Stonewall’s diversity scheme accused of being unlawful

Photo: Transgender symbol

The ‘diversity champions’ scheme run by LGBTQ+ charity Stonewall has been accused of providing unlawful advice on transgender rights.

Last week Essex University apologised for cancelling invitations to speak to two academics accused by some campaigners for being transphobic.

Jo Phoenix, an Open University professor in criminology at the Open University, had been booked to speak at a Centre for Criminology seminar on trans rights, imprisonment and the criminal justice system in 2019. But the event was cancelled after protests about her inclusion. Rosa Freedman, a professor of law development and global conflict at Reading University, was to be invited to speak at an event on antisemitism. She was dropped but reinstated after she complained.

Stonewall promotes its diversity champions scheme as “the leading employers’ programme for ensuring all LGBT staff are accepted without exception in the workplace”, and uses it to vet members’ policies.

An independent report published by Essex University concluded that Stonewall’s advice was misleading and potentially illegal by misrepresenting the Equality Act 2010 to suggest the legislation included “gender identity”.

The report’s author, barrister Akua Reindorf, suggested the university should reconsider its ties to the campaigning group. Her report stated that the wording of the university’s policy on supporting trans and non-binary staff could have been used to support the idea that newspaper letters on trans issues, written by the two academics, could amount to or lead to unlawful harassment.

“This policy is founded on an erroneous understanding of the law,” said Reindorf.  “In my view the policy states the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is. To that extent the policy is misleading.”

The policy said it was unlawful under the Equality Act 2010 to discriminate against someone because of their gender identity or trans status. But Reindorf’s report said this did not accurately state the law, since “gender identity or trans status” were not protected characteristics; rather, the protected characteristic was gender reassignment.

Acas and the Equality and Human Rights Commission have withdrawn from the scheme – Acas last year and the EHRC in March this year.

Both organisations said they had withdrawn on cost grounds with the EHRC adding that membership of the scheme did not represent value for money.

An Acas spokesperson said: “We regularly review our memberships of professional organisations to ensure that we get the best value for money. Due to cost reasons, we did not renew our membership of the Stonewall Diversity Champion scheme last year. We support the work that Stonewall does to help make workplaces inclusive.”

Liz Ward, director of programmes at Stonewall, confirmed Acas’s decision to withdraw from the scheme and said it was up to employers how they met statutory requirements.

She said: “We are incredibly proud of our longstanding relationship with the University of Essex through the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme. It’s so important that universities create an environment where LGBTQ+ staff and students feel safe, are treated fairly and can thrive. We provide expert advice to more than 850 organisations who are members of the Diversity Champions programme. Our advice on the Equality Act is based on guidance provided by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which was recently reaffirmed in the High Court.”

A Stonewall statement on its website referring to the withdrawal of EHRC from diversity champion membership said: “It’s great that EHRC can lead this vital work to support LGBTQ+ employees on their own and we continue to work with EHRC on a wide range of public policy matters.”

Stonewall was founded in 1989 (it is named after the Greenwich Village riots in New York in 1969) to protect and expand the rights of gay, lesbian and bisexual people at time when the Conservative government had introduced Section 28 to prevent the “promotion” of homosexuality. Among its founders was Times columnist Matthew Parris who wrote this week that Stonewall should not involve itself with trans issues.

He said: “Stonewall should have stood clear. Now it seems to have dived into the judicial issue of whether would-be trans children can consent to chemical or surgical intervention. This is not something on which gays, lesbians or bisexuals can speak with greater authority than any other citizen. I repeat: it has nothing to do with us.”

Stonewall has published a web page defending the diversity champions scheme from what it calls “misinformation”.

This story has been amended to clarify that Acas left the diversity champion scheme in 2020 and not recently as may have been originally implied.


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