It is 15 years since the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the independent body charged with protecting and promoting equality and human rights for everyone in Britain, came into being. We regulate and enforce human rights and equality laws and advance rights through carefully considered recommendations for reform. While we have made significant progress over the past 15 years, there will always be more to do.
We have many and varied stakeholders – knowledgeable and effective advocates in encouraging and challenging us to address the equality and human rights issues about which they care deeply. Our relationships with civic organisations, campaigners and those they represent are vitally important in helping to inform our thinking and our priorities. But with our vast remit and so many people and groups advocating on so many issues, it is inevitable that we can’t please all of them all of the time.
My position and integrity as the EHRC’s chair have come in for particular criticism by some stakeholders, who perceive that the commission has undergone a shift in its approach. I can’t speak for how the previous chair ran things, but I can say that what matters to me, to the board and our new chief executive is that we are determined to uphold 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 this isn’t new. The EHRC has often been criticised over the years and it is not a comfortable place to be in – for our commissioners, for our committed staff or for those stakeholders who disagree with us. But it is an unavoidable part of our role in regulating a legal framework that recognises nine protected characteristics, frequently with competing rights and needs.
We have a statutory duty to consider equality and human rights for everyone and that includes how the rights of one person, or group, might be affected by the rights of another. We do not allow our decisions and actions to be swayed by the loudest voices in any particular debate. We are accountable to parliament and held to exacting standards in fulfilling our mandate.
The legal basis for our governance, including the process for the appointment of the chair and commissioners, is enshrined in our founding legislation and is unchanged since the EHRC was established. It applied to my appointment as it did for those of my predecessors under previous Labour, coalition and Conservative governments.
The latest pressure arises from the polarised debates about the rights of transgender people, who face hate crime and barriers to changing their legal gender, such as excessively long waiting times for gender identity clinics. This is wrong and we have been lobbying government to do something about it. We have also been upholding the rights of transgender people at work, in recent legal interventions with employers.
Where we have modified our position on self-ID for trans people or the Gender Recognition Act, we have done so because new evidence about the tension between trans and women’s rights is emerging. Only last week, there have been seemingly contradictory legal judgments on the meaning of “sex” in law. Other cases are in the pipeline. 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 to advise that further consideration is needed to some specific aspects of the proposals, to take account of issues raised in relation to data collection, single-sex service provision and new case law. I said absolutely nothing to suggest any wavering of our commitment to trans rights.
We have also been accused of standing in the way of a ban on “conversion therapy”. Not true. Conversion therapy is harmful and the EHRC supports it ending 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 caught by the ban and what will not.
We recommended that parliament conducts comprehensive scrutiny 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 about contested issues is necessary and I admire all who stand up for rights and causes, fight discrimination and seek equality and justice. They help our country to shape a fairer future. And so do we.
So I ask those – and it 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 have their wish?
• Baroness Falkner is the chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission