Senior leaders at Britain’s equalities watchdog have worked to erase trans rights via the courts and held private meetings with anti-trans groups, leaked emails and documents obtained by VICE World News reveal.
VICE World News has obtained documents revealing leaders at the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) as being key players in removing rights from trans people, through supporting legal cases that opposed trans equality.
The commission’s executives have also organised multiple private meetings with anti-trans lobbyists over the last year, the emails and documents reveal.
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 taxpayers, whose senior leaders are 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.”
However, emails and documents obtained by VICE World News, some via Freedom of Information Act requests, show current leaders of the EHRC appear to hold views about trans people and gender identity which completely contradict this.
Asked about our findings, a spokesperson for the commission said: “We exist to protect, enforce and promote equality and human rights laws for everyone, including trans people.”
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Equality campaigners have previously complained about the organisation being “too politicised” because the commission’s most senior leaders – also known as the commissioners, or board – are appointed by the minister for women and equalities, a role currently held by Liz Truss.
In December 2020, Truss – who is also UK Foreign Secretary and a potential successor to Boris Johnson as prime minister – appointed Baroness Kishwer Falkner as chair of the EHRC, which is the most important role in the organisation. Falkner also serves as a non-aligned member of the House of Lords.
Documents provided to VICE World News by researchers at trans rights organisation Steph's Place reveal a number of controversial meetings were arranged with the EHRC following Falkner’s appointment.
Nicola Williams, founder of Fair Play For Women, a group that claims to “advocate for the sex-based rights of women and girls”, was invited to meet with Falkner. Williams has been accused of transphobia for repeatedly calling trans women “males”.
Williams notes in one email, “With a new Chair installed, I hope this can be a moment for change.”
Suddenly switching to her parliament email address, rather than her EHRC email address, Falkner sent Williams a message on the 22nd June, 2021 with the title “Can we have a telephone conversation?” The women then exchanged phone numbers.
VICE World News asked four leading LGBTQ organisations that support trans rights whether they were given this same opportunity for direct contact with Falkner in her role as EHRC chair – they all said they hadn’t.
Just last week, the EHRC released two controversial statements which received a huge backlash from LGBTQ groups.
One statement called for the Scottish government to delay its work updating trans equality laws, and the other requested the upcoming conversion therapy ban in England and Wales to not cover trans people.
Stonewall called the statements “an attack on trans equality”, and the charity created an open letter in support of trans rights, which has now been signed by over 5,000 people.
Another of the appointed leaders of the EHRC is Alasdair Henderson, a barrister who has played a key role in erasing trans rights.
In 2020, Henderson represented Keira Bell, a young woman who regretted transitioning. Henderson challenged the NHS’ use of puberty blockers, claiming that young people cannot consent to using them. As a result, the NHS had to remove all medical treatment options from trans young people, until the decision was overturned nearly a year later.
The leaked documents appear to show Henderson’s long-term influence over his colleagues on the EHRC board, and therefore his influence over the organisation becoming more critical of trans lives.
In April 2021, the EHRC received a huge backlash from LGBTQ people and their allies for suddenly jumping to the defence of a “gender critical” woman in a major legal case. Maya Forstater claimed she lost her job because of her belief that trans women are not women. Assistance from the EHRC helped to close the case in favour of “gender critics”, and the case was celebrated by people who hold transphobic views.
Through documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, VICE World News has learned that Henderson was the employee who first suggested to “intervene” in the Forstater hearing.
This was confirmed through an email following-up on a conversation in a board meeting the day before.
Asked if this was correct, the EHRC responded: “The suggestion to intervene in the case was made by one of our Commissioners, Alasdair Henderson.” However, it adds, “the decision to intervene was ultimately approved by Commision Board members and the Chair, Kishwer Falkner.”
In an online profile, Henderson describes himself as a Christian who would “strongly defend freedom of religion and belief, freedom of conscience and freedom of speech for everyone.” He has previously been criticised for liking and retweeting social media posts criticising Black Lives Matter protesters, and describing the words misogynist and homophobe as “highly ideological propaganda terms”.
The leaked emails obtained by VICE World News also show that some senior staff in the EHRC policy teams were not aware of Henderson’s involvement in the case against the UK’s gender identity service for young people.
The massive legal case stopped the NHS from providing transgender healthcare to under 16s in the UK, and caused lasting damage to trans rights globally. Henderson was partnered with Paul Conrathe, a Christian lawyer known for legal attacks against abortion, contraception and LGBTQ rights.
After the NHS eventually won the case, allowing trans young people to continue with their gender care, Conrathe said he was “dismayed” and “surprised”, calling services offered by the NHS Gender Identity Development Service “poorly evidenced treatment with lifelong irreversible consequences”.
The day before the conclusion of the case made international news, one EHRC communications official wrote, “Alasdair Henderson, one of our Commissioners, is one of the barristers challenging the Tavistock. Were we aware that he was this involved in the case?”
Being passed up the chain, another staff member wrote, “Please see email below. Are we aware of this connection?”
The pack of leaked documents show, on at least two occasions when discussions about transgender people were held by the board, Henderson appeared to flag that he had a “potential conflict of interest” because of his legal work. However, the board still allowed him to continue participating in the discussions.
The emails reveal further evidence of the EHRC becoming more critical of gender identity over recent years.
Documents show that Kate Harris and Bev Jackson – founders of the “gender critical” LGB Alliance – have held meetings with people at the top of the EHRC since Falkner took over as chair.
In February 2021, the founders were personally invited to participate in a briefing session for the board on “issues relating to trans people” by Melanie Field, executive director of strategy, police and Wales at the EHRC. The other organisations invited were Stonewall – Europe’s largest LGBTQ charity, and Williams’ Fair Play For Women. No other groups were invited to participate.
“Apologies to email you out of the blue,” someone from the EHRC wrote to the LGB Alliance – the sender’s name was redacted. “I have a time-limited request which I wondered if you would be able to help with.”
They continued: “I know you have been in contact with colleagues at the Commission and will soon be meeting with Melanie Field. She has asked me to contact you to enquire whether you would be able to provide a short three minute video outlining LGB Alliance’s main policy positions and why you think it is important to separate trans and LGB issues, for us to share with our board at tomorrow’s session.”
Field then sent an email thanking the founders of LGB Alliance.
“I’m really keen that our Board gets a balanced picture of the different issues being raised in this debate,” she wrote.
In the video produced by LGB Alliance, seen by VICE World News, the founders of the organisation call transitioning “horrifying”, adding, “it leads to a life of infertility, loss of sexual feeling, continuous medication and appalling surgery. We’re so glad that we were not growing up in this kind of ethos which we have today.”
Discussing how the NHS is carrying out “medical experiments on children”, they add: “We don’t need to go into much detail about that because Alasdair Henderson, on your board, will be able to explain all about it.”
They continue: “We represent thousands and thousands of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals, who don’t hold to this belief in gender identity. Unfortunately, all the other LGBT groups do, so it’s really important that we get representation and that our views are heard whenever anything about LGBT issues is being discussed.”
Three months after the board briefing, the EHRC controversially removed itself from Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme – a corporate diversity scheme which helps organisations to support their LGBTQ employees.
Asked why gender-critical groups were invited to speak with the EHRC, but no trans-led organisations were, an EHRC spokesperson said: “We hold regular discussions with a full range of interested parties on all areas of our work.”
Just over a year ago, Falkner’s predecessor as EHRC chair David Isaacs warned that the equality watchdog was being used as a political tool. His criticism came after Truss announced the EHRC’s new chair and commissioners who would “drive [her] agenda forward” and “challenge dangerous groupthink”.
In an interview with the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Isaacs said: “My view is that an independent regulator shouldn’t be in a position where the governments of the day can actually influence the appointments of that body to support a particular ideology.”
The UK’s biggest trans and LGBTQ organisations have repeatedly called out their “frustration and disappointment” at the EHRC’s failure to protect LGBTQ people’s rights – and trans people’s rights specifically.
In May 2021, leaders from 40 leading LGBTQ charities signed a public letter stating: “The EHRC has driven forward very little for our communities in recent years... We are frustrated that you chose to intervene in a case to say that so-called ‘gender critical’ beliefs should be a protected philosophical belief.”
They ended the letter with “It’s time to step up”, however, the EHRC has become significantly more critical of LGBTQ rights since then.
In response to last week’s EHRC statements on LGBTQ rights, LGBTQ charities and organisations have been publicly questioning how the EHRC can continue to operate.
Liberty, a human rights campaign group, said the EHRC’s status as a national human rights institution needs to be “reviewed”. Stonewall echoed this, saying the EHRC had betrayed LGBTQ people.
An EHRC spokesperson said: “We are an independent statutory body with a specific responsibility to ensure equality across the nine ‘protected’ characteristics of age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion and belief, sex and sexual orientation. Sometimes this means balancing rights, and we understand that this issue in particular evokes strong views.
“As we have said, the current polarised debate is causing much harm and distress to people on all sides. Everyone’s concerns should be discussed and addressed carefully, openly and with respect, to avoid further damage and division.”