It has not been a good year for gay rights charity Stonewall. Last month founding member Matthew Parris accused the organisation of trying to delegitimise anyone who did not agree with its views after a free speech row at Essex University. Stonewall was alleged to have misrepresented the law in its advice to the institution with barrister Akua Reindorf warning of 'potential illegalities' and suggesting the university should reconsider its ties to the campaigning group.
Now it is reported that the Ministry of Justice is preparing to leave Stonewall’s diversity scheme as part of an 'exodus' of government departments severing ties. The reasons for such a move are said to be concerns about Stonewall’s 'dubious' training and approach to free speech with one MoJ source quoted in the Telegraph as arguing: 'we really shouldn’t be paying thousands of pounds for controversial advice about pronouns and gender-neutral spaces.' Amid a deluge of critical press, it can be little surprise that the LGBT+ charity is currently seeking a new head of media for £44,629 a year.
Steerpike wonders if the current rethink in Whitehall circles will eventually extend through other government agencies. Amid criticism in some quarters about the close links between Stonewall and official bodies, Mr S has unearthed a Freedom of Information request which shows the Department of Health's arms length body NHS Business Services Authority declining to answer questions about its relationship with the charity.
Under the 2000 Freedom of Information Act, requests for information are required to remain 'purpose blind', meaning that applicants do not have to provide a reason for their request. But when asked for correspondence with Stonewall and whether an equality impact assessment was carried out on the agency's membership of the charity diversity scheme, the NHSBSA refused to provide information as ‘the spirit of this request is to further a campaign against Stonewall and its partners/clients'. The response further claimed 'the request is not made in the spirit of FOI' and that 'the value/purpose of the information is of little to no interest to the wider public' – some fairly bold claims given the involvement of taxpayers' money in the Stonewall diversity scheme.
Maurice Frankel, Director, Campaign for Freedom of Information told Mr S that the reply was 'an extraordinary refusal' as 'the request appears to be a perfectly proper FOI request. It has none of the characteristics of a vexatious request. It’s about the NHSBSA’s activities and spending. That is what the Act is there for. It is not remotely a ‘fishing trip’ – its scope is specific and clear. Answering it is not likely to cause a significant burden for the authority. The Act does not allow a public authority to refuse information because it claims to know what the requester will do with the information and disapproves of it.'
When Steerpike contacted the NHSBSA, a spokesman said that the authority 'takes its responsibilities under the Freedom of Information Act extremely seriously and is committed to acting in accordance with the legislation' adding that 'whilst we have clearly stated our reasons for refusal, if the recipient has any concerns about our handling of the request our response includes information on how to contact us to request a review.'
As the charity's relationship with public bodies comes ever increasing scrutiny, let's hope no more examples of government stonewalling come to light.