Names have been changed to preserve anonymity
It is a common attack line by gender critical campaigners to accuse organisations of being “captured” by “gender ideology” (ie trans people).
However, research by Trans Safety Network has revealed that there are a handful of powerful people, mostly connected to each other and influential organisations, who are having a very real impact on independent schools, policy relating to LGBTQ+ young people and government activity around trans rights.
It is not lobbying by various groups, but rather the very real institutional capture of supposedly independent bodies such as the EHRC with which we should be concerned.
It is necessary to draw a distinction between the legitimate lobbying of government by various groups, and the appointment of dedicated anti-trans campaigners to positions of supposed independence.
When making claims about the influence of trans people, gender critical campaigners point to organisations such as Stonewall. They decry such organisations “winning” or “capturing” institutions. In this, gender criticals include lobbying such institutions to acknowledge the existence of trans children and adolescents, promote inclusive language and imagery, using the word “cis”, or suggesting the Equality Act 2010 being interpreted as intended by those who drafted it.
At the extremes, they catastrophise about perceiving a trans or gender diverse person in any gendered public or private space or anywhere near children and young people. Part of their strategy is to claim that the trans rights movement is very successful in taking control of institutions, framed as a type of conspiracy theory.
“I am fighting what I see as a powerful, insidious, misogynistic [trans rights] movement, that has gained huge purchase in very influential areas of society,” said JK Rowling. “I do not see this particular movement as either benign or powerless, so I’m afraid I stand with the women who are fighting to be heard against threats of loss of livelihood and threats to their safety.”
However, such lobbying is also undertaken by a variety of gender critical groups.
It is common for government departments, QUANGOs, NGOs, charities, think tanks, lobby groups, individual campaigners and activists, politicians and candidates for all parties, journalists with and without a specialist interest etc to have meetings with each other and exchange emails and other correspondence. This is particularly true if a given issue is current, or controversial.
There are mechanisms in place to make such lobbying more transparent. Government ministers have to declare their official meetings, accepted gifts and donations above a certain amount in regular transparency updates online (casual coffees with contacts do not count). Civil servants and the staff of ministers and others do not have to make these declarations, but you can try to find out by making Freedom of Information requests.
Details of these meetings and any correspondence may or may not be made public or decided to be commercially or otherwise sensitive for the purposes of Freedom of Information Requests. It’s not always considered to be in the public interest to tell you who has done what with whom and when. Ministers, EHRC commissioners, MP staffers etc will not meet with every person or group who requests a meeting, but they try to cover as many perspectives that are representative views held in society as possible.
As former GEO (Government Equalities Office) and EHRC employees told us, it’s preferable to meet with groups who have the ear of the media or a lot of popular support, even if their demands are wildly unreasonable and they don’t have anything new to tell you, because it is “better not to make a martyr of these people”. It is not that the intention is “both-sidesing” an issue, but rather to act like public consultations and make sure everyone feels heard.
It's clear to LGBTQ+ people that certain groups and individuals are transphobic hate groups or bigots using religion to justify their views, just as it is clear to refugees that Migration Watch have nothing useful to contribute to immigration policy. Officials and other workers are not unaware of this either – even if a minister or policy lead doesn’t know in depth those aspects of their brief, the people preparing their notes for a meeting or debriefing with them afterwards generally will have done the research and kept up with developments in the area (while not always grasping dog whistles or disingenuous comments).
Freedom of Information (FOI) requests and gloating tweets have led some to catastrophise about these meetings. They think it’s unusual and terrifying that Transgender Trend, LGB Alliance and Fair Play For Women etc have had meetings with the Government Equalities Office (GEO), the Department for Education (DfE) and Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). Actually, much like consultation exercises and MPs attending receptions in Parliament, these meetings are just part of being seen to listen to all interested parties. Trans Safety Network spoke to current and former staff members of GEO, DfE and EHRC who confirmed that it is normal practice – Stephanie Davies-Arai (Transgender Trend) has been offered a meeting with DfE’s policy lead on Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), but so has Nancy Kelley (Stonewall). Staffers will tell you that it is not difficult for a group to secure a meeting with someone representing a minister or organisation.
Lobbying, then, is fairly routine, and not necessarily evidence of institutional capture. What is more concerning is when political appointments are weaponised to place anti-trans campaigners in supposedly independent positions of institutional power.
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission
The Equalities and Human Rights Commission HRC is a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation (QUANGO). Quangos are, in theory, independent from the government and civil service. However, though they are meant to hold the government to account, they are partially or wholly funded and/or controlled by the government. The government also make senior appointments to the organisation. These are known as political appointments, because they serve the government’s political aims.
It is here that we see a clear example of real institutional capture.
Over the past few years, there has been an effort to ensure appointments at the EHRC reflect the current government’s views on trans rights, race and religion. The government have appointed openly anti-trans and Islamophobic commissioners and published a divisive and revisionist report on racism.
The commissioner roles are not full-time posts – they are a commitment of 1-2 days per month – but they do have some influence on the work the EHRC does and the perspectives taken on certain issues. The chair, more importantly, can completely change the direction of the organisation.
Through talking to multiple former EHRC employees, Trans Safety Network was able to establish that Kishwer Falkner, appointed as EHRC chair in December 2020, made opposing trans rights an early priority in her role and has disrupted the working norms of the organisation to the point that many people, committed to improving equalities in the UK, have left the EHRC.
“I think she just Googled things, to be honest,” said Sam*, a senior staff member, who despaired at the material they were urged by Falkner to include in their work. “She’d send articles asking ‘why haven’t you considered this?’ and it wouldn’t come even close to meeting the threshold for what we would think of as evidence.”
“We saw the list for Falkner’s early priorities, which included the desire to immediately slam down on trans stuff,” Sam told us. “I felt like we were letting stakeholders down, with the EHRC used as a pawn to roll back progress. It was all to align with the UK government’s position. Protected Characteristic leads had their wings clipped, the EHRC started to take less progressive positions on LGBTQ+, race and disability.”
It was always going to be like this, from the formation of the EHRC itself.
“They’re [the chair and commissioners] political positions, and no government wants to pay for a thorn in its side,” says Sam.
The only reason why the EHRC were progressive on some equalities issues – their remit – before is that the government of the day also supported or at least did not oppose those aims.
While the EHRC is presented as an independent watchdog, the political appointment system means they’re open to institutional capture if ministers have themselves been “captured” on a particular issue.
Former employees felt that their good work was “always taken with a pinch of salt, because the big calls are made by government appointees.”
An alternative would be to allow Parliament to decide on the board and pay for the EHRC. However, because this lies in the power of the executive, the organisation is allowed to harm the very people it is set up to protect.
TSN were told that before Marcial Boo came in as CEO of the EHRC and Falkner was appointed as chair, the organisation was looking to be more confrontational and progressive on issues like gender recognition reform but staff were made aware via second-hand threats that funding would be cut if they didn’t toe the government line.
Many staff disagreed with the positions that they were taking but from a legal standpoint, the EHRC is composed solely of its commissioners. Therefore, what they say, goes.
It is abnormal for commissioners and the chair themselves to meet with stakeholders like LGBTQ+ groups.
The usual way of working for the EHRC (as with many government departments) is for the staff team to manage the relationship and logging all communications; not setting up meetings with gender critical groups as Kishwer Falkner requested.
Staff would meet with groups and individuals as part of consultation exercises or roundtables, transparent and fair to all perspectives, but commissioners would go above that to meet with those who shared their views.
Several staffers told us that when it came to trans rights, the call for “balance” (including views opposed to increasing rights and equality) was much stronger and there was no process to identify representative rather than fringe organisations.
Other influential figures
Of course, EHRC are not the only quasi-independent organisation to be heavily influenced by anti-trans activists.
TSN have written about Ofcom and how the ending of their relationship with Stonewall was leaked to Sex Matters, an anti-trans group led by Maya Forstater and Helen Joyce.
Think tanks have even fewer requirements for transparency and independence from government or party-political influence, and policy “wonks” often move freely between working for politicians, think tanks, charities and the media.
Some think tanks are very close to the Conservative Party (Policy Exchange, Civitas, Centre for Policy Studies, Centre for Social Justice, New Social Covenant Unit) and others to Labour and the Liberal Democrats (IPPR, Fabian Society, Demos etc). Researching gender critical forums, it became apparent that current education lead for the Centre for Policy Studies, Mark Lehain, was known for being a helpful contact at the DfE for anti-trans parents to copy into their complaints when he was a special adviser to (then minister) Nadhim Zahawi.
Lehain’s connections and influence are significant. He was the headteacher of a free school, then interim director of New Schools Network (a government-funded charity job, formerly held by Toby Young). He runs the Campaign for Common Sense, an anti- “woke” group.
Lehain also founded Parents and Teachers for Excellence with Vote Leave and Conservative donor Jon Moynihan and then Inspiration Trust director Dame Rachel de Souza. The same Rachel de Souza who is now Children’s Commissioner (despite concerns about her knowledge and experience) and reviewing RSE in the UK – as demanded by religious anti-trans MP Miriam Cates and her New Social Covenant Unit think tank.
Lehain and the others are trotting around broadcast media complaining about trans education and inclusion as if they are trusted experts instead of well-connected activists. Nikki da Costa writes anti-trans articles and also does the TV and radio circuit spreading fear while working as a policy fellow for the equalities minister.
Lobbying is not inherently problematic. It is vital that activists be able to make their voices heard to important figures in government. Of course, this must be tempered by a commitment to ensuring officials have conducted proper research, and do not thoughtlessly accept the claims of harmful and fringe activists.
More concerning is significant institutional capture in the form of political appointees, and weight being given within government to dedicated anti-trans activists.
We should be campaigning for fully independent regulators and watchdogs, including reform of the EHRC and Ofcom, and a bar on appointment to independent positions, including commissioner roles, for those with who have documented harmful agendas.