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Are some protected characteristics more equal than others?

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission is the national body whose job it is to make Britain fairer, to uphold our rights under the Equality Act. It specifically protects the rights of nine different groups of people called the protected characteristics: age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation. The job of the EHRC is to foster good relations between the characteristics, look at impacts of new legislation and stand against discrimination for all nine categories.

The Women and Equalities Committee is a group of MPs who are tasked with upholding equality law including the Equality act and to scrutinise the work of the EHRC. How is this panning out in practice?

Well, this week the EHRC met with the WEC to discuss their current work and progress. It would be remiss of anyone documenting this meeting to not point out the transparent hostility aimed at the new EHRC board representatives.

The meeting was chaired by Caroline Nokes (MP and chair of WEC) who, along with some other WEC members, has on previous occasions seemed to support gender self-ID. The notable exception is Jackie Doyle-Price MP who is openly gender critical.

The WEC began their questioning with Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP asking about the EHRCs apparent change in direction with regards GRA reform, and pointedly questioned if they had overstepped their remit of simply upholding the law when they recently wrote to the Scottish government regarding plans to reform the GRA.

Baroness Falkner (EHRC) responded by trying to establish a courteous discourse and explained that they had been looking carefully into specific legislation like GRA reform and the prospective Conversion Therapy Bill, as well as specific legal cases to get an in-depth view, and what had transpired was that Scotland had moved in a different direction to the rest of the UK. The EHRC represents the whole of the UK, and its job is to uphold the Equality act. She pointed out that GRA reform in Scotland had potential to impact the rest of the UK.

Bell then implied that the EHRC had disregarded certain legislation, but Falkner pushed back by asking for clarification on which legislation and then explained that the EHRC can advise on any equality legislation because their remit is to uphold the Equality act.

The next round of questioning related to the recently released practical guidance for single sex spaces.

Kim Johnson MP seemed to indicate that the guidance had been poorly received by some LGBT groups and she asked about how stakeholders had received the guidance.

Marcial Boo (EHRC) explained that the main stakeholders are the service providers. They had previously been put in a difficult position without clear advice. The overwhelming response from service providers is that they welcome the guide particularly the practical examples. Marcial acknowledged that of course there are other stakeholders who have received the guidance both positively and negatively. However, overall clarity has meant that people can know in advance what services are available and to whom, which is a benefit to all.

The Conversion Therapy Bill was the next item to be discussed and Baroness Falkner was asked what additional research was required? Whether the EHRC supported the government’s U-turn on having a blanket ban on conversion therapy? And whether the EHRC supported a ban on conversion therapy?

Baroness Falkner again handled this deftly and explained they are in agreement with not only banning but ending conversion therapy for all LGBT people. They welcomed the government’s decision to ban conversion therapy for LGB people, but they felt that with regard to transgender issues the evidence and terms of definition were too vague and needed to be clear in order to work in the best interests of all. They had written to the Secretary of State for health and advised that the waiting times for gender medical treatment was too long. They mentioned the interim Cass review to substantiate their stance and approach on this subject.

Towards the end of the meeting Jackie Doyle-Price MP began to talk about the distinction between LGB and T people and asked if the government have somewhat passed the buck onto the EHRC. She stated that it has become increasingly clear that there exists a conflict of rights, and she wondered if Parliament needed to look more closely at the whole sex, sexuality and gender discussion.

Falkner agreed that it’s been a very sensitive topic and she felt that this would be helpful.

The meeting drew to a close with discussion about the EHRCs budget for this current year. It is perhaps important to note, that the EHRC has not yet had this year’s budget set, and that the WEC can advise on its budget. This raises a question regarding the independence of the EHRC. Typically, the EHRC has had a budget of a little over £17 million per year. Last year the Commission dealt with approximately 50,000 cases of discrimination mostly through solicitors. Generally, women are in more precarious (and often part time) employment and are probably less able to access solicitors to handle discrimination cases at work. This perhaps impedes women’s voices being directly heard and represented by the EHRC.

So, what was the outcome of the meeting? The WEC grilled the EHRC on the letter to the Scottish government, the guidance on single sex spaces, and the advice around the proposed conversion therapy bill. Each issue raised was regarding Gender and Sex, which begs the question, “Is the WEC really committed to upholding all nine protected characteristics that they are meant to represent?"

Why were they driven to focus purely on LGBT issues when over the last two years there have been so many impacts on all the protected characteristics?

One wonders why they didn’t ask about the impact on the elderly of spending the best part of two years in isolation?

Perhaps they could have enquired how poverty was impacting school children and people with disabilities?

Maybe they could even have scrutinised the increasing numbers of femicide and domestic violence cases that have occurred during the pandemic?

But none of these issues were raised. The WEC potentially has an impact on the budget of the EHRC which surely makes its independence questionable.

Despite the hostile inquisition the EHRC did well on defending their stance this time. They used well-researched evidence and had impact assessments to hand.

However, it seems apparent that on this occasion that the WEC were more interested in just the one protected characteristic, that of gender reassignment. Maybe it’s a case of although all protected characteristics are equal, some protected characteristics are more equal than others.

List of speakers at the meeting:

Baroness Falkner, Chairwoman,

Marcial Boo, CEO

Melanie Field, Chief Strategy and Policy Officer

Caroline Nokes MP, Chair

Bell Ribeiro-Addy MP

Kim Johnson MP

Jackie Doyle-Price MP



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