The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is the non-departmental public body that has responsibility for the promotion and enforcement of equality and non-discrimination laws in England, Scotland and Wales, and was established by the Equality Act 2006. However, they have been found to not only be allowing sex-based direct-discrimination but, to also have been perpetrating it as well. As per the old adage, quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
In a press release published by children’s charity Families Need Fathers – Both Parents Matter, they detail how the EHRC stated it was essential for domestic abuse helplines to ‘screen’ male callers to domestic abuse helplines to determine whether they were genuine but would not do the same with female callers because “women comprise the overwhelming majority of victims of domestic abuse”.
The Office for National Statistics states 36% of reported victims of domestic abuse are men yet, one of the largest studies into domestic abuse (a meta-analysis of 343 scholarly investigations with an aggregate sample size exceeding 440,850 people) demonstrates that women are as physically aggressive as men. According to the CPS Violence Against Women and Girls 2017-2020 Strategy, 27% of victims killed by a partner or ex-partner are men.
Cardiff grandmother and equalities campaigner Anne O’Regan, who is also a retired nurse and Trades Union Equalities Officer, voiced her concerns to local Assembly Member and Cabinet Secretary Mark Drakeford AM. “Mark has been hugely supportive,” she said, “he wrote on my behalf to the EHRC in Wales to raise my concerns and ask them to review their position”.
In a letter dated 10th March, the EHRC wrote back voicing their recognition of male victims of domestic abuse, saying “the Commission is [also] clear that it is important to recognise that domestic abuse and sexual violence towards men is [also] a problem in Wales” yet, they went on to say:
“It is our view that the practice of screening men is unlikely to amount to direct discrimination because of sex. Direct discrimination occurs when a man (for example) is treated less favourably than a woman because he is a man. To decide whether there has been less favourable treatment for this reason, it is necessary to look at how the man was treated and compare that with how a woman was treated or would have been treated. There must be no material difference in the circumstances of the man and of the woman when doing this. [Emphasis mine]”
Now, do forgive me if I’m wrong but, I’m pretty certain that if a person approaches a service, there should be no material difference on how they are treated at the point of first contact based upon sex. If there was to be a material difference, that would surely tantamount to sex-based direct-discrimination which is what the EHRC is supposed to stand against!? However, they deliver the icing on the cake in the next paragraph with this little charmer:
“It is our view that there is a material difference in circumstances between a man calling a domestic abuse support helpline and a woman seeking support from a similar helpline [Emphasis mine]. Women comprise the overwhelming majority of victims of domestic abuse and it is not possible to rely on this statistical probability when dealing with complaints from men. In our view, it is not possible to make a “like for like” comparison in the context of the screening of male/female which will make it difficult to establish less favourable treatment because of sex.”
Oh, hang on, wait a second. So, there must be no material difference or else it is direct-discrimination but, there is material difference yet it’s okay because women report domestic abuse more than men do? This argument would only have a shred of merit (and that’s me being generous) if the numbers of people calling these helplines did not match the ONS numbers of victims. The numbers actually do not match: 36% of victims are men, according to the ONS yet, 4% of the callers to the helpline were men. The numbers categorically do not justify screening men.
Irrespective, taking this stance actually stands contrary to how the law is supposed to work because Baroness Brenda Hale DBE, the President of the Supreme Court, did say in R (European Roma Rights Centre) v Immigration Officer, Prague Airport 2004:
“The individual should not be assumed to hold the characteristics which the supplier associates with the group, whether or not most members of the group do indeed have such characteristics, a process sometimes referred to as stereotyping. Even if, for example, most women are less strong than most men, it must not be assumed that the individual woman who has applied for the job does not have the strength to do it… If strength is a qualification, all applicants should be required to demonstrate that they qualify.”
This is to say that if such a generalisation were to be true, it would be wrong to hold the individual to the generalisation. Yet, that is exactly what the EHRC is doing, they are taking this (false) generalisation of men as victims of domestic violence and holding all those who call the helplines to this standard! If a person phones a domestic abuse helpline as a victim, that person must be treated as a victim, irrespective of any generalisations and stereotypes.
It is worth fleetingly mentioning that Baroness Hale’s quote and included example also contravenes the other side of the EHRC’s coin: women are not always to be assumed as the victim. Just because women may be perceived as the majority of victims of domestic violence, that does not mean we can assume any and every individual woman, whether she phones a domestic violence helpline or not, to not be a perpetrator of domestic violence.
The argument of ‘no material difference’ was a key sticking point for the EHRC’s internal legal team, despite being told that at the point of contact, there is no material difference they are all victims needing advice and support. It’s unbelievable how a legal term, internal or not, cannot see that!
Naturally, this response was unsatisfactory and after pressure was mounted, the complaint was taken to external legal counsel who, after review, concluded that this sex-based direct-discrimination is in fact unlawful. Ruth Coombes, Head of Wales for the EHRC responded with:
“The question we asked the Counsel to consider is whether screening male, but not female, callers to domestic violence services constitutes direct discrimination … Counsel’s advice is that screening male only callers to domestic violence helplines does constitute direct discrimination so we have revised our initial view about the legality of these policies and will be writing to the service provider.”
Celebrating success, Anne O’Regan said “As a woman gender equality has always been very important for me, but it’s not a one-way street. Men are disadvantaged in a number of areas, such as accidents at work, the much higher suicide rate AND when it comes to domestic abuse. I’m a volunteer and a Trustee of the charity FNF Both Parents Matter Cymru – and I see men who are victims of terrible abuse and injustice at our support meetings in Cardiff and Bridgend. Knowing that they would be treated differently by some helplines made me very angry. I’m hugely grateful to Mark for all his help and support, but I’m also grateful to Ruth for listening to my concerns and for having the courage to look at these difficult issues again. I’m proud to support the Equality and Human Rights Commission for standing up for equality in domestic violence services.”
In light of this change of position, I too wish to praise the EHRC for their brave honesty in recognising this error and their work to rectify it. Discussions of male victims of domestic violence are still somewhat taboo in today’s day and age, their existence is either denied or their experiences are downplayed by support services and society. To see the EHRC change their stance and to recognise male victims as the people they are is very uplifting. How they will implement this change, we are yet to see.
Yet, all the success and praising aside, considering the nature of this error and how it had permeated its way through to the EHRC causes me grave concern. How many other institutions are operating like this, working under the false pretence that a material difference upon the point of entry based purely on sex is not discriminatory? Finding it in such a delicate field as helplines for victims of domestic violence worries me that other human rights causes are discriminating against men by virtue of sex.
This dramatic change of stance could affect other policies and advice they and other public bodies give around gender discrimination: should HPV vaccines be offered to both boys and girls at point of contact in a GP surgery? Could this decision be used to question the law regarding victims of rape: should men who present as victims of female perpetrated rape should also be treated the same as female victims of male-perpetrated rape at point of contact in a police station? There are many possibilities open now.
The fallacious argument of statistical probability, that one group may or may not exhibit certain traits and so thus when individuals from this group present themselves, we should expect said trait to be prevalent and respond to it, causes for such problems like this arise. It is matched in its unlawfulness only by its moral bankruptcy.
Children’s charity FNF Both Parents Matter Cymru is currently running their Men and Abuse survey to better understand male victims of domestic abuse; it can be completed by clicking anywhere on this sentence.