Guest Blog by Cyclefree, a lawyer/investigator specialising in financial services and whistleblowing investigations.
A thought experiment
Take a religious group – something like Opus Dei, for instance. What might it do if determined enough? Let’s imagine.
- It successfully presents itself as the only valid representative of all Catholics, indeed, all Christians in the UK – at least as far as the press and politicians are concerned.
- It attracts support from popular celebrities.
- It speaks regularly about discrimination against Catholics, how marginalised a minority and about their human rights (“Catholic rights are human rights”).
- It says anyone raising concerns about child abuse by Catholic clergy shows hatred.
- It describes those who criticize it or Catholics generally as “heretics” and “hate groups” or phobic.
- It runs schemes whereby, for money, it audits organizations for how pro-Catholic – as determined by Opus Dei – they are.
- It advises organizations and trains their employees on language, facilities, policies, the steps they must take – both internally and externally – to promote the faith as promulgated by Opus Dei and earn those points.
- It requires organizations to teach all its staff (not simply Catholic ones) to talk about their souls, use religious language in their communications and remove any language or expressions which might offend Catholics.
- It publishes league tables identifying which organizations are the most pro-Catholic, as decided by it.
- It campaigns for changes in legislation to promote its religious ideals, changes which significantly alter existing equality legislation, especially for those opposed to religion having a say in legislation or affected by the changes it lobbies for.
- It lobbies for the abolition of civil and same sex marriage so that marriage will be based on Opus Dei’s understanding of the Sacraments.
- It advises organizations on equality law based on what it would like the law to be.
- It provides training and information packs to be used by schools.
- It has a flag, special days to celebrate what it stands for and regular public events at which employees from its members dress up in its religious habits and use its symbols, on vehicles, buildings and elsewhere.
Finally, imagine that many of the organizations where Opus Dei do this are state or state-funded organizations – the police, local authorities, government departments, grant-giving bodies and health authorities. They sign up to its creed, use its language, promote its symbols and congratulate themselves not just on not being anti-Catholic but on being proudly pro-Catholic, pro-Opus Dei.
Reasons for worry?
You’d think, wouldn’t you, that this is a bit odd. You’d be concerned at how a particular ideology was being spread without anyone else having a say. You’d be concerned that this seems to put the rights, interests and views of one group above those of others. You’d worry that it appears to be distorting or misinterpreting equality legislation. You might even wonder at the number of law firms signing up, thinking they’d be well placed to understand the law without the need to rely on non-legal lobbyists. You’d worry that the normal space for disagreement about aims and means was being squeezed out if any disagreement or challenge or questioning was described as “hate” and those expressing such concerns as “hate groups”. Above all, you’d worry that this creates a conflict of interest between what such organizations are legally required to do for all citizens and what they have agreed to do to satisfy Opus Dei and maintain their position in its league tables.
You don’t, of course, need to imagine any of this because it is happening now. Substitute Stonewall for Opus Dei and it pretty much describes how Stonewall currently operates.
Those state organizations which sign up to Stonewall’s schemes have created multiple conflicts of interest: between themselves as employers and different groups of employees and between their public duties and their legal obligations to all citizens. They have blurred the distinction between a body carrying out public functions under existing laws and campaigning lobbyists. They have failed to recognise that such conflicts of interest exist. They have failed to consider the creation of a perception of such conflicts of interest, even if that was not their intention. They appear not to understand the problems arising when a body implementing the law acts as if changes desired by a lobby group advising it had already happened. Since they have not understood any of this, they have taken no steps to eliminate or mitigate such conflicts of interest.
This is why we get the usual cycle of some unacceptable action or comment, protest, panic by the organization concerned, withdrawal of the original comment/action accompanied by an apology blaming it all on an underling/a mistake and assurance that whatever happened was not in line with their “values”. The fundamental underlying problem and how to address it seems to pass them by entirely.
Nowhere is the existence of such conflicts of interest more troubling than in the police. The police enforce the criminal law. They have significant powers over us. They have a duty to police “without fear or favour”. They need not just do this but be seen to do this. The reality of bias, the perception of a bias are damaging to proper policing. Such conflicts of interest risk damaging the rule of law and citizens’ faith in it.
This has been made more acute by three factors:
(1) Police misunderstanding their obligations as employers under equalities legislation.
(2) Confusing their obligations as an employer with their outward-facing public service obligations.
(3) The police’s approach to non-crime hate incidents.
Equalities laws and discrimination
Discrimination against police officers from minorities has understandably led to counter-measures. But what the police appear to have forgotten is that the obligation not to discriminate applies to all its staff. It does not simply apply to one group with a strong lobby behind it. In following the diktats of one lobby group, the police risk behaving in a way which discriminates, whether directly or indirectly, against others. For an excellent, detailed explanation of why – and the risks involved -, see Naomi Cunningham’s blog – https://wwww.legalfeminist.org.uk/2021/02/01/submission-and-compliance/.
This approach has extended to its public-facing duties, as a direct result of the reach of Stonewall’s schemes. The training of staff according to Stonewall’s views will inevitably affect how they carry out their duties towards the public. More explicitly, Stonewall’s schemes expressly cover “service users”. For public bodies, this means us. It is astonishing and worrying that any public body – let alone the police – should think it appropriate to allow a lobby group to dictate, influence or advise on the performance of its public functions. The police’s sole purpose is to enforce the criminal law. When it needs advice, it should obtain this from expert criminal lawyers. If it needs advice on complying with equality law, it should obtain this from expert equality lawyers. What it should not do is obtain advice or training from – or be influenced by – a lobby group primarily acting for only one of the groups it polices. What is even more worrying is that in all the time the police have been part of Stonewall’s schemes, it appears not to have obtained legal advice on whether doing so creates a conflict of interest or the perception of one and whether, if so, this creates a risk in how it carries out its public duties.
The final point relates to the police’s approach to non-crime hate incidents. One might ask why the police are involved at all in matters which are not crimes. Whatever the reason, they have got themselves involved in what Lord Moulton described some 90 years ago as the “realm of manners” – that space between the law at one end and free choice at the other.
They have allied themselves closely with one lobby group and adopted its view on matters where there are both differences of opinion, a changing scientific context and legislation and case law different to what the lobby group believes or wants. In so doing, the police have put themselves in a position where those who disagree with Stonewall’s position can have little
confidence that in any incident involving such matters the police will be – and be seen as – compliant with the law, not overreaching their powers and impartial.
This last point was seen in the Miller case where the Court of Appeal held that police guidance to record non-crime hate incidents –
“is plainly an interference with freedom of expression and knowledge that such matters are being recorded and stored in a police database is likely to have a serious ‘chilling effect’ on public debate”.
A year later, the College of Policing is proposing (apparently on legal advice) guidance allowing transgender officers to search those of the opposite sex to that of the transgender officer. This appears to be a breach of the relevant PACE provisions. It is, however, consistent with Stonewall’s view that a man who believes he is a woman is one and so should be allowed to carry out an intimate search of a woman. According to reports, the guidance also appears to suggest that a refusal by a woman or request for a female officer could be classed as a hate crime. The underlying assumption appears to be that intimate searches of the public are a service which, say, women should not deny to trans-identified male officers. This is a topsy turvy approach to police compliance with a law, one brought in after miscarriages of justice and police misbehaviour to ensure that evidence is properly collected without a sexual assault being committed and with proper regard for the dignity of the person being searched who is, it should be remembered, innocent.
We’ve been here before
The police being beholden to groups with an agenda is not a new problem. In Northern Ireland ever since its establishment, the RUC was seen as the explicitly anti-Catholic enforcement arm of a “Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people”. The bias was real and ultimately fatal to the rule of law there. More recently, the issue of Freemasonry raised similar concerns. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, concerns about corruption in police forces arose because of a perception that Masonic officers were putting the interests of fellow Masons above those of the force as a whole or their obligation to obey the law. Membership of a secret organization was eventually seen as creating a conflict of interest between a police officer’s duties and his obligations as a Mason. There is an echo of this in the way that Stonewall’s agreements with members of its schemes are not made public on the grounds of commercial confidentiality, despite the obligations they place on public servants.
This time it is not whether individual officers may have a conflict of interest. Rather it is that police forces – by making themselves beholden to Stonewall’s agenda through its schemes – are explicitly putting themselves in a position where one cannot be confident that police decisions aren’t distorted by their membership of those schemes. For instance, how can women arguing for single sex spaces facing a demonstration by those demanding they include transwomen have confidence in policing of such a demo by police trained by those arguing the latter and turning up in a car painted in Stonewall colours? How can someone objecting to a potential breach of PACE be confident that they won’t be unfairly charged with a hate crime or have a non-crime hate incident recorded against their name if the police force has signed up to guidance permitting this?
How can one have confidence that the police – or other public authorities (see, for instance, the latest furore over the withdrawal of an Arts Council grant to a lesbian organisation opposed by Stonewall) – will not, in part (maybe unconsciously), be influenced by their desire to please Stonewall? One can’t. There is a clear conflict of interest. There is certainly a perception of one. The police should never have allowed this to arise. Nor should other public authorities. Or private bodies, for that matter. But at least there we have a choice. We do not with state bodies.
It is long past the time for them to stop outsourcing their thinking to – and seeking to comply with the requirements of – lobby groups. If such bodies won’t act, the government should intervene. Conflicts of interest are the sine qua non of all scandals. This one is no longer even hiding in plain sight.