Former members of the government’s disbanded LGBT+ advisory panel have told MPs of their disappointment at the attitudes and public statements of equalities secretary Liz Truss and minister Kemi Badenoch since they took up their posts.
Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee heard on Wednesday that things “went downhill tremendously” from September 2019, when Truss replaced Amber Rudd as equalities secretary.
MPs heard plaudits for officials in the Government Equalities Office. But they were also told that the LGBT team at the GEO was “greatly diminished” and that the budget it was originally allocated had “disappeared”.
Panel member Jayne Ozanne resigned from her role in March in protest at what she described as the “hostile environment” being created for the LGBT+ community by the government. She said Truss and Badenoch had “become known as the ministers for inequality”. Truss disbanded the panel last month after two further resignations.
Ozanne told Wednesday’s committee session that speeches by the ministerial team had left her increasingly concerned. She said Badenoch’s performance in a parliamentary debate on gay conversion therapy had lit a succession of “red lights that we are going down the wrong road very fast” and left her feeling she “needed to push a nuclear button”.
Ozanne added that speeches made by Truss had demonstrated that the equalities secretary did not understand the people she was there to champion.
“We need a minister who truly understands and wants to stand at the front and be our voice in government for the concerns that we have,” she said. “If anything, we were seeing the very opposite of that.”
Ozanne said Truss had only met with the LGBT+ advisory panel twice between September 2019 and March this year. “I felt, if I can be blunt, that the secretary of state was meeting with us because she had to,” she said.
TransgenderNI director and former advisory panel member Ellen Murray said the ministerial response in the conversion therapy debate had been the “final straw” that prompted her resignation from the committee.
But she said the decision had followed “a very long-term working out of how the panel was being responded to and being accommodated by the government”.
Murray said the issue of gay conversion therapy was “just one example” of the government’s “changing approach to human rights”.
LGBT Foundation chief executive Paul Martin spoke in glowing terms about Penny Mordaunt’s tenure as equalities secretary and the commitment of then-prime minister Theresa May, who oversaw the panel’s creation.
But he said it had become apparent that Truss’s vision for the equalities brief “did not involve engaging stakeholders like us” and that the panel had been an advisory committee “in name only” to Truss and Badenoch. He said members had met independently on a monthly basis, however.
“The current secretary of state has a very different view about equalities,” Martin said. “She was very clear with us that she didn’t see the role of GEO as being a fund-giver. Previous ministers had that LGBT action fund, which was distributed to organisations to undertake work.
“She didn’t think that GEO should be giving money. She thought it should very much be about commissioning research, she also didn’t see its role as holding the rest of government to account. There was just a change of emphasis and a change of approach. And I think we became redundant as a part of that.”
Martin, who stayed on as a panel member until the committee was disbanded, told MPs Truss “made it clear that she wasn’t looking to engage with individual identity groups”.
He added that there were “plenty of people” in the civil service who thought the committee should have been retained and “listened to in a more meaningful way”.
Ozanne said she wanted to salute officials at the GEO, who she said had been committed to trying their best at pushing work forward.
But she questioned the level of interaction they had with their ministers. “Communication between the secretary of state and her own staff is something that somebody needs to be looking into,” she said.
Both Truss and Badenoch have other portfolios in addition to their equalities briefs: Truss as international trade secretary and Badenoch as exchequer secretary to the Treasury.
Truss is due to appear before the Women and Equalities Committee next Tuesday.