I15 years have passed since the establishment of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the independent body charged with protecting and promoting equality and human rights for all in Britain. We regulate and enforce human rights and equality laws and advance rights through carefully considered recommendations for reform. Although we have made significant progress over the past 15 years, there will always be more to do.
We have many and varied stakeholders – skilled and effective advocates who encourage and challenge us to address the equality and human rights issues that matter to them. Our relationships with civic organizations, activists and those they represent are vitally important in informing our thinking and priorities. But with our broad mandate and so many people and groups advocating for so many issues, it’s inevitable that we can’t please them all all the time.
My position and integrity as chair of the EHRC has come under particular criticism from some stakeholders, who perceive that the commission has undergone a shift in its approach. I can’t speak to how the previous president ran things, but I can say that what matters to me, to the board and to our new CEO is that we are committed to maintain our independence, impartiality, evidence-based decision-making, and to resist undue influence from any quarter.
This has put us at odds with some of our stakeholders recently, but that’s nothing new. The EHRC has often been criticized over the years and it is not a comfortable place to be – for our Commissioners, for our committed staff or for stakeholders who disagree with us. But it is an inevitable part of our role in regulating a legal framework that recognizes nine protected characteristics, often with competing rights and needs.
We have a legal obligation to consider equality and human rights for all and this includes how the rights of one person or group may be affected by the rights of another. We do not allow our decisions and actions to be influenced by the loudest voices in any particular debate. We are accountable to Parliament and held to high standards in fulfilling our mandate.
The legal basis for our governance, including the process for appointing the Chair and Commissioners, is enshrined in our founding law and has not changed since the EHRC was established. This applied to my appointment as to those of my predecessors under previous Labour, Coalition and Conservative governments.
The latest pressure comes from polarized debates over the rights of transgender people, who face hate crimes and barriers to changing their legal sex, such as excessively long wait times for gender identity clinics. . This is wrong and we have been lobbying the government to do something about it. We have also defended the rights of transgender people in the workplace, in recent legal interventions with employers.
Where we have changed our position on trans self-identification or gender recognition law, we have done so because new evidence of the tension between trans and women’s rights is emerging. Just last week, there were seemingly conflicting legal judgments about what “sex” means in law. Other files are in preparation. Recently, public responses to our strategic plan have shown a huge increase in concern about these competing rights.
Last month I wrote to the Scottish Government advising it needed further consideration of specific aspects of the proposals, to address issues raised around data collection, gender-segregated service provision and new case law. I said absolutely nothing to suggest any hesitation in our commitment to trans rights.
We have also been accused of obstructing the ban on “conversion therapy”. Not true. Conversion therapy is harmful and the EHRC supports its end for both sexual orientation and being transgender. We have advised the UK government that a lack of legal definitions of terms such as ‘being trans’ risks ambiguity about what will be covered by the ban and what will not.
We have recommended that Parliament carry out a thorough review of the legislation to ensure not only that harmful practices are prevented, but also that transgender people can receive the advice and support they need.
Debate on contested issues is necessary and I admire all those who defend rights and causes, fight discrimination and seek equality and justice. They help our country shape a fairer future. And U.S. too.
So I ask those – and this is a minority – who seek to undermine the EHRC: what do they hope to achieve and who do they think will protect and advance equality and human rights in our country? if they wish?