Employees are quitting Britain’s equalities and human rights watchdog because they say it has become “transphobic” and “the enemy of human rights”, VICE World News has learned.
Some staff members have left the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) without having new jobs lined up, and morale among many employees still there is described as extremely poor. Some staff are considering strike action.
Three whistleblowers – still working at the EHRC – told VICE World News about an “anti-LGBT” culture being adopted by senior leaders at the organisation which is compelling non-executive staff to quit.
This comes as VICE World News obtained leaked emails and documents showing leaders at the EHRC being actively involved in removing rights from trans people in the courts, as well as holding meetings with “gender critical” groups.
VICE World News has also spoken to six senior staff members who have either recently left the EHRC, or they are currently working their notice period.
Staff described board members changing their work – making the documents “transphobic and seriously inaccurate”. When some employees complained, they were locked out of laptops and disciplinary action was taken against them.
One ex-employee said: “I was seeing our upcoming publications and guidance pushing for trans rights being changed – or completely scrapped and shelved permanently – meanwhile the Board was building links to anti-trans groups. It was awful.”
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Asked about our findings, a spokesperson denied that the EHRC or its senior leaders were anti-trans, and while the Commission had seen an increase in staff turnover, this was due to other factors.
“We take pride in our diverse workforce and their specialist skills. We are an independent regulator with a statutory mandate to protect and promote equality and human rights for everyone,” the spokesperson said. “Where those rights may conflict, our role is to advise on striking an appropriate balance.”
All current EHRC employees and ex-employees wanted to speak anonymously, including not mentioning their roles. They are scared of a backlash from EHRC leaders, and fear losing their current jobs. Meanwhile, recent union meetings - discussing staff concerns - have been attended by over half of the EHRC's employees.
An employee who recently left said: “When I started in 2018, we were all celebrating LGBT rights and the EHRC was pushing to make the UK better for LGBT people. It’s like working for a different organisation now.”
They continued: “Trans rights don’t personally affect me, but it’s the fact that I have to look into the eyes of my trans friends and they know that I’m a part of something damaging them.
“Staff are being pushed to not be so ‘woke’, and forced to be more impartial, but then we’re seeing statements from our leaders that are transphobic, or racist, and incredibly damaging.”
Another added: “I left a few weeks ago. It’s a terrifying time to be there. I didn’t realise the impact it was having on my well-being until I got out.” They said they had worked at the organisation for a few years, which was long enough to see a “huge” change when new leadership came in.
“I wanted to join the Commission because I knew the power that it had to make an impact in the human rights space. Most people in the UK don’t even know the EHRC exists, but it can really hold the government to account.”
The EHRC was established in 2007 by the then Labour government to monitor human rights in England, Wales and Scotland, and to enforce equality laws based on protected characteristics, such as sexuality, gender reassignment, race and religion. Although not part of a government department, the EHRC is a public sector organisation funded by the taxpayer, with senior leaders appointed by the government. The organisation’s “vision and purpose”, which is embedded in staff email signatures, says it is committed to standing up for “freedom, compassion and justice.”
Equality campaigners have previously complained about the organisation being “too politicised” because the most senior leaders of the EHRC – also known as the commissioners, or board – are appointed by the minister for women and equalities, a role currently held by Liz Truss.
In February 2021, Baroness Kishwer Falkner was appointed as chair of the EHRC – the most important role in the organisation. Falkner also serves as a member of the House of Lords.
Another former employee – who left at the end of 2021 – told VICE World News that Falkner had personally changed EHRC publications about trans people, making the documents more critical of gender identity, and actively going against the organisation’s own guidance to protect people’s rights based on gender reassignment.
The ex-staff member said: “One paper was so heavily edited by Falkner that it left people speechless. She changed the case studies, the language… It was so transphobic, there was no way it would get published.”
“Falkner is incompetent when it comes to LGBT rights. She’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing and has no credibility in this space. She’s come in and shown a complete disregard for the huge amount of expertise in the organisation.”
VICE World News attempted to access the “amended documents” through the Freedom of Information Act, but the requests were denied multiple times by the EHRC and the Government Equalities Office. LGBTQ organisations involved in helping to put together earlier versions of some EHRC publications told me that they were not given a “proper reason” for them being shelved.
Asked about this specific point of whether Falkner had edited papers prior to publication to make them “more gender critical,” an EHRC spokesperson said the commission upheld “fairness for all” and that its papers were “rigorous and balanced.”
“The advice to the Board and their approval is guided by evidence and the law, and not biased,” the spokesperson continued. “The Board comprises 13 Commissioners, all of whom have knowledge and experience of all of the areas covered by the Equality Act.”
Asked whether Falkner was committed to LGBT rights, the spokesperson said: “Yes. Baroness Falkner, like all the Board and EHRC staff, are committed to upholding the rights of everyone, including those with the protected characteristics of sexual orientation and gender reassignment.”
One current staffer’s voice shook with nerves as they described the situation at present.
“Anyone working on LGBT policy will be trying to leave, if they actually care about LGBT rights. Nobody knows what to do right now. If you leave, then you’re giving in to hate, but if you stay, you’ll have to constantly defend your choice to friends, and to charities, and to yourself,” they said.
“I don’t know anyone in the EHRC that wants Baroness Falkner to stay.”
The UK currently has some of the most restrictive gender recognition processes in Europe, as a result of the 2004 Gender Recognition Act. A trans person looking for legal recognition of their gender identity requires medical assessments and psychiatric interviews in order to “prove” their gender. Non-binary identities are not currently recognised in UK law.
In 2018 the EHRC was pushing for the UK to join countries like Ireland, Belgium and Portugal in allowing trans people to self-determine their legal gender. However, last week, the EHRC received a huge backlash from LGBTQ groups for releasing two statements which campaigners branded “an attack on trans equality.”
One statement called for the Scottish government to delay its work to update trans equality laws, and the other requested the proposed conversion therapy ban in England and Wales to not cover trans people.
VICE World News was told that some EHRC staff complained about these statements in December, at least one month before they were released. The employees flagged their “serious concerns” to senior management, including the Chair and the Board. Those who spoke up were subsequently locked out of their computers and faced disciplinary action.
"It was as if Baroness Falkner and the Board wanted people who actually cared about human rights to leave,” another ex-employee who left last year told me.
They continued: “Nobody seemed bothered that staff were deeply affected by the leadership change. We were having a leaving do every single week. Some of our roles were being changed or moved, and that made people want to go even faster, but ultimately people couldn’t cope with the changes.”
Asked what “changes” people couldn’t cope with, they responded: “They were anti-trans; not recognising racism; [management] would call people woke for supporting LGBTQ rights, and would edit publications to make them more ‘gender critical’ – completely ignoring everyone’s expertise.”
One former employee who left within the past few weeks said: “The complete U-turn on the Gender Recognition Act had absolutely no evidence to back it up, but it still happened.”
They added: “For me, there was suddenly this new kind of emphasis on the need to be ‘evidence based’. But that doesn’t mean we weren’t collecting evidence before – we’ve always had people employed as researchers, and we have staff with lived experience too. This new push was about dismissing anything they didn’t like.”
Another person, who still works at the EHRC, said bosses are “hyper aware of potential for leaks” and this is why internal issues have not leaked to the media before now.
“They're ready to penalise people for doing it,” they added. “People are being threatened with disciplinaries right now. Staff are receiving warnings around social media use, and being told to not react to news, and to not complain internally, and to not be seen to be an activist.”
Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project campaign group, said: "Under the EHRC human rights have turned 180 degrees. No longer are they protection for minorities against populist sentiment. Now they are mechanics which turn that sentiment - and the hostility of Ministers - into policy."
In response to VICE World News’ first report on the EHRC, the equalities watchdog posted a Twitter thread defending “the integrity” of its leaders.
Without specifically addressing any of the facts presented in our story, the EHRC claimed that it contained “unsubstantiated and incorrect statements that rely on information taken out of context.”
All EHRC employees that we have spoken to said that the government-appointed leadership team has changed the culture at the organisation for the worse.
An ex-employee added: “I don’t know how the EHRC can say it is compliant with the Public Sector Equality Duty it works so hard to promote.” She continued, “It’s supposed to eliminate discrimination, advance the equality of people with protected characteristics, and promote good relations between minority groups and others. Where is that happening?”
Reacting to this story, a spokesperson for trans charity Mermaids said: “The EHRC has completely lost the trust of our community. The duty of the EHRC is to advance equality, yet it is actively doing the opposite for trans people. An urgent root and branch reform is needed, starting with a new Chair that is truly independent.”
SNP MP John Nicolson, Depute Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Global LGBT+ Rights in the UK Parliament, said: “Sadly the EHRC appears now to be working against, not for, LGBT rights. Our community no longer see it as our friend but as our opponent. It’s yet another organisation tainted by Boris Johnson and his appointees.”