The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is a non-departmental public body in England and Wales that was established by the Equality Act in 2006. Meanwhile, Scotland and Northern Ireland have separate bodies working towards the same end. Lately, however, the EHRC has been under fire for promoting views of anti-trans lobby groups while ignoring trans and LGBT+ rights groups. The Wikipedia page for the Commission currently reads: “Since 2021, the organisation has increasingly targeted and worked against LGBT rights, especially transgender rights.”
Last year, a former Chair of the EHRC said that the appointments made by Liz Truss—Minister for Women and Equalities since 2019, as well as now Foreign Secretary—weakened its independence. Liberty, the UK’s largest civil liberties organisation, has said that the EHRC’s status as a national human rights institution should be “reviewed.”
Baroness Kishwer Falkner, the EHRC Chair, recently wrote to the Scottish government to advise further consideration before undertaking reform of gender recognition in Scotland—despite not one but two large-scale public consultations—as well as this law being part of devolved powers and, thus, beyond her remit. EHRC Scotland came out in favour of significant reform several years ago, following the initial public consultation.
19 of the UK’s major LGBT+ rights groups have, in recent months, formally severed ties with the EHRC. These groups are now in a coalition led by Stonewall appealing to the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) calling for the body to lose its ‘A-rating’—which would be an unprecedented move. In an open letter, dozens of leaders of trans and LGBTQ+ organisations wrote: “The EHRC has a wide range of powers it could use to make equality a reality for our communities, whether influencing public policy debates, strategically litigating to advance our rights, catalysing change in complex policy areas like healthcare or providing guidance that resolves uncertainty and ambiguity about delivering our rights in reality.”
They continued: “It was a kick in the teeth to trans people to see the EHRC appear to put their organisational weight behind a movement that has only contributed to rising hate for trans people in communities, creating a policy environment where it is harder for trans people to access their rights.”
Ben Hunte—formerly at the BBC but now reporting for VICE—has broken several stories about suspicious and prejudiced behaviour at the EHRC. Although they claim to reach out to groups representing a variety of positions, it seems they have given preferential treatment to vocally anti-trans groups, such as the LGB Alliance and Fair Play For Women.
Recent emails, some sent from Falkner’s parliamentary address and not the official EHRC one, show collusion with various anti-trans organisations. For example, Falkner deferred a response to questions from the Sunday Times in order to wait and hear the opinions of Fair Play To Women. VICE has also reported that staff are quitting the EHRC due to institutionalised transphobia, with current and former staff members describing an “anti-LGBT” culture at the commission.
This past week, The Guardian published an op-ed by Falkner, in which she defended her position—building on recent official statements published via the EHRC’s Twitter account that sought to “downplay, minimise and deny the recent revelations.” In the piece, Falkner provided no evidence to support her rebuttals and repeated multiple meaningless platitudes. She made no reference to the fact that the UK’s major LGBT+ and trans rights groups have severed ties with her organisation. There have been many and repeated calls for Falkner to resign—although her replacement would, similarly, be installed by Truss.
Another appointee currently on the board of the EHRC is Alasdair Henderson, a barrister who took part in a landmark case regarding trans rights in the UK. In 2020, he represented Keira Bell, a young woman who took legal action against the NHS to halt the use of puberty blockers in children aged 16 and under. The case was, initially, successful and the NHS removed all medical treatment for trans children—until the decision was overturned by appeal nearly a year later. On Twitter, Henderson has also liked and reposted tweets criticising Black Lives Matter protesters and has described words such as ‘misogynist’ and ‘homophobe’ as “highly ideological propaganda terms.”
All this comes at a moment when LGBT+ rights are under threat across Europe and beyond. ILGA-Europe revealed many serious concerns for LGBT+ rights in the UK in their 2022 Annual Report, noting: “Anti-trans rhetoric continued to cause serious damage in the UK again this year. Civil society reports that mainstream newspapers ran one or more anti-trans articles every day.” The Council of Europe recently approved a motion that included the acknowledgement of “virulent attacks on the rights of LGBTI people that have been occurring for several years in, amongst other countries, Hungary, Poland, the Russian Federation, Turkey and the United Kingdom.” The fact that the UK is placed among such company, where anti-LGBT+ legislation and violence is rife, should be of concern to us all.
The LGBT+ community of the UK needs support to fight for our rights and the EHRC—in its current state, with its current leadership—is fundamentally unsuited to this role.