The Daily Telegraph - Saturday

We must say less and do more, says equalities boss who faced coup

- By Ewan Somerville

THE head of the equalities watchdog said last night that she wants the body to “say less and do more” after she faced a coup from civil servants.

An investigat­ion into Baroness Falkner of Margravine’s work as the Equalities and Human Rights Commission chairman, which has been condemned by her allies as spurious, was suspended yesterday following a backlash from 54 peers and outcry across the political spectrum.

Officials had filed a dossier of 40 complaints alleging “bullying”, “discrimina­tion”, “harassment” and a “lack of psychologi­cal safety”, targeted at the 68-year-old and her board of 12 expert commission­ers, which has powers in statute to make all its policy decisions on equality law.

After the suspension of the investigat­ion was announced, Lady Falkner released a statement defending her plans for the EHRC to “stand up for the public interest” by moving the regulator from simply “a source of policy and advice-giving” towards “a sharper focus on actual delivery”.

She said: “The organisati­on has been going through a transforma­tion programme to turn it from a source of policy

‘The organisati­on has been through a transforma­tion to [have a] sharper focus on actual delivery’

and advice-giving across a wide range of subjects, to a sharper focus on actual delivery. To ‘say’ less, and ‘do’ more.”

She thanked the public for having “shared your own experience­s of unfairness and injustice, which are humbling”. The complaints began when the EHRC pivoted to settle the transgende­r debate since Lady Falkner took charge, including by taking gender critical views into account, which has infuriated trans activists.

This included Lady Falkner advising ministers earlier this year to update the definition of “sex” in the 2010 Equality Act to make clear that it refers to biological sex, not any self-ascribed identity.

Yesterday, the EHRC “paused” the investigat­ion it began in February, led by Gavin Mansfield KC, an employment barrister, “while we seek legal advice on the impact of leaked confidenti­al informatio­n,” adding in a statement: “We must ensure its integrity and that it is fair to all parties concerned.”

Her allies said it was a “victory for Board over Blob” and called on Marcial Boo, the EHRC chief executive, to resign over the row. A source close to

the EHRC said: “There is now a feeling that his days are numbered. Clearly Boo got spooked by some of the networks in the organisati­on and then pursued this witch hunt of his own chair.

”It’s now a complete consensus that he needs to find alternativ­e arrangemen­ts; he’s totally lost the confidence of the board and the staff.

“Clearly there has been a concerted attempt to blame poor staff satisfacti­on and poor staff retention on the policy decisions of the board. It’s just tragic. There was an elite group of EHRC people who got together to arrange how they would get rid of her and referred to themselves as ‘Gold Command’. They came to a consensus view that the only way forward was to get a silk to do an investigat­ion and give the silk all the evidence he would need to find her guilty.”

The dossier, which was said to contain 40 allegedly vague allegation­s, bemoaned “a lack of psychologi­cal safety, ie the fear of who will be attacked next” and staff were “worried that the commission is becoming an unsafe place to work”. Another took issue with Lady Falkner allegedly referring to a trans quiz show contestant as a “bloke in lipstick” in a board meeting, which her allies said was taken out of context.

It was leaked to Channel 4 News on Tuesday, with the programme also speaking to more than 20 current and former staff alleging they were “puppets on strings ... to deliver a Tory agenda” and reviewing confidenti­al documents.

While the KC-led investigat­ion was costing taxpayers £100,000, Lady Falkner was having to pay tens of thousands of pounds in legal fees to defend herself. A source at the EHRC said: “We’re not clear whether this investigat­ion

‘Clearly Boo got spooked by some of the networks... and pursued this witch hunt of his own chair’

can be conducted fairly or properly in the circumstan­ces. It was known to be a confidenti­al investigat­ion to protect everyone and there now needs to be time to establish where these leaks have come from and the ramificati­ons. Baroness Falkner was not involved in the decision to suspend the investigat­ion.”

Ian Acheson, a former chief operating officer at the EHRC until 2015, said: “This [suspension] was the right course of action.”

In her statement, Baroness Falkner said “to decide is to choose – carefully, about what our decisions mean for those affected”, adding: “I have relished public service all my life and continue to do so with vigour and determinat­ion.”

The EHRC said: “The board has full confidence in our CEO, Marcial Boo, and we are working closely with him and his [team] to manage this sensitive and fastmoving situation.”

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