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Sheffield City Council quietly leaves Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme

Councillor fears “a victory for those campaigning against the rights of those in the LGBTIQA+ community,” despite long-term success in the programme, a Freedom of Information request shows.

A close-up photograph of the progress pride flag
Cecilie Johnsen

Working with over 900 organisations in the UK, LGBT+ charity Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Scheme assists organisations to access networking opportunities, support and recruit LGBT+ staff and learn best practices from experts. Members of the scheme can also be assessed as part of the Workplace Equality Index and be ranked alongside other organisations.

In a climate of growing conservatism and transphobia, several large organisations have withdrawn from the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme following public pressure, including the BBC, the Department of Health and the House of Commons. Part of this pressure has involved suggestions that trans rights are detrimental to women’s rights, alongside arguments that the scheme offers unreliable advice, a charge that Stonewall has strongly denied.

Sheffield City Council joined the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme in 2004. In a briefing report to Stonewall Workplace Equality Index (WEI) Member Working Group in February 2020, the Council said “participating in the Index has helped us to improve on performance. Sheffield Council has taken part in the Index from 2005 and has always scored highly.”

The same report says:

"The Council scored well in the 2020 WEI in a number of key areas such as procurement, monitoring and full marks on community engagement.

"There are a number of areas where we need to improve. The main ones include:

  • Employee life cycle (training).

  • Allies and role models and senior leadership.

  • Refreshing and updating policies and procedures.

  • Staff feedback"

But despite being a top 100 employer in Stonewall’s 2020 Workplace Equality Index, ranking 8th for the local government sector, and having identified areas where clear improvement is needed, Sheffield City Council quietly chose to leave the Diversity Champions scheme and let its membership lapse in February 2021. At the time of writing, the Council’s website suggests that it is still a member of the scheme.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request submitted by Now Then suggests that a combination of factors led to the decision. An email from October 2021, explaining the decision in response to Councillor Cate McDonald, states that Olivia Blake, now Labour MP for Sheffield Hallam, made the initial decision to leave the scheme when she was Deputy Leader and Lead Member for Equalities at the Council. This was delayed, but ultimately happened in February 2021.

Sheffield town hall
A S Morton

A bureaucratic process

The email, from a redacted sender, states that “overall it takes about 250 to 300 hrs of dedicated [Council] officer time to complete the Index. When we first started on the journey with Stonewall we felt that it was beneficial and helped us improve. However more recently we have felt that it hasn’t really been beneficial in improving equality for LGBT+ people. It has become a lot more bureaucratic and less focussed on outcomes for people and importantly it now has a clear staff focus but doesn’t really relate as much to our LGBT+ residents in the city.”

Sheffield City Council told Now Then: “We always have to balance the resources required and the benefits of membership of any scheme and especially now as we face very challenging financial circumstances.

“This was the key consideration in not maintaining our membership of the Stonewall scheme at the time, however we are open to rejoining in future. We are absolutely committed to tackling LGBTQ+ inequality across the city and improving equality, diversity and inclusion within our own workforce.”

Stonewall and trans rights

Two letters to the Council, revealed through Now Then’s information request, cite the idea that trans rights are a threat to women’s safety as a reason to consider leaving the Diversity Champions scheme, while a report to the People’s Portfolio Leadership Team (PLT) in June 2021 reported the national context as follows:

The current debate on trans equality has conflated gender and sex issues and hasn’t yet reached an outcome. There are a range of views in society which SCC, as a public body, has to navigate in a fair and reasonable way.

For SCC, the Equality Act continues to requires us to consider all protected characteristics and this sometimes leads sometimes to conflicting demands and rights. The Equality Act clearly recognises sex as a protected characteristic and as opposed to gender but also gender reassignment and sexual orientation.

However, an email from Director of Policy, Performance and Communications James Henderson to Councillor Jayne Dunn, dated 30 July 2021, insists: “To be clear, this decision was not taken in response to Stonewall’s policy positions in respect of trans rights (and indeed was a decision made some considerable time before this became a significant issue for Stonewall).”

When asked to clarify how much the debate over trans lives contributed to the decision to leave the scheme, the Council told Now Then:

The recommendation on pausing membership and of completing the Workforce Index was made first in 2018, there was a huge amount of consideration, and a final decision was made. With our limited resource, it was felt that we needed to focus more locally.

The report [quoted above] is in response to the Education/Children and Young People’s Index (rather than the wider Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme) and it noted the national context to provide background – this did not mean that Stonewall’s policy positions were part of the rationale for the decisions relating to either scheme.

To be clear, Stonewall’s policy position in relation to trans rights was not a factor - we are totally and unequivocally supportive of eliminating discrimination against trans people.

Rainbow graffiti on Wellington Street, Sheffield
KylaBorg

Is support for LGBT+ staff continuing?

Concerns were also raised within the Council that the future direction of Stonewall might result in lower scores in certain areas. In an October briefing note entitled Stonewall Workplace Equality, one “key point to consider” says, "We are expecting a strong focus on bi-inclusion and non-binary identities in next year's index and we have done very little work in this area".

Asked whether the Council had considered doing more work in this area, instead of leaving the scheme to avoid being marked on it, Sheffield City Council told Now Then:

The recommendation was made in 2018, prior to this expected focus in next year’s index. This was not the basis for the decision.

We have also always undertaken an Annual Review and report on our Stonewall memberships and through that we have highlighted areas that we need to improve on. We feel that has helped us develop through the years. We will still continue to work on LGBTQ+ equality irrespective of whether we are members of a scheme, this includes bi-inclusion and non-binary identities.

There was also discussion in emails and meeting notes disclosed to Now Then suggesting that the focus on LGBT+ Sheffielders and Council staff was limiting the work the Council could do for disabled and racialised groups within the city.

The documents revealed by our information request insist that the Council will not stop work on LGBT+ equality, choosing to partner with local organisations instead. When asked about this, the Council told Now Then:

All the work previously carried out to support LGBTQ+ people in the city and in our workforce has continued, no work has ended as a result of the Council leaving the Stonewall Scheme. The latest versions of our annual workforce and equalities reports will be presented to the Overview and Scrutiny Management Committee in January.

We continue to fund LGBT Sheffield to run the LGBT+ Partnership for the city and over the past 18 months work done through the partnership has included the impact of COVID on LGBTQ+ people. We also continue to fund SAYiT for younger people. We worked with LGBT Sheffield and the Partnership to conduct and take action on two surveys in the past year. We continue to use Equality Monitoring and Equality Impact Assessments to monitor the impact of our policies/projects/proposals on both LGBTQ+ staff and customers/residents.

Internally, we have also been looking at sexual orientation and gender identity in our employee surveys and recruitment work to ensure we are able to support colleagues and continue to improve in the future.

Overall, the documents obtained by Now Then indicate that the main concern for Sheffield City Council about its membership of the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme relate to issues of resourcing. Requiring hundreds of hours of staff time to fulfil what the report to the People’s PLT described as “an annual tick box exercise” suggests a weariness of the scheme, backed up by comments in the briefing report to the Member Working Group about feedback from Stonewall being inconsistent, with a “lack of an outcomes focus”.

Concerns were also raised in internal documents that the scheme was more relevant to private-sector organisations than the public sector. But Stonewall points out that, “In 2020, a local council took first place in the Stonewall Top 100, with many more local councils being represented across the list.”

Will Sheffield City Council rejoin the Diversity Champions scheme?

Whether the Council will rejoin the scheme in the future remains an open question. A July email from James Henderson to Councillor Martin Phipps, states, “there has been no decision to withdraw from the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme on a permanent basis - we have benefited from their expertise and support over many years.”

Councillor Phipps’ response to this email summarises the concerns of many in the LGBTQ community: “Could we not have undertaken a review on how to better support our LGBTIQA+ communities and organisation whilst continuing in the program? What is in place this year whilst we are not in the program?”

“We have concerned people contacting us as this action is being shared as a victory for those campaigning against the rights of those in the LGBTIQA+ community,” Phipps added.

Stonewall told Now Then:

It’s a simple human right that everyone, including LGBTQ+ staff, is free from discrimination and prejudice at work. Our Diversity Champions programme helps organisations to create more inclusive workplaces for their LGBTQ+ employees.

As with all membership programmes, organisations come and go depending on what is best for them at the time, and Sheffield City Council decided not to renew their membership with us more than a year ago in June 2020.

Our leading Diversity Champions programme continues to grow, and we’re proud to work with more than 900 organisations to help create working environments in which all lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer people can thrive.

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