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Equality and Human Rights Commission chair faces probe over claims of ‘toxic environment’

The head of Britain’s equality watchdog is facing an investigation after complaints of a ‘toxic environment’ from colleagues, the body has confirmed.

Channel 4 News revealed that a barrister-led probe is underway after allegations of a toxic environment at the Equality and Human Rights Commission under ex-Lib Dem peer Baroness Falkner, who was made chair by then-equalities minister Liz Truss in 2020.

More than 40 complaints have been made by current or former staff members at the EHRC, it is alleged.

Staff have raised concerns that the organisation has become “severely politically comprised” with a “lack of trust in the impartiality and independence” due to appointments made in recent years.

The broadcaster cited leaked figures showing that one in four members of staff members left the organisation tasked with enforcement of equality and non-discrimination laws in England, Scotland and Wales last year – with particular discontent among LGBT+ staff members at the organisation’s drastic changes of stance on issues relating to transgender people.

It is alleged that in one meeting, the baroness spoke in “disparaging terms” about a transgender quiz show contestant as a “bloke in lipstick” after her presence in what was celebrated as an all-women final of the game show Brain of Britain. Allies of the Baroness told the Daily Mail, in a public rebuttal published one day ahead of the investigation’s broadcast, that this had been misrepresented.

The broadcaster also alleged that the body disregarded legal advice in April when Baroness Falkner wrote a letter to equalities minister Kemi Badenoch endorsing revisions to equality law “so that the protected characteristic of ‘sex’ means biological sex“.

That letter was singled out for criticism by the United Nations’ independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity Víctor Madrigal-Borloz in a report earlier this month.

After a meeting with the EHRC, the rights monitor expressed “shock” that it had “offered that advice without itself having any definition of ‘biological sex’.” His report said: “It follows that the objective of the EHRC was to offer the Government a formula through which it could carry out discriminatory distinctions currently unlawful under UK law, and that will remain so under international human rights law.

“The independent expert is of the opinion that this action of the EHRC is wholly unbecoming of an institution created to ‘stand up for those in need of protection and hold governments to account for their human rights obligations’.”

A coalition of 30 LGBT+ groups wrote to the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) in the wake of the row, alleging the EHRC has “completely failed to engage with significant recommendations given to it for improvement to their governance and conduct”.

EHRC officials also voiced discontent.

One figure told Channel 4 News: “I think the EHRC was being used by government ministers to help them achieve their political interests around some of these cultural issues, and I think that’s incredibly dangerous, because the EHRC is supposed to be the independent watchdog on equality and human rights.”

Another added: “Skilled professionals with years and decades of experience in human rights are just leaving for temporary jobs or in some cases literally no job, because we just can’t stomach it.”

The EHRC confirmed a probe was underway.

Chief executive Marcial Boo said: “We are disappointed with ongoing media reporting concerning an internal investigation.

“We have a duty to deal with complaints in confidence. We are also required to protect the integrity of internal investigations. We urge all media to avoid prejudicing the outcome.

“Our staff operate with neutrality and professionalism. Some legal issues on which we advise, particularly relating to sex and gender, can be very complex, and there are a range of views among our experts, as in society.”

He added: “We treat allegations of bullying and harassment with the utmost seriousness, following the proper process, and instructing independent investigators where appropriate, in order to provide assurance to all parties concerned. It would be wrong to comment on specifics when investigations are ongoing.

“Both executive and non-executive staff rightly discussed a wide range of views, advice and evidence on legal, policy and practical matters relating to the operation of the Equality Act before advising that the definition of ‘sex’ in law was a matter that the government should consider.”

Baroness Falkner said: “It was considered appropriate to investigate the allegations through an independent investigator. While that process continues, all I can do is explain that allegations were received in February in my capacity as Chair of the Commission. They relate to both me and to the whole Board.

“I, of course, take these allegations very seriously and with humility. I will be cooperating fully with the investigation and have every confidence in being exonerated.

“I am always prepared to take criticism, to reflect on my decisions and to hear from those I may have inadvertently upset by my actions or those of the Board.”

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