Norfolk UNISON responds to concerns about transphobia

Norfolk UNISON has raised serious concerns with Norfolk County Council (NCC) concerning recent online comments by Norfolk Councillor Kay Mason-Billig about displays of artwork, and posters about the Millennium Library in Norwich being a safe space for trans visitors, being removed. Thankfully, the poster has now been reinstated in the library. Nonetheless, the fact that this happened in the first place has disturbed and angered many, raising questions around NCC’s commitment to LGBT+ equality.

Norfolk UNISON was invited to speak at the Trans Pride Protest last weekend and was able to share that part of the UNISON response has been to write to senior NCC staff to demand that this unacceptable state of affairs is addressed with urgency. Both of these letters are reproduced below in their entirety

Dear Kat

Formal complaint regarding Cllr Mason-Billig

UNISON’S Norfolk County Branch write to you with significant concerns about Cllr Mason Billig’s involvement with the library matter, particularly as it has now made the front page of the EDP and also the Daily Mail, with the inflammatory headline “Fury over Library Trans Exhibition”.

Norfolk County Branch also have strong concerns regarding Norfolk County Council, as to whether Cllr Mason-Billig’s statement is representative and indicative of NCC’s values as a public sector employer. Those concerns are being addressed separately by way of a complaint to the Chief Executive, Tom McCabe.

NCC’s Code of Conduct for Councillors

NCC’s constitution repeats the Nolan Principles, and provides a Code of Conduct for Councillors.

“Building on these principles, the following general principles have been developed specifically for the role of Councillor.

In accordance with the public trust placed in me, on all occasions (I will):

I act with integrity and honesty.

I act lawfully.

I treat all persons fairly and with respect.

I lead by example and act in a way that secures public confidence in the role of Councillor.”

(and)

“Application of the Code of Conduct

This Code of Conduct applies to you as soon as you sign your declaration of acceptance of
the office of Councillor or attend your first meeting as a co-opted Member and continues to
apply to you until you cease to be a Councillor.

5.1 This Code of Conduct applies to you when:
A) You are acting in your capacity as a Councillor and/or as a representative of your council.
B) You are claiming to act as a Councillor and/or as a representative of your council.
C) You are giving the impression that you are acting as a Councillor and/or as a representative of your council.
D) You refer publicly to your role as a Councillor or use knowledge you could only obtain in your role as a Councillor.”

Cllr Mason-Billig’s actions have amplified transphobia against trans people in Norfolk, in the media, and in the run up to local and national elections.

Cllr Mason-Billig has not treated trans people in Norfolk fairly, and with respect.

Cllr Mason-Billig has not secured public confidence in the role of Councillor.
Cllr Mason-Billig has not secured confidence in Norfolk County Council as being a supportive and safe employer for trans members of staff.

The Nolan Principles

“Objectivity – Holders of public office must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit using the best evidence and without discrimination or bias.”

“Accountability – Holders of public office are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions and must submit themselves to the scrutiny necessary to ensure this.”

Cllr Mason-Billig said:
“I am the Leader of Norfolk County Council, who are responsible for the Norwich Library at the Forum. I was very unhappy when I heard about this display. Staff have guidelines, and this
exhibition seems to have been approved without realising the actual content. As soon as it came to my attention, I alerted senior staff and it was removed immediately. I apologise if anyone was offended but thank you very much for alerting us. We are open to different points
of view on all subjects but there are times and places for these and we have to handle them with sensitivity and consider the impact on others, especially children. There will be a investigation into how and why this happened and staff will be issued with strengthened
guidance for the future.”

This statement was made without any context for the Art display which was:
1. an art display in support of Trans Day of Visibility; and
2. abstract art, no more offensive than anything which could be found elsewhere on public display.

Further, Cllr Mason-Billig’s statement falls away when the following facts are considered:

1. The display came down on Wednesday 10th April and ran in its entirety, as planned – so the Cllr Mason-Billig’s demand on 12th, was a deliberate misstatement. It also demonstrates that Cllr Mason-Billig has not seen the display, only the pieces of art that were deliberately and provocatively placed onto Mumsnet.
2. Since 2001, the Millennium library has hosted many exhibitions. It has received some
complaints, in respect of exhibitions, from the public previously (examples being the Christmas Tree of Despair, St. James’ Bible, British Museum’s Desire, Love Identity), but none have asked to be taken down by councillors or NCC.
3. No exhibitions, by artists with other protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, have ever been taken down.

Cllr Mason-Billig’s statement is a clear lack of objectivity, shows confirmation bias and taken together are breaches of the Nolan Principles on Objectivity and Accountability.

Cllr Mason-Billig’s statement was disingenuous at best, (perhaps deliberately) and to any reasonable person would appear to be politically motivated, by seeking to reassure and placate the transphobic audience on Mumsnet.

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Policy

“We do not tolerate unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation in service delivery or
employment on the grounds…. of gender reassignment.
We will not treat anyone less favourably than any other, on the grounds of any protected characteristic, except when such treatment is within the law and determined by lawful
requirements. In adopting the aims of this policy, we will:

Promote equality of opportunity between people who share a protected characteristic and people who do not share it.

Eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and bullying.

Promote understanding, tackle prejudice and foster positive relations between different communities.

Make reasonable adjustments for disabled people.

Take steps to remove barriers or inequalities that may already exist.

Promote a workforce culture that values and respects difference.

Engage with local communities fairly and proportionately.

Encourage people who share a protected characteristic to participate in public life or in any other activity in which participation is disproportionately low.”

Cllr Mason-Billig’s actions:

1. Fail to promote equality of opportunity between artists who share a protected characteristic under the law, and artists who do not.

2. Will discourage people with the protected characteristic of gender reassignment from participating in public life or in any other activity, such as attending public libraries, in which participation is disproportionately low.

3. Undermine and discredit the Council’s objective to eliminate unlawful discrimination, harassment and bullying.

4. Demonstrably undermine and invalidate the Council’s commitment to its LGBT+ staff.

We look forward to hearing from you as a matter of urgency.

Yours faithfully

Ben Edwards, LGBT+ Officer for UNISON Norfolk County Branch, and Norfolk Chair for UNISON Eastern Region LGBT+ committee.
Jo Foster-Murdoch, Senior Steward and Equalities Officer for UNISON Norfolk County Branch.
Melissa Symes, Steward for UNISON Norfolk County Branch, Trans Officer for UNISON Eastern Region, LGBT+ committee and Co-Convenor for UNISON Eastern Region LGBT+ committee.
For an on behalf of UNISON Norfolk County Branch.




Dear Mr McCabe

Norwich Millennium Library

We write on behalf of UNISON Norfolk County Branch.

Cllr Mason-Billig has, in the name of the council, apologised to transphobic people. At the same time, library senior management (not Millennium library managers or locality managers) took the decision to take down a sign identifying the library as an inclusive space for vulnerable trans people. We, our members, and NCC LGBT+ staff and allies are pleased to see that the Trans Friendly Space poster has been rightly reinstated, but it should not have taken this long.

The facts are that, since 2001, the Millennium library has hosted exhibitions. It has received some complaints in respect of exhibitions from the public previously (examples being the
Christmas Tree of Despair, St. James’ Bible, British Museum’s Desire, Love Identity), but none have asked to be taken down by councillors or NCC.

Neither have any exhibitions by artists with other protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 ever been taken down by NCC staff or Councillors.

Staff members at the library, LGBT+ and allies, have expressed concern about the removal of the poster, but what is equally damaging is the extent to which the Leader’s actions have left
trans members of staff feeling let down by an employer that claims, publicly, to be supportive.

Cllr Mason-Billig’s actions are subject to a separate Councillor Conduct Complaint. This letter concerns Norfolk County Council’s (NCC’s) involvement and our concerns as to whether Cllr
Mason-Billig’s comments are indicative of a wider internal culture of transphobia at NCC, because trans members, who are also NCC employees, have said they now feel unsafe working at NCC as a result of her actions.

NCC staff with other protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010 are also rightfully questioning whether NCC is a safe and supportive employer. They are already speaking with
their trans colleagues and asking, “are we next?”

This doesn’t just affect NCC’s staff though. Norfolk LGBT+ History Club event had to be cancelled for next week and two different contributors to Makers Festival Events (in the same
building as the library, the Forum), have withdrawn their workshop events as nobody could guarantee the safety of participants, so the ripples of a statement made in NCC’s name have had far reaching consequences into the wider public community.

What message can this possibly send to the trans community in Norfolk? If they are an already vulnerable service user, how will they feel when a representative of the Council deals with
them? Will that service user have any grounds to trust the Council, feel safe around that Council representative, have any confidence that their concerns will be taken seriously? How angry and offended do you think they will be, to see an NCC stall at Norwich Pride?

Sadly, Cllr-Mason Billig’s actions are not entirely unexpected, because to our dismay and concern, our members have witnessed increasing transphobia within NCC over the last two
years, including:
• wholly inappropriate questions regarding toilet use raised by Council employees in EDI meetings; and
• transphobic stickers being found around County Hall; and
• improper disclosure of a staff member’s trans status, to a manager; and
• an internal HR system that allowed staff to access sensitive information about trans staff that should, by NCC’s very own policy, have been restricted to senior managers only; and
• malicious complaints made against trans employees by members of the public acting in bad faith; and
• undermining those voluntarily supporting the LGBT+ staff network, by changing positions repeatedly and giving the excuse basis that comms “were being reviewed”, without any consultation of LGBT+ staff members within that review; and
• misleading staff:

“Our employee networks provide a welcoming, safe space for employees with a shared characteristic to connect with each other and to discuss the workforce experience.”

Our members report that since the departure of HR Equality and Diversity and Inclusion Officer, staff networks are now proactively monitored for content by HR gatekeepers, which does not make the staff networks a “safe space.” This risks significant disengagement from vulnerable staff members who rely on these networks
as somewhere safe and supportive to turn to, and raise concerns.

Further, the departure of the HR Equality and Diversity and Inclusion Officer coincided with a marked change in attitude from NCC HR, where reasonable suggestions and recommendations that were brought to HR, by the staff LGBT network were ignored, or where
not ignored, dismissed with no other explanation than “processes to ensure neutrality”.

This has coincided with a sustained campaign of harassment, intimidation, hatred and threats against trans people, a campaign promoted by the media, at the bequest of politicians.

Hate crimes against transgender people hit record high in England and Wales | Hate crime |
The Guardian

“abusive rhetoric by politicians, the media and social commentators has trickled down to produce increasingly abusive and hateful speech against LGBT persons in the United Kingdom (UK), the UN independent expert on sexual orientation and gender identity
warned today.” (UK: Keep calm and respect diversity, says UN expert | OHCHR)

This very ugly campaign was personified by the transphobic comments made by the Prime Minister at PMQ’s, whilst the mother of the murdered trans young woman, Brianna Ghey, was visiting the House of Commons.

Our trans members have reported that when they have objected to the disgusting language about them being used by politicians, they:
• have been met with generic virtue signalling; and
• have been admonished and censured for not displaying “neutrality” as council employees;
• have been told that “special consideration” cannot be given to those with the protected characteristic of gender reassignment.

This is wholly unacceptable, and must stop. Telling trans staff and allies that they cannot challenge transphobia, is indirect discrimination by Norfolk County Council under the Equality Act 2010, and a breach of Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998, the right to hold opinions and express them freely without government
interference. This is unacceptable, and must stop.

Telling trans staff members that their concerns or views are an “ideology” is unacceptable, and must stop.
Public Sector Equality Duty
We remind you that NCC also has a legal duty under the PSED to:
1. put an end to unlawful behaviour that is banned by the Equality Act 2010, including discrimination, harassment and victimisation; and
2. advance equal opportunities between people who have a protected characteristic and those who do not; and
3. foster good relations between people who have a protected characteristic and those who do not; and
4 NCC must surely accept that the Leader’s actions are a clear breach of the PSED and so we invite you, now, to set out clearly and unequivocally, what NCC will do to remedy this appalling
situation and reassure LGBT+ staff.

Outdated policies
NCC’s own Transgender policy (P305a) has not been updated in 6 years, makes no reference to the Gender Recognition Act 2004 at all, and makes no commitment to either Trans Day of Visibility or Trans Day of Remembrance.

We have attached UNISON’s Trans Equality Model Statement, which has been adopted by other local authorities and public bodies. Publishing and supporting UNISON’s model policy would go some way to reassuring your staff at this time. It would also be the start of NCC listening to the actual concerns of trans staff, rather than shutting down debate with reference to “political neutrality”, or worse still, virtue signaling. Anything less will be seen as, and will be treated as, NCC’s endorsement of Cllr Mason-Billig’s political statement.

Finally, trans people are not a “different ideology”, words that have been used on more than one occasion, by senior leaders, within staff network meetings. This is an absolute insult to trans people’s lived experiences and agency.

We look forward to hearing from you as a matter of urgency.

Yours faithfully
Ben Edwards
Jo Foster-Murdoch
Melissa Symes

LGBT+ Officer for UNISON Norfolk County Branch, and Norfolk
Chair for UNISON Eastern Region LGBT+ committee.

Senior Steward and Equalities Officer for UNISON Norfolk
County Branch

Steward for UNISON Norfolk County Branch, Trans Officer for
UNISON Eastern Region LGBT+ committee and Co-Convenor
for UNISON Eastern Region LGBT+ committee.

For an on behalf of UNISON Norfolk County Branch