The Equality and Human Rights Commission has left Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme. Baroness Kishwer Falkner, Chair of the Commission, revealed the decision in a letter to the campaigning group Sex Matters. Baroness Falkner said “As a publicly funded organisation we have to ensure that we are making the best choices when it comes to our budget and have recently been reviewing all of our memberships. We wrote to Stonewall in March to let them know that we would not be renewing our membership, and this has now expired.”
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is an independent non-departmental public body sponsored by the Cabinet Office which monitors human rights and equality in the UK across nine grounds – age, disability, sex, race, religion and belief, pregnancy and maternity, marriage and civil partnership, sexual orientation and gender reassignment.
Sex Matters welcomed the EHRC’s decision to leave the scheme and called for the equalities watchdog to undertake an investigation into how much its internal culture and external work had been impacted by its membership of the Stonewall programme. Stonewall chief executive Nancy Kelley said ‘It is not biased to make your workplace accepting of LGBTQ+ people.’
Stonewall claims that the Diversity Champions scheme covers 25% of the UK’s workforce. It aims to “transform institutions” by “empowering them as advocates and agents of change in wider society”. Its members include around 250 government departments and public bodies including the Cabinet Office, Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, Department of Health, Crown Prosecution Service, HM Treasury, Home Office, National Crime Agency, GCHQ, MI5, Ministry of Defence, the Army, Royal Navy, House of Commons, House of Lords, National Audit Office, Ofsted, Public Health England, local authorities, police and fire services, NHS Trusts, the BBC and many universities and colleges.
Membership to the scheme starts at around £2,500, which according to Stonewall’s website, buys employers access to expert advice and resources to make their workplaces ‘inclusive’.
In an unusual move last week, Stonewall placed its previously publicly available list of 850 Diversity Champions employers behind a password protected log in. Sources suggested it may reflect the large number of resignations from the scheme particularly after Essex University’s Reindorf Review last week.
The report by barrister Akua Reindorf concluded that the University had breached the rights to freedom of expression of Professor Jo Phoenix (Open University) and Professor Rosa Freedman (University of Reading) because of preconceptions about their views on trans rights and gender identity.
The University was in breach of its statutory duty to take reasonably practicable steps to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for visiting speakers (s.43 of the Education Act (No. 2) 1986 s.43(1)), its own Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom policy, its regulatory obligations, its duties under charity law and potentially the Public Sector Equality Duty.
Reindorf found that the university had adopted policies which reflect “the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is”, and created a “culture of fear”. A spokeswoman from Stonewall defended their policies as being “based on guidance provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commission“ and Stonewall chief executive Nancy Kelley said “Stonewall was not involved in any discussions with Essex University about the cancellation of academic talks.”
Stonewall also recently criticised the EHRC for intervening in the case of Maya Forstater who lost her job at an international development think tank because of her views on sex and gender.
In a statement, the EHRC said “We think that a ‘gender critical’ belief that ‘trans women are men and trans men are women’ is a philosophical belief which is protected under the Equality Act religion or belief protections.” It added that it was important the courts protected freedom of religion or belief, even for “highly contested beliefs”, and warned that, unless these views are recognised as protected by the Equality Act, it “could leave people unprotected from discrimination and harassment and could result in a restriction of people’s freedom of speech on debates concerning transgender rights, Gender Recognition Act reform and definitions of ‘woman’ and ‘man’.”
Stonewall and the LGBT Consortium of organisations wrote to the EHRC to express their “frustration and disappointment” at the statement, saying in an open letter that the EHRC had “sent a deeply damaging message to trans people about their validity and worth” by intervening to protect freedom of belief. The letter signed by Mermaids, Gendered Intelligence, LGBT Foundation, Schools Out UK, Diversity Role Models and 37 other LGBTQIA+ groups urged the EHRC “to engage with our communities and review how the EHRC can truly play an effective role in making our human rights a reality.”
Meanwhile EHRC’s decision to quit the Diversity Champions scheme has led to calls for other organisations to do the same. Professor Alice Sullivan wrote on Twitter “EHRC have cut ties with Stonewall. Surely other organisations must now rethink” and Professor Kathleen Stock wrote “Now we need universities, the Department of Education, other government departments, police forces, local councils, the CPS, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, the Scottish government, the Labour Party, and many, many others to leave Stonewall too.” Lesbian Labour supported calls for a public inquiry into the activities of Stonewall which it said did not represent lesbians.
A full list of all the Stonewall Diversity Champion members can be found on Graham Linehan’s recent blog: https://grahamlinehan.substack.com/p/stonewall-accidentally-hide-their