Government jeopardising ‘hard-won rights’ by treating equalities ‘as a side hustle’, inquiry says

Liz Truss leaves Downing Street

The government has been accused of treating equalities as a “side hustle” as a damning report lays bare the shortcomings of Liz Truss’ Equalities Office.

An inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee has revealed that the Equalities Office is engages “often” with just two of 41 stakeholders who gave evidence to the committee – one of which is the anti-trans LGB Alliance. The other was a pan-equalities network.

The report highlights concerns “there is a risk of going backwards on important and hard-won rights for groups of people protected by the Equality Act”, and appears to confirm that the government’s own LGBT Action Plan has been scrapped.

It also calls for the role of women and equalities minister to become a full-time, cabinet level position, highlighting concerns about the government’s preference for allocating the role as an additional responsibility for a female cabinet minister.

Worryingly, the report reveals that when giving evidence, neither women and equalities minister Liz Truss nor her two junior equalities ministers at the time, Kemi Badenoch and Baroness Elizabeth Berridge, could figure out how often they actually met.

Berridge has since been replaced as parliamentary under-secretary of state for women by Baroness Deborah Stedman-Scott.

The report states: “Ministers did not provide a clear picture of how often they met as a team to discuss equalities issues and priorities for their respective equalities briefs.

“The minister for women and equalities told us that ‘roughly speaking’ she met with the minister for women and the minister for equalities weekly but that ‘every week is different in politics’.”

Caroline Nokes, chair of the women and equalities committee, told The Guardian: “It is obvious that the current setup of cabinet leaves no space or time to really address inequality in the UK.

“By effectively treating the role of women and equalities minister as a side hustle, the government is demonstrating its lack of willingness to invest energy in creating change.”

Almost half of respondents said the government is contributing to equalities getting worse

The Women and Equalities Committee launched its inquiry in January 2021, looking into Liz Truss’ Equalities Office’s move to the Cabinet Office, and the newly-branded Equalities Hub, which also incorporates the Race Disparity Unit and the Disability Unit.

According to its report, it aimed to look into “how the GEO was delivering on its responsibilities and how effectively its structures and its place in government were enabling it to do so”.

The charity Equally Ours was among 100 stakeholders that were asked about the effectiveness of the GEO during the inquiry. Forty-one organisations responded, but only two said that the government had engaged with them “often”.

One was a pan-equalities network, and the other was “an organisation advocating for LGB rights”. The LGB Alliance is listen among the respondents.

Of the 41 respondents, 22 per cent said the government was not making any progress on the issues they cared about, and 49 per cent said it was contributing to the situation getting worse.

Just two – “one advocating for LGB people and one grassroots women’s rights group” – said the government was “contributing to a lot of progress”.

The inquiry looked at the GEO’s conduct around consultation on reform to the Gender Recognition Act (GRA). A separate inquiry will go into more depth on the topic.

“A lack of effective engagement with different groups at different times during the protracted, acrimonious and sometimes violent debate around reform of the Gender Recognition Act (GRA) was a theme both in this inquiry and our concurrent inquiry into GRA reform,” it continued.

While at the launch of the consultation into GRA reform, in 2018, it was “organisations campaigning for women’s sex-based rights” who complained of a lack of engagement, it is now trans rights groups who are being frozen out since Truss announced reforms to the Gender Recognition Act were to be scrapped.

“In our oral evidence session examining the suspension of the GEO’s LGBT Advisory Panel, the LGBT Foundation told us that early in her tenure [Truss] had been clear ‘she was not looking to engage with individual identity groups or stakeholder groups’.”

LGBT Action Plan appears to have been scrapped

The report also states that Liz Truss claimed the government “did not feel bound by the LGBT Action Plan, as it had been developed and published under the previous administration”, appearing to confirm rumours it has been scrapped entirely.

It notes that the Action Plan set out a host of commitments on LGBT+ rights, and that “it committed the government to provide us with regular updates on implementation”. To date, the committee says it has received no such updates.

When asked by the committee if she “remained committed to the entirety of the Action Plan”, Truss would only discuss her 2022 international LGBT+ conference, and the long-promised ban on conversion therapy.

Asked why there had been no updates on the LGBT Action Plan, she said: “It is probably because there is a new government in place under the leadership of Boris Johnson.”

While the preceding committee recommended in 2018 that “the next minister for women and equalities should have the job on a full-time basis”, the prime minister has not taken this advice. The current women and equalities minister, Liz Truss, has continued to uphold her “day job”, while holding the equalities role on the side.

At the time of the inquiry, Truss was secretary of state for international trade. Following Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle this month, she is now foreign secretary.

Some, including former women and equalities ministers Nicky Morgan and Theresa May, felt that the role could be combined with a cabinet post. May noted that “it is vital the government of the day is committed to progressing the equalities agenda”, while Morgan said that the minister must make equalities a “personal priority” in order to succeed on the brief.

Truss believes the dual-posting “ensures equality is not siloed”. However, the charity Equally Ours noted that she had made “only one significant speech… in the past year despite the inequalities exposed by the pandemic”.

The committee recommends creating a full-time secretary of state for equalities and levelling up position, and expanding the women, equalities, disabled people, and health and work portfolios into full-time roles.

The report is the latest in a string of criticism levelled at the Equalities Office. This week, equalities minister Kemi Badenoch has been under particular fire after leaked recordings and messages revealed she had mocked LGBT+ rights and stated that she doesn’t care about colonialism.

A government spokesperson said it remains committed to “levelling up all parts of our country, working to tackle inequality and promoting equal opportunity so everyone can thrive”.

“In recent years we have continued to make progress on equality issues introducing same-sex marriage across the whole of the UK, publishing a groundbreaking report into ethnic disparities, introducing our National Disability Strategy and are seeing record low gender pay gap rates.”