Ofcom bows out of the Stonewall Champions scheme – but read the small print

Sex Matters has recently learnt that Ofcom is leaving the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme because of concerns that remaining a member “could harm perceptions of Ofcom’s impartiality”.

Ofcom, the communications regulator, has been a member of the Stonewall Diversity Champions programme since 2007, spending over £12,000 in 2019 and 2020 to access advice from the organisation, including on matters such as:

“The use of pronouns and prefixes, best practice language to use on diversity monitoring forms, advice on best practice wording around medical questions relating to sex (for private medical cover), and considerations to take into account when thinking about setting workforce targets.”

It has also taken part in the secretive Stonewall “Workplace Equality Index”, ranking in 144, 183 and 111th place in the last three years. Ofcom says it will continue to participate in the Workplace Equality Index scheme and has refused to release any information on this because it might cause commercial harm to Stonewall.

“Update on our relationship with Stonewall”

Sex Matters understands that this release is posted on Ofcom’s intranet

Kevin Bakhurst appointed to Ofcom board
Kevin Bakhurst, Group Director, Broadcasting & Online Content

Kevin, as SMT Champion for LGBTQ+, shares an update on stepping back from working with Stonewall’s Diversity Champions programme, and continuing our work with the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index In strong support of LGBTQ+ rights.

It has been a great pleasure and honour to take on the role of Champion of our fantastic Affinity Network at Ofcom over this last year. I have learnt a lot and really enjoy working with a great team of people and I think we’re continuing to make Ofcom a great place to work for all of our LGBTQ+ colleagues. It goes without saying that that is the right thing to do. It’s also fundamental that, to ensure we do a great job of making communications work for everyone, Ofcom should reflect the make-up of the country as a whole – including LGBTQ+ people. So we’ve worked with Stonewall, an organisation advocating for equal rights for LGBTQ+ people, over the last ten years. We’ve improved our LGBTQ+ representation; trained most Ofcom colleagues in trans awareness and support; created a policy and care support for colleagues making a transition; ensured all our family-friendly policies are fully inclusive and gender-neutral and supported LGBTQ+ colleagues through our [intranet link].

Because of this approach we’ve made good progress on our internal processes to create greater diversity at Ofcom, thanks to the help, support and advocacy of our strong Affinity Network. While there is a lot more to do, and we’re fully committed to the ongoing programme, we’re proud of the work completed and grateful to Stonewall, and other LGBTQ+ charities, for their advice and support.

Reviewing and updating our relationship with Stonewall

We’ve recently reviewed our relationship with Stonewall and have taken a carefully considered decision to step back from our membership of the Diversity Champions programme. This is for two reasons:

  1. We regularly review our partnerships to ensure they’re still adding value. We know there’s much more to do to build and improve our internal capability, but we’ve now laid the foundations that will help us improve our support for LGBTQ+ colleagues. We’re confident that we can move ahead positively, without continuing with the Diversity Champions programme.
  2. In recent months, there has been significant scrutiny of some of Stonewall’s policy positions and this has led to some controversy. This in turn has led to scrutiny of organisations that have relationships with Stonewall, including through their Diversity Champions membership programme. In Ofcom’s case, we have considered whether our relationship with Stonewall poses a conflict or risk of perceived bias. As you know, it is absolutely critical that we maintain our reputation for neutrality and objectivity, particularly in the area of broadcast standards, and we believe that inadvertently being pulled into a political debate could harm perceptions of Ofcom’s impartiality. We consider that stepping back from the Diversity Champions programme, in light of this, is the right thing to do, and is consistent with our new policy on ensuring conflict-free diversity and inclusion partnerships.​​​​​​​

A strong future relationship with Stonewall

We’ll continue to support our LGBTQ+ colleagues and Affinity Network, and to promote respect and opportunity for the wider LGBTQ+ community as part of our diversity and inclusion strategy. This means that we’ll continue to participate in the Stonewall Workplace Equality Index, which is widely recognised as a strong benchmarking tool for employers to measure their progress on LGBTQ+ inclusion in the workplace.

We have also committed to providing greater help for LGBTQ+ colleagues on their career journeys as well as developing a communications and social media plan showcasing our support for LGBTQ+ rights.

Kerri Ann O’Neill, People & Transformation Director, said:

“Our commitment to supporting the rights and freedoms of LGBTQ+ people at Ofcom is as strong as ever. We care deeply about our LGBTQ+ colleagues and recognise that there is some way to go to ensure everyone can simply be themselves. This is at the heart of our inclusion strategy. As the UK’s communications regulator, proactively managing our relationships with advocacy organisations such as Stonewall is an important part of our responsibility to remain free from any perception of bias. This matters for our work, it matters to society and it matters to our people.”

Ofcom refuses transparency

While Ofcom is leaving the Stonewall Diversity Champions scheme because of concerns about impartiality, it says it is remaining in the Workplace Equality Index in which it answers detailed questions about its policies and seeks to achieve Stonewall’s approval.

Previously Ofcom has declined to release details of its submission, citing Stonewall’s commercial interests.

While Ofcom recognises that there is a public interest in this information being made public, it says that this transparency would diminish “the ability of Stonewall to conduct its business activities”. Ofcom argues that it is crucial that it can have secret discussions about its policies with Stonewall “to ensure that we are satisfying our obligations under the Equality Act 2010”.

In fact, as it admits, its discussions do not relate to the nine protected characteristics of the equality act but concentrate on “trans issues”:

“We consider that the public interest in disclosure is outweighed by the need for Ofcom colleagues to have the ability to freely consider and respond to the feedback provided by Stonewall in response to its submission to the Workplace Equality Index, and to build on its existing policies and strategies relating to trans issues.

Sex Matters responds

Sex Matters welcomes the news that Ofcom is leaving the Diversity Champions Scheme, but is dismayed that it continues to remain in the secretive “Workplace Equality Index”.

We do not think it is necessary or appropriate for public bodies to engage in a secret scheme in order to comply with the Equality Act 2010. If membership of the Diversity Champions scheme could harm public perceptions of Ofcom’s impartiality, continued membership of a scheme under which it pays Stonewall to give it secret coaching and feedback on its policies and its performance of its public functions will do much worse damage.

In July we published a report setting out how Stonewall’s advice, including what is in the Workplace Equality Index, is not in line with the Equality Act.

We have previously written to Lord Burns, the Chair of Ofcom, about this.

What we will do

  • We will write again to Lord Burns, and to Melanie Dawes, Chief Executive of Ofcom.
  • We will challenge the denial the freedom of information request, as we do not think that it is in the public interest to withhold this information from the public.

What you can do

Write to Melanie Dawes:

  • welcoming the move to leave the Diversity Champions Scheme
  • emphasising the need for impartiality and compliance with the Equality Act 2010
  • highlighting our report www.sex-matters.org/stonewall-risk/
  • asking for information on what a policy of “conflict-free diversity and inclusion partnerships” means and how ​​​Ofcom are ensuring that its participation in the Workplace Equality Index scheme does not conflict with its obligation to avoid sex discrimination and belief discrimination.
  • calling on Ofcom to also review participation in the Workplace Equality Index, and to commit to releasing information on it.

Melanie Dawes
Chief Executive
Riverside House
2a Southwark Bridge Road