”

In February 2021, Baroness Kishwer Falkner was appointed as Chair of the Commission. One former employee commented that Falkner had personally edited EHRC publications on trans people, making the documents more gender critical, contradicting the EHRC’s guidance on protecting people’s rights based on gender reassignment. Commenting on this, they said “one paper was so heavily edited by Falkner that it left people speechless. She changed the case studies, the language… it was so transphobic, there was no way it would get published.”

Final Thought

Concerns about the politicisation of the EHRC are not new. Given that the responsibility for appointing commissioners lies with the Secretary of State for the Government Equalities Office, there have been ongoing concerns about political influence being exerted on the Commission. The appointments of commissioners such as Swaran Singh, David Goodhart, and Jessica Butcher sparked similar worries. Only a year ago, former Chair David Isaac commented that the EHRC was being pressured to support the Government’s policy agenda.

However, the backlash that the regulator is now receiving from the LGBT+ community is more significant. Were the UN to review the EHRC and find the body to be in violation of the ‘Paris Principles’ (which lays out the role and functions of national human rights institutions), it could lead to the revoking of its independent status.

Were it to be found by the UN that the watchdog had been politicised and influenced by the Government Equalities Office, this could spell disaster for the Government.  With the UK hosting the Safe To Be Me Conference this summer (a global conference on LGBT+ equality), any downgrade of the EHRC’s ratings would only exacerbate to what may perceive to be the UK’s ongoing regression as a global leader on LGBT+ issues.

While the UK’s reputation as a socially progressive country was strong on the back of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act of 2013, the same is not true now. In late January, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) identified the UK as notable for “extensive and often virulent attacks on the rights of LGBT+ people” in recent years, placing the UK alongside Russia, Poland and Hungary as places where this was of most concern, in particular singling out the rising anti-trans rhetoric in UK Government.

However, as we move towards the Safe To Be Me Conference, it is clear that this won’t be the end of the conversation.

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