Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Chief Executive of EHRC Replies

Yesterday I blogged about correspondence that I had sent to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, expressing concerns about their approach to addressing the issues of trans people.

This evening I received the following reply from the Chief Executive of the Commission, which I'm reproducing here in full.

29 January 2009

Dear Christine,

Thank you for your personal email of 28 January 2009 where you share your concerns around the Commission's approach to transgender equality.

Equality on the basis of gender identity is a distinct statutory mandate for the Commission, separate from gender equality. I don't often talk about strands, because the Commission's approach is to focus on the whole experience of inequality. But when I do, I always say we are a seven strand, not a six strand, equality body.

We recognise that the Commission did not champion transgender equality as loudly as we could have done in our first year in operation. We have realised the gaps in our work and are taking steps to rectify them, because we know that we need to be a national leader, awareness-raiser and advocate in this field.

We have appointed a policy lead on transgender equality and Patrick Diamond, Group Director Strategy, has been appointed as the champion for trans issues on the senior management team. And we have commissioned a full-scale review of the research that exists on transgender inequalities to map the gaps in our knowledge.

We are advising the government on transgender equality in the new Equality Bill, working for as broad a definition of gender identity as possible to ensure that all trans people enjoy equal protection under the law. We are also producing guidance on how to prevent discrimination on the basis of gender identity in the provision of goods, facilities and services, such as housing services and leisure facilities.

In addition, we have been working closely and robustly with Permanent Secretaries in Whitehall to encourage leadership on promoting equal opportunities for everyone in public services, including transgender people.

We are also working to ensure that transphobic bullying is outlawed in education and in schools.

You raised a particular concern about subscribing to the relevant news feed on our website. Our RSS feeds are linked to the news filters that were created when the site was first commissioned. The filters rely on metadata (the way information the public see is tagged and indexed). When the site was commissioned trans issues were classified under gender in this metadata. The Commission now accepts this was a mistake and is fully committed to rectifying the subsequent impact. We are clearly committed to being a seven strand organisation and this will be reflected in our news feeds. The metadata project that will enable this to occur is underway but requires major re-engineering so is not something we can remedy overnight. We hope to have completed this project by the end of March 2009.

I'm sorry to hear that there has sometimes been a delay in your being reimbursed for travel expenses incurred when contributing to Commission consultations. The Commission strives to provide genuine opportunities for stakeholders to engage with us on our developing strategies and policies. We recognise that many of our stakeholders are not well funded, so we try and balance that with our duty to consult. We are currently developing our policy on paying expenses for attending Commission events, which will be designed to ensure that people aren't excluded from contributing to the Commission's work on the grounds of cost. However, as a publicly funded organisation with limited resources, we unfortunately do not have the scope to offer payments for people's time.

Even though you won't be at the Strategy event next month, I appreciate you taking the opportunity to share your views and priorities with us via email. I have passed them on to our Business Planning team who will certainly be looking the three key strategic aims of the North West LGB&T strategy to develop the final strategic plan.

Best wishes,

Dr Nicola Brewer

Chief Executive

Hotel California Syndrome

It's a lonely life being a long distance campaigner.

The need to stop and rest by the roadside can be overwhelming at times. The visceral desire to give up altogether and hang up the running shoes becomes a constant nag after a few years at the game.

Campaigning for a minority cause in the face of almost insurmountable social obstacles requires stamina. In my own case, for many of the last twenty years or so, it has involved giving up a normal kind of social life to work long hours on a second, unpaid job.

Friends go out for drinks; throw dinner parties; meet people; fall in love; start lives together. But if you're serious about a cause then you severely limit these pursuits; live alone; socialise only by Internet with people whose voices you've probably never heard; whose flesh you've never felt.

Then there's the ever-nagging voice inside. The one that tries to stop you putting your head above the parapet...

This is the bit I'm most personally ashamed of.

It's part of my job to stand up in front of hundreds or thousands of strangers at a time and to introduce myself as something out of the ordinary. I'm a transsexual woman and the job of speaking about transsexual people's lives involves being clear about where I'm coming from.

It's also about demonstrating that it's OK to be "out" like that. Unfortunately the shameful bit is that I don't always feel that way inside.

Deep down I cannot entirely escape the unease which comes from 55 years' experience of being a trans woman in a world that's deeply threatening to my kind. Nobody has ever been unpleasant. It's part of my survival technique to conduct myself in a way that ensures they won't be.

Yet the natural human instinct is to avoid the threat of hassle if you can. I'm not 'out' to everyone and, if it were possible to do the job honestly and well without the self-exposure, then (as I say) I would surely do so. It's what I've worked for others to have in peace. It's ironic that I end up denying it to myself.

The trouble is that having a transsexual history (and having my name and face all over the Internet on that score for all these years) is only a part of who I am.

I have a family, including an 87 year old Father who is now bereaved and needs my support; I do a damned good job as a consultant – whatever varied assignments people throw my way; I do my best to be a good advocate for other communities.

All these things involve relationships with other people. And when I bring my life journey into those relationships I know they change in a myriad of qualitative ways.

I become self conscious supporting women's or lesbian issues, for instance. Nobody has to say anything. I just have to know that they know my unusual journey to adult womanhood to be conscious of all the unpleasant language thrown at transsexual people by some feminists; some lesbians. You don't have to say anything, but I find myself choosing my words defensively – just in case you do.

I recall explaining this a few months ago to the formidable black lesbian politician and rights campaigner, Linda Bellos, whom I greatly admire. We were sprucing ourselves at the mirror in the Ladies toilet at the venue where we had both just spoken on LGBT rights. I admitted that every time I had made such a speech I then felt self-conscious about going to the loo afterwards. Those looks. Again it was the intuitive feeling of needing to prepare for a confrontation. I could have hugged Linda when she said, "Christine; when you speak you make it safer for me to use the Ladies Toilet too". I hadn't thought of it in that way. Still, the instinct for issue avoidance is invariably there.

In 2001 I tried to retire from campaigning. I wanted a life and, in truth, I was dispirited and felt broken by the seeming impossibility of the challenge.

It was great. I started dating again; I renewed friendships; went on girly shopping trips. I watched ordinary TV. I stopped work when I left the office.

Yet the knowledge that there are wrongs to be righted never really goes away.

Then, on a memorable day in July 2002 I got a phone call whilst on the train to a meeting. It was an advance tip off of an announcement that two transsexual women were about to win their case against the British Government in the European Court of Human Rights. Suddenly all bets were back on. There was an enormous job to be done. I was back in action again.

But the older you get, the less stamina you have. By the summer of 2007 – after another exhausting five years – I was running out of steam again. This time I also intended to end it for good.

So it was that in November 2007 I quietly parted company with the campaign I'd worked on for over 14 years. (So quietly, in fact, that people still think I work there).

Don't get me wrong. I still carried on some activities. My specialist interest had become healthcare for trans people. I had chaired the Department of Health's committee which commissioned a whole range of literature that had never existed before. We specified and commissioned key research projects. I was patently aware of the enormous level of discrimination towards trans people in Britain's National Health Service. I couldn't just drop that work – and I didn't want to.

I found a compromise in developing a business for myself as a professional speaker and equality and diversity consultant. The work involves addressing the issues that surround the lives of every group in our society, rather than just one. It's endlessly fascinating and challenging. Yet inevitably, as part of that work, I'm still often asked to do work on my specialist subject.

One of those tasks involved the contract to write the definitive NHS managers' guide to workplace and service issues for transsexual people.

So, try as I might, it's impossible to give up working on trans issues altogether – in spite of those shameful instincts that make me want to stop and be 'ordinary'

I call it Hotel California syndrome – after the lyrics of the eponymous Eagles' classic: "You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is the Equality and Human Rights Commission trying to “forget” trans people?

In 1996 the European Court of Justice issued an important judgement which compelled the United Kingdom to update the Sex Discrimination Act so as to outlaw rampant employment and education discrimination towards people who intend to undergo, are undergoing or have undergone Gender Reassignment.

The Sex Discrimination (Gender Reassignment) Regulations were eventually enacted in April 1999. Even so, research conducted for Trevor Phillips' Equalities Review and published in February 2007 showed that, among 872 trans people questioned, 42% said they had lived in fear of workplace discrimination when they needed to transition. (Engendered Penalties: Transgender and Transsexual People's Experiences of Inequality and Discrimination; Whittle, Turner and Al-Alami; Equalities Review; Feb 2007).

Ten years after the law was introduced, transsexual people continue to describe instances of discrimination. Meanwhile transgender people are not even protected, because they don't fulfil the law's criterion that changes in one's gender presentation must be under medical supervision in order to count.

That same year (1999), the Court of Appeal upheld an earlier High Court judgement against North West Lancashire Health Authority and in favour of three transsexual women who had been denied NHS treatment for their condition. The Court ruled that gender reassignment treatment was the proper clinical response to the condition described as 'gender dysphoria' and that it was unlawful for any NHS organisation to operate any system of control which amounted to a blanket ban.

Ten years after that judgement and in spite of countless guidance publications from the Department of Health, several Primary Care Trusts and whole regions of the country persist in operating policies which do amount, in effect, to blanket bans. Their rules, when obtained under Freedom of Information procedures, read like a travesty of the founding principles of the National Health Service.

In 2002 the Royal College of Psychiatrists, in conjunction with the Royal Society of Medicine, set out to draft the first set of guidelines for the care of trans people by clinicians in the UK. A draft was published widely for consultation in November 2006 and attracted dozens of critical comments. The clinicians on the committee drafting the guidelines could not reach agreement with stakeholders, who pointed out that many of the proposed provisions were in fact discriminatory and unlawful on a succession of grounds. The guidelines were sent to a Barrister by the Royal Colleges, where they remain to this day. Seven years after setting out to produce guidelines, there are still none.

I could continue, but you get the gist. In spite of a succession of legal judgements upholding the rights of trans people in the UK (including a unanimous decision by the European Court of Human Rights in July 2002) they remain subjected to constant oppression and abuse of the same basic rights expected by everyone else.

And so that brings us to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

The EHRC came into existence in October 2007. It replaced three previously separate commissions dealing with the discrimination of people on grounds of their Race, Gender or Disabilities. The remit of the new commission requires them to tackle issues related to gender; gender identity; race or ethnic background; disability; sexual orientation; age, religion or belief. If you add those up then it comes to seven so-called "strands".

Even before they opened their doors, trans activists were worried about whether EHRC seriously recognised trans issues as something specifc. One moment the commission's chair, Trevor Phillips, asserted publicly that trans people were specifically there on the list, as a seventh category. The next moment different members of his staff would try to slip trans people into one of the other categories – gender or sexual orientation – where the distinct issues of trans life would immediately be forgotten.

And that's the way it has remained – vague and equivocal.

If you visit the EHRC's web site then the invisibility of trans people is quickly evident. "Transgender" is mentioned as a standard throwaway line in the standard "Notes to Editors" that go on the bottom of every commission press release. Yet it is impossible to find any commission press release which specifically addresses any of the battles which trans people still face in the most basic aspects of life – protection from discrimination; access to healthcare; freedom from human rights abuses.

The inactivity is carefully concealed though. A visitor to the commission's web site probably won't notice that there are conveniently generated news feeds for every other category of discrimination but none for transgender people. That's because the commission would have nothing to place on that feed and it would be ... well ... embarrassingly obvious.

A few weeks ago I wrote and pointed this issue out to an EHRC middle manager whom I deal with. The result? Absolute silence. This week I therefore decided to take action.

I am now actively pursuing a complaint about EHRC's inaction and cover up. And these are the issues which I have demanded they address. Addressing Trevor Phillips and his team of managers I have demanded:

  • set yourself the goals that trans people in Britain should no longer suffer a postcode lottery for funding of the most basic health care provision and
  • commission the most basic of all research – to find out, with a degree of certainty, (a) how many transsexual, transgender and other gender variant people live in the UK; (b) how many require care relating to their gender issues (not just those who present seeking surgery); and (c) how many are not getting that care or suffer unreasonable waiting times or denial of service choice
  • quiz the Royal Colleges on why they have dragged their feet for seven years and have still not published basic standards of care for the UK (they're afraid their discriminatory protocols are unlawful)
  • demand to know why there is no published, peer reviewed research on the outcomes of trans care in the UK (and why less than 0.098% of articles recently searched in the Cochrane Library, MEDLINE, EMBASE and PsychINFO relate to UK research on LGB&T health as a whole.)
  • Proactively audit EIA's on PCT commissioning policies at random and use judicial review to overturn cynical discriminatory practice predicated on the above lack of data – a locked in form of institutional discrimination if ever there was a case
  • Take up the case of the UK's backward practice on prescription of hormone blocking treatment of teenage trans people as the travesty of ethics and the Human Rights abuse that it represents
  • Ensure that all police forces are monitoring transphobic hate crime.
  • Put transphobic bullying in schools into the educational vocabulary
  • Actively investigate the reasons why trans people are living on benefits and why those in work are known to be paid several grades below their capability.
  • Criticise media organisations when their editors still persist in allowing transphobic language to air (especially from comics of dubious talent).
  • Investigate and report on why the trans community's tiny support and advocacy organisations are close to collapse – their leaders physically and spiritually exhausted after nearly 20 years of voluntary work

In concluding this call I also said,

"I would like to see some action. In particular I would like to see a national lead on the issues I've listed below, by someone whose annual job appraisal and public assessment depends on making concrete progress on issues that are simply allowed to drag on, unaddressed."

"The time for patting trans people on the head and throwing occasional scraps is gone. And I'm tired of seeing former colleagues beating themselves ragged doing work that the Commission itself should be doing. We're all now too old for that, and we've all been exploited for too long."

"The Equality and Human Rights Commission is now being directly measured on what it achieves – this week, this month, this year"

Tonight I received an assurance from a regional manager that she would be looking into these issues.

Let's hope she does more than look; for trans people in Britain have been looking at those issues for far longer than necessary already. And the body they should have been able to expect to champion their plight has brushed them under the carpet.

Update: See the reply from EHRC Chief Executive Nicola Brewer

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Breaking the Camel’s Back

I live in North West England – a region with a population of just over 6.8 million people.

About 20% of those people have a disability of some kind; 650,000 of them have a Black or Minority Ethnic (BME) background; well over 600,000 are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Add in the fact that around a fifth profess a religion which is not based on Christianity and you'll see that, overall, diversity is the norm rather than the exception these days.

The old picture of a population that was white, straight, Christian and able-bodied needs to be consigned to the dustbin.

Now consider the other side of the coin.

Since 2002 the Race Equality Duty has obliged public authorities to work proactively and consult with communities to eliminate racial disadvantage in their services and work places.

Since 2006 the Disability Equality Duty has required those same bodies to involve disabled people in reviewing existing services and strategies, and in the planning of new ones.

Then, since April 2007, they've had to consult with men and women stakeholders (including trans people) to ensure that working arrangements, policies, and services do not conceal hidden disadvantages for anyone on the basis of their gender.

None of us are complete experts on the lives and experiences of others.

I know in theory some of the issues which affect black Asian people, for instance, but I don't have the first hand knowledge of someone who lives that existence.

It's going to get more complex when the new Equality Bill comes into force and people need to start applying the same disciplines to questions of sexual orientation, age or religious belief.

This is why effective consultation and involvement with expert stakeholders lies at the very heart of Equality Impact Assessment and the production of Equality Schemes (which are both statutory requirements under the laws I've mentioned).

So far, so good. That shouldn't be difficult, should it? But look at the numbers.

In England's North West there are 46 local authorities; five police forces; 63 NHS Trusts; umpteen fire services; offender management services; a regional development agency; the Strategic Health Authority ... and those are just the 'obvious' public bodies.

The picture is the same in the other nine English regions; I've just picked the North West because I know the numbers well.

So what happens when every one of those seeks to carry out its' statutory duty and tries to consult?

Well, in theory, there's a so-called "third sector" to call upon. That's the term for the myriad charities and voluntary services that make up the part of our working economy that doesn't consist of private and public sector companies and organisations.

It's deceptively large. In the North West there are reckoned to be over 30,000 voluntary and community organisations (VCO's).

So no problem there then, huh?

Yet notice I said "deceptive". The problem is that most of those VCO's are truly tiny.

They may involve only three or four willing volunteers. They probably don't have an office. They work from home in their spare time. They're not paid. They exist to work on whichever issue needed to be addressed. They struggle with, at best, minimal funding – which all goes towards the thing they're focussed upon. They may not have the capacity (or indeed training) to participate in consultations looking at complex strategic questions – even if they had the time or energy.

Also, just because you have detailed personal experience of using a wheelchair (say) doesn't mean you're an expert who can answer questions about the lives of people with sight or hearing impairments, learning difficulties, or indeed other kinds of mobility challenges.

Strip away all those tiny organisations, who sometimes barely exist, and what you have left is a small number of more substantial charities or social enterprises in each sector.

Some sectors are relatively well served. There are lots of BME organisations, for instance, and a handful of substantial organisations representing disabled people (backed by several smaller, local, groups).

Some numbers can mislead. You'll find local women's groups, focussed on delivering cr̬che or domestic violence and rape crisis services Рyet most are teetering on the edge of survival.

Then there are other areas where provision is centred on maybe one or two groups.

In the North West, for instance, there is only one substantial charity focussed on issues for Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual people.

And, nationally, the number of organisations competent to consult on issues affecting the tiny trans population can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

So what happens when well over 100 public organisations try to descend on these organisations because they're desperate to fulfil their statutory duties to consult and involve?

Well, the reality is that in many cases the charities and voluntary/community groups concerned simply won't have the capacity to cope.

If they have funding then that will have been carefully ring fenced to work on the specific projects the group has been funded to do.

The money doesn't pay for officers of the VCO to spend time reading and replying to consultation documents – let alone attending consultation meetings or events.

Historically, the public sector has been very presumptious too. In my experience as an activist I simply lost count of the number of times that Government Departments and lesser public bodies simply assumed I would read and respond consultations – almost always at the last minute.

The blackmail inherent in this way of operating is clear as day. You can decline to submit views to a consultation; yet then you know that the implementation will be flawed and you'll end up living with the results. It represents the worse kind of exploitation.

Indeed, I've publicly labelled this kind of practice as 'theft', to the horror of some public servants. Yet what other word is there for the practice of setting out to obtain someone's knowledge and expertise with no intention to pay for it?

So what's to be done?

Well, public bodies need to get much better at working intelligently together – for instance, through more Local Area Agreements.

For instance, a local authority can get together with their Primary Care Trust, Police and probation officers, and work collectively on the issues that affect their locality.

They can pool resources to obtain the data they need – or commission and conduct research to inform their thinking.

Best of all, they can collectively consult with organisations with the experience to tell them what needs to be done to address the disadvantages of particular groups of people on their patch.

As a matter of principle they should expect to engage with these VCOs on a professional basis as partners. Volunteers aren't inferior because they don't get paid – any more than amateur sports men and women should be thought of as inferior to the paid kind.

Indeed people who work with the issues that matter every day are arguably more expert than the people you might seek to hire from expensive consultancies.

Public authorities also need to consider how to use their financial power to help build the capacity and expertise of the groups they need to consult with.

Remember this isn't optional or a form of 'charity'. Having a healthy sustainable third sector community is a strategic necessity in order to carry out the necessary consultation on a long term basis – or indeed to commission the services to implement the resulting actions.

What's certain is that the alternative is not an option. For that will simply result in breaking the camel's back.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Take the Ada Lovelace Day Challenge

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, was born on 10th December 1815, the only child of Lord Byron and his wife, Annabella. Born Augusta Ada Byron, but now known simply as Ada Lovelace, she wrote the world’s first computer programmes for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose machine that Charles Babbage had invented.

Her historical contributions to thinking about how computational devices could be used are not just significant from a technological point of view, but because they serve as a reminder of the potential waste of talent created by a climate that may often deter women from making the contributions they could make.

The blog below describes an initiative that's been set up to promote awareness of great women technologists - by inviting at least 1000 people to write blogs on the same day (March 24th) about any inspiring female technologist they know.

I've signed the pledge to do this - I've committed myself here as well - and I'd like to invite others to sign up to the pledge too. All the details are in the blog above.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Public Authorities Need a Map To Arrive at Full Equalities Compliance

2009 will see the debate and passage of a new Equality Bill, intended to replace over 100 separate pieces of legislation that have accumulated over the last 40 years.

Listen here for my in-depth review of the 40 year background:

Major features of the new law will be to create a new all-embracing public sector equality duty, replacing separate existing duties for Gender, Race and Disability. With each of these duties there is a requirement for public authorities to produce an appropriate "Equality Scheme", setting out the nature of what they do, and how they plan to ensure that differences in outcomes related to gender, race or disability are tackled.

The new "Single Equality Duty" will also embrace other diversities - lesbian, gay and bisexual people - religion or belief - and age. The aim is to simplify the law and eliminate historical disparities. New protections will also be introduced to embrace, for instance, discrimination by association or on the basis of perception.

Some public bodies have tried to be ahead of the game by publishing what they call a Single Equality Scheme. However, in their enthusiasm to do this, they may have made themselves non-compliant with the law's existing requirements.

Although we expect the new Equality Act to be passed in 2009, the reality is that the new Single Equality Duty won't come into effect until 2010 or 2011. The reason for this is because of the updating cycles for the race, disability and gender schemes which such bodies are required to produce and update every three years.

I've already come across organisations who've fallen into the trap of believing they could defer updating their race equality schemes (due for review in April/May 2008) because a new duty was just around the corner. Delaying like that is unlawful though. A similar requirement will arise for organisations to update their disability equality schemes in December 2009.

There is nothing "wrong" in consolidating equality schemes together in the interim; however the individual duties still need to be complied with -- and to call the result a "Single Equality Scheme" when it doesn't cover everyone to the same degree is liable to set false expectations in people reading it. (Better to call it a "Consolidated Scheme" until you're really in a position to gaurantee that the contents address all the requirements of legislation that is yet to be seen).

Public bodies therefore need a road map to get from where they are today to a position where they can effortlessly achieve compliance with the new extended duty in 2011.

Contact me if you'd like to know how.

Christine Burns