VICE Smears the EHRC
... with sexed up FOI responses
On February 2nd, VICE World News published this article by Ben Hunte:
The first thing to note is that while “leaked emails and documents” sounds dramatic, all the information seems to come from FOI responses, such as this one from last November.
It is hard to actually narrow down the points being made, as they are buried under loaded language and allegations of being “anti-trans” or “transphobic” or “erasing trans rights”, but in brief the major claims are:
Alasdair Henderson is the commissioner who suggested the EHRC intervene in the Forstater v CGD Europe appeal.
Alasdair Henderson has declared a potential conflict of interest, because he had been instructed as barrister in the case of Bell v Tavistock.
The LGB Alliance and Fair Play For Women were invited to brief Melanie Field, alongside Stonewall.
Once you strip out all of the article’s relitigation of the Forstater and Bell cases, exaggeration of “leaked” material, and the constant smears levelled at Fair Play For Women and LGB Alliance, that’s what you’re left with.
The thrust of the piece is: the EHRC should not talk to these organisations, because they do not hold opinions Hunte personally agrees with. To this end, much is made of Henderson’s “conflict of interest”, as if that is somehow evidence that the organisation as a whole has been corrupted into meeting organisations that right-thinking people can clearly see it should not:
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.
This is absurd conspiracy fantasy - a single commissioner appointed in 2018 is somehow a puppet master, corrupting the EHRC from within, holding sway over the whole organisation? Based, I repeat, not on leaked documents as said here but FOI responses:
VICE World News has learned that Henderson was the employee who first suggested to “intervene” in the Forstater hearing.
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.”
Hunte intentionally leaves readers with the impression that Henderson suggested an intervention, and Falkner complied, but by referring to the actual FOI response, you can read without the editorialising:
Hunte specifically omits that:
Forstater was already a subject of discussion
No one person was responsible for the decision to intervene
A member of the legal team prepared papers for the board to make an informed decision
Hunte takes quite banal information and crafts an ideological fiction, where Henderson has “long-term influence”, where the EHRC’s intervention was somehow pivotal in the Forstater case, and where anybody who was glad to see this outcome is a “transphobe”.
But the reality is a lower court made an error in interpreting Equality law, the EHRC were aware of the case and its importance, and they intervened to lend weight to the correction of that error. Strip away the smears, and none of this is the least controversial.
Continuing, and again referring to “leaked emails”, Hunte writes that Henderson had a conflict of interest by being instructed in the Keira Bell case against the Tavistock:
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 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?”
But again, these are not leaked emails, but FOI responses, and the end of the chain reads far less excitingly:
Hunte twice more refers to “leaked documents” which show the declaration of potential conflict of interest, but yet again, these simply show the same FOI responses at the link above. None of this is a leak.
So: Henderson declared his interest, and everyone who needed to be aware, was aware. All of this information has been available to the public, online, for months. There’s no story here.
Hunte exaggerates this conflict by framing the Bell case as one of “erasing trans rights”, but again this is divorced from reality and confuses ideological demands for rights. The case is about capacity to consent: can a child without a life-threatening condition consent to a treatment that will, among other things, leave them infertile? Questioning this is not about “erasing trans rights”, it is about medical ethics and safeguarding the rights of the child to be protected from interventions they may have no capacity to consent to. Questions of Equality law are simply not a factor in the Bell v Tavistock case, so it doesn’t wander into the EHRC’s territory at all.
Henderson is right to declare it as a potential conflict of interest, but I struggle to see how it actually is one except that it could bring in partisan negative publicity such as this article.
The rest of the piece focuses on casting aspersions for simply meeting FPFW and LGB Alliance. The EHRC has said they are making moves to consult more widely as part of an attempt to take the heat out of a polarised debate, but doing so is described as “controversial”.
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.
These meetings are only “controversial” because groups such as these had previously been frozen out of the process. For example, here (from another FOI) are the attendees of a trans roundtable in 2019:
The whole problem is that one particular ideological viewpoint on trans issues has for years been allowed to exclude all others, not least by smearing those alternative views as hateful.
In that light, attempts by the incoming chair to redress this balance and reassert the independence of the EHRC are seen as a setback:
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.
Perhaps VICE World News could ask those “four leading LGBTQ organisations” whether they had direct contact with the previous chair, a former trustee of Stonewall, and if so how much? It would be an interesting compare and contrast, surely?