Trans rights are at risk now, but the failures of Britain’s equality watchdog imperil us all | Nancy Kelley

The EHRC is no longer independent. That’s why we are seeking international intervention from the UN

  • Nancy Kelley is the chief executive of Stonewall

Human rights must take precedence over personal beliefs and political whims. That is why there are strong international mechanics in place to ensure national human rights bodies can operate independently of their governments.

However, here in the UK, these mechanics are wheezing under the weight of a string of appointments to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that run counter to human rights for all.

As a result, Stonewall wrote to the UN last week to seek a special review into the EHRC. It was a move we did not take lightly – but the body’s recent actions have left us with no choice.

Concerns about the EHRC’s independence and integrity are long-running and spread across various human rights movements. But for those in the LGBTQ+ sector, things came to a head in January when the EHRC made two public policy interventions that appear designed to hold back human rights protections for trans people.

The first was an attempt to intervene in the Scottish government’s reform of the Gender Recognition Act. After years of publicly supporting reform, the EHRC suddenly changed position. In a letter from the chair, they asked for the plans to be put on pause, despite recognising “that many trans people have criticised the current process to obtain a GRC as being intrusive, medically based, bureaucratic, expensive and lengthy”.

The law hasn’t changed. The day to day lives of trans people haven’t changed, and the complete inadequacy of our current process for amending trans people’s birth certificates hasn’t changed. The only thing that changed was the composition of the EHRC commissioners.

The second intervention was the EHRC response to the UK government’s consultation on banning “conversion therapy”. “Conversion therapy” is a term used to describe practices that have the goal of changing or suppressing someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity. These practices don’t work, of course, and they cause serious and sometimes lifelong harm. “Conversion therapy” is abuse, plain and simple, and it is rightly condemned by the UN human rights community, of which the EHRC is a part. Yet two years after a UN expert called for a global ban on all forms of conversion therapy, and as countries around the world (including most recently New Zealand, Canada and France) bring in bans, the EHRC is arguing against reform. Instead, it advocates more delay, and argues the government should consider moving forward with a ban that covers sexual orientation while leaving trans people unprotected.

The position of the international human rights community hasn’t changed. The harm being caused by this abuse hasn’t changed. Again, there was just one variable that could account for the EHRC’s sudden change in heart: the people making the decisions.

The result is the complete collapse in trust between the EHRC and the LGBTQ+ human rights movement. The EHRC’s recent stances have created a situation where the absurd now seems possible.

Just last week, we saw leaked reports that suggested the EHRC was considering publishing guidance that would restrict access to single-sex spaces like changing rooms and toilets to the small minority of trans people who have gone through the arduous and humiliating process required to get a gender recognition certificate. Imagine, for a second, a world where you are asked to show identity documents for the most mundane of activities: using the toilets at the train station, or to get into the gym changing rooms. It feels bizarre, unthinkable even. Yet it’s happened in the US, where a series of “bathroom bills” have been passed and then revoked because of the damage they cause – not just to trans people, but to all of us who don’t fit into narrow, neat little boxes.

The EHRC has denied it considered taking this step, which is very welcome. Nonetheless EHRC has confirmed that guidance on single sex spaces is coming soon, and given the body’s recent record, the trans community is awaiting it with trepidation.

We believe the EHRC no longer meets the minimum international requirements of a top-tier national Human Rights institution. That’s why 18 trans-led and LGBT charities in the UK have supported our submission to the UN asking for a special review of the EHRC’s “A” rating. The public agrees: in just 48 hours, more than 10,000 people signed our petition to support that call.

Our argument is simple. The UN has for years criticised the EHRC for its lack of independence. The government is involved in appointing EHRC commissioners, ministers hold annual reviews with the chair, the government controls EHRC funding, and it has no independent relationship with parliament. The risk this creates – that the EHRC will not act to promote and protect the rights of all its citizens, but instead will be swayed by personal whims and the politics of the day – has now become a reality.

This does not appear to be an isolated occurrence. Our sister movements have in the past few years called out the EHRC for failing on key issues on race, on Islamophobia, and on disability rights. We all deserve better. We deserve a truly independent national human rights institution that puts people above politics and stands up for the rights of all.

Human rights simply have to rise above the politics of the day. Trans rights may be in the firing line now, but failings in our national human rights body are a threat to us all.

  • Nancy Kelley is the chief executive of Stonewall

Nancy Kelley

The GuardianTramp

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