Merched Cymru calls for halt to controversial ‘diversity’ scheme

On Tuesday 8 June, Merched Cymru wrote to Welsh Government to request formally that it ends its membership of the Stonewall’s Diversity Champions scheme and the related Workplace Equality Index amid concerns that the advice it provides is misleading and potentially unlawful.

A number of high profile public bodies and other organisations have already taken the decision to leave the controversial scheme, including the Ministry of Justice, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and Acas.

A spokeswoman for Merched Cymru said: “This is a step we’re taking with much regret. Our members are committed to equality, human rights and diversity and many have worked with Stonewall or supported them through donations in the past. Charities have an important part to play in civil society, but they have a responsibility to act with integrity and Welsh Government has a duty to exercise due diligence.

“For a self-described ‘Feminist Government’ to impose employment policies that erase the language associated with women – our reality, our bodies, our life experiences – with so little concern for the impact on its female staff is unconscionable. It will have an inevitable chilling effect on staff’s ability to raise concerns about the infringement of their rights in the workplace.

“It is not the law that a person who wishes to transition has an automatic right of access to facilities designated for the opposite sex. Many, possibly most, women will be concerned that their privacy, dignity and safety will be compromised if they are obliged to share facilities with fully intact male-bodied people, whether due to their religion, culture, personal experience of assault or abuse, or simply a wish for single-sex facilities.

“Yet Welsh Government policies suggest that these women will be dealt with as if it was a disciplinary matter. This is inhumane and horrifying.”

There is no reason or excuse for the Welsh Government to pay an unelected, unaccountable political lobbying group £6,000 every year to tell it how to do something as basic as complying with equality law. This is on top of over £158,000 in grants that Stonewall receives each year from our government. It’s even more outrageous that the advice is then misleading, inaccurate and at worst unlawful, leaving the Welsh Government open to legal challenge and serious reputational damage.

The independent report into no-platforming at the University of Essex by barrister Akua Reindorf showed how Stonewall’s advice to its Diversity Champions contradicts UK equality law. The university’s policies were found to be founded on an erroneous understanding of the law.

Reindorf stated that “In my view the policy states the law as Stonewall would prefer it to be, rather than the law as it is.”

Women have been warning about the impact of Stonewall’s influence on public policy for years. As far back as 2015, Stonewall explicitly called for ‘a review of the Equality Act 2010 to include ‘gender identity’ rather than ‘gender reassignment’ as a protected characteristic and to remove exemptions, such as access to single-sex spaces’.

These specific legal exceptions allow for the single sex services, provisions and opportunities that are essential for women’s safety, dignity and privacy, and to enable them to play a full part in public life.

That Stonewall wants to remove these protections does not seem to have given the Welsh Government pause for thought. Rather, it has shown itself embarrassingly willing to misrepresent legally protected characteristics at Stonewall’s behest.

We believe that Welsh Government’s over-reliance on Stonewall puts it in contravention of its Public Sector Equality Duty, which obliges public bodies to balance the rights of all the protected characteristics specified in the Equality Act 2010, and to foster good relations between the different groups.

The disproportionate level of influence on policy development that the Welsh Government has afforded Stonewall is anti-democratic and is not compatible with the transparency, accountability and objectivity required by the Nolan Principles.

We are dismayed that the Welsh Government continues to support an organisation that:

Stonewall’s claim to represent LGB people looks increasingly threadbare. Growing numbers of lesbian, gay and bisexual people reject the organisation’s stance on gender identity, including co-founders Simon Fanshawe and Matthew Parris. Former Stonewall activists and supporters have established the LGB Alliance (which has a branch in Wales as well as internationally), not only because they felt Stonewall no longer spoke for them but also because they believe that its insistence on the primacy of gender identity over sexual orientation was homophobic.

Correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act reveals the extent of Stonewall’s influence on Welsh Government, and the extent to which its demands are being prioritised, regardless of the legality of the policy decisions or of the Welsh Government’s Public Sector Equality Duty. An FOI release from 2018 demonstrates the level of credulousness and misplaced trust in Stonewall by officials.

The obligation on Welsh Government to undertake an Equalities Impact Assessment to ensure that policies do not have a negative impact on groups with protected characteristics appears to be routinely ignored when trans demands are being considered – both in terms of legislation and in relation to workplace policies. Several of the impact assessments released through FOIs confuse the protected characteristic of sex with ‘gender’, or merge gender and gender reassignment into one category and ignore the protected characteristic of sex altogether. (Document 8)

The spokeswoman said: “If Welsh Government continues its membership of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Scheme it will be a declaration that it is content to disregard the Equality Act in favour of the political agenda of an unelected lobbying organisation.”

“This will risk discrimination against employees on the basis of sex, sexual orientation and religion or belief and send a clear signal that some staff are valued and protected above others.

“Does Welsh Government really believe that Stonewall’s approval is worth the inevitable reputational damage and legal challenges it will face as a result of supporting this controversial scheme?“

Below we outline areas of particular concern.

1. Misrepresentation of protected characteristics

Under Stonewall’s influence, the protected characteristics listed in the Equality Act 2010 have been consistently altered. In the Workplace Equality Index submissions to Stonewall, the legal category of ‘gender reassignment’ has been changed to ‘gender identity’ – a deliberate misrepresentation of the law.

This policy complies with the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 which protects certain groups against discrimination on the grounds of “protected characteristics”. These characteristics are race, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion or belief (or lack of it), marriage, including same sex marriage and civil partnership, and pregnancy and maternity.

Footnote: Our policy and guidance treats ‘gender identity’ as a protected characteristic rather than ‘gender reassignment’ as the term used in the Equality Act 2010.’ (Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy, p2-3)

2. ‘Gender neutral’ language erasing women

Stonewall strongly encourages the use of ‘gender-neutral’ language by employers keen to rise up the ranks of its Workforce Equality Index. This language invariably erases women and their specific needs.

After a warning in 2018 that some Welsh Government policies on maternity and shared parental leave still contained ‘gendered language’, the Welsh Government was eager to improve:

The Equality in the Workplace Team obtained Stonewall’s views on the policy in its draft stages which were incorporated. An accompanying policy, previously called New & Expectant Mothers Policy has been renamed ‘Policy for Pregnant or Nursing Employees’. It has been revised to use non- gendered language, using the umbrella term ‘nursing’ to cover breastfeeding and chestfeeding. There are specific references to chestfeeding and we have ensured that the policy is inclusive for trans and non-binary parents. All pronouns were updated in line with all of our HR policies (they/their instead of gendered he/she/his/her etc). PRISM were consulted, as were trans and non binary staff.’ (WEI 2020)

There is no mention of consultation with female staff.

3. Excluding women from decisions that affect them

As a workplace, the Welsh Government appears to operate entirely on the basis of ‘self-ID’, with no consideration for the impact on women or other groups with protected characteristics.

The 2020 Workplace Equality Index submission, for example, explained that: ‘The trans policy has recently been updated, after specific input from trans staff to make explicit that employees are trusted to know which toilet and changing facilities to use (our emphasis).

This is a misrepresentation of the law. The 2010 Equality Act says single-sex facilities and services are allowed if shown to be ‘a proportionate means of achieving a legitimate aim’, such as privacy in women’s changing rooms or toilets. The Welsh Government is discriminating against women, particularly those with the protected characteristic of religion and/or race, and potentially leaving them at risk of assault because the message is that it is unacceptable to challenge or object.

4. Privileged access to Ministers

Stonewall appears to have little difficulty in securing face-to-face meetings with Cabinet ministers. The Welsh Government’s FOI release shows that on 6 July 2020, Stonewall officers facilitated a meeting with Jane Hutt (then Deputy Minister and Chief Whip), Jeremy Miles (then Counsel General), and ‘members of the LGBT+ community’ to discuss

…the Welsh Government’s strategy on the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) reform, including representations to the UK Government about delays to the reform, a potential public statement from Welsh Gov and […] the potential for Wales to make progress on this issue unilaterally.

The outcome was a Cabinet statement supporting reform of the Gender Recognition Act and a commitment to do whatever was within the Senedd’s legislative powers to move towards self-ID in Wales. A similar commitment was included in the 2021 Welsh Labour Manifesto.

Ministers did not speak to any women’s groups or representatives regarding this commitment and there is no sign that they considered the evidence of the detrimental impact of self ID on women and some other protected groups provided in response to the UK government’s consultation on reform of the GRA.

5. Misleading information

The Welsh Government treats Stonewall and their selected allies as experts in all aspects of gender or trans-related policy matters, yet the information Stonewall provides is often incorrect, sometimes dangerously so.

For example, at the meeting on 6 July, healthcare for ‘trans under 18s’ was discussed and various assertions made and minuted without challenge or any request for evidence:

Point 11 ‘In fact trans young people find it difficult to access services and are often waiting years to be able to access treatment. This often leads to dangerous dysphoria and high rates of self-harm and suicide. There needs to be a focus on healthcare for young people in Wales as the London clinic is not meeting their needs’.

Fair Play for Women and Transgender Trend, among others, have investigated these claims of self-harm and suicide and found that there are no reliable studies to prove this statement. In fact the Tavistock and Portman Gender Identity Development Service states clearly that making such assertions is unhelpful and that suicidality is no more common in their patients than in other young people using Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services.

Point 13 ‘The media is reporting that irreversible changes are being made to bodies which is not the case’.

The case brought by Keira Bell against the Tavistock revealed how readily puberty blockers are prescribed, the irreversible changes they cause, and how medical treatment for assumed gender dysphoria leads inexorably to cross-sex hormones and surgery.

Around 80% of children and young people with gender dysphoria who are not put on puberty blockers will desist. This, as the High Court confirmed, is experimental treatment, with significant long-term side effects.