We all make mistakes. And when someone points out our mistake our first instinct is to look for reasons (or excuses) to delay or avoid saying we’re sorry. For an organisation, saying sorry is a risky business: you’ve got to weigh the costs and benefits of a public apology against the costs and benefits of silence.
Which is where Leeds City Council finds itself after receiving a measured, but firm letter from Woman’s Place UK, asking for an apology over the now notorious cancellation of a room booking the group made as part of the national consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act.
The WPUK has had a chance to look at the council’s reasons/excuses for the cancellation and believes that, to put it mildly, they just don’t stack up.
A frenetic chain of internal council emails (now published under FOI) shows how those reasons/excuses evolved and were refined over three days until an acceptable (to the council) version of events was finally confected. (Give it a read: it’s a fascinating glimpse into the workings of council crisis management)
So, the WPUK wants the council to apologise for what it describes as its “shameful behaviour” over the cancellation.
Which puts the council in a serious bind.
It could, in response, stick to its version of events (a version which WPUK says is “false”), but it would have to be confident that anything it does say now may be used as evidence in a court of law, should matters get that far (see below).
Or it could apologise. But for what?
Here’s what it could apologise for (plus a mark out of 10 for whether it’s likely to say it).
When he first announced the cancellation in an internal email, Chief executive Tom Riordan said he was doing so because the meeting room had been booked “under false pretences”.
Not so, say WPUK: the organisation had liaised with council staff over security and other arrangements, and a number of councillors knew about the event, including one who was acting as the event sponsor (who, curiously, has not spoken publicly of her role since the row broke out).
The council could now say: “We’re sorry that there was a breakdown of internal communication at the council over arrangements for the meeting. We’ll try and improve our systems.”
Chances of the council saying this: 6/10
WPUK says the council has not “had the courtesy to send us a formal, written cancellation or explanation”.
The council could now say: “We are sorry for the lack of formal notification or explanation of our decision. It must have seemed rude and was an oversight in the heat of the moment.”
Chances of the council saying this: 6/10
TAKING ALLEGATIONS ABOUT WPUK AT FACE VALUE
At the heart of WPUK’s complaint is that the council’s actions were prompted by an email to council leaders (on the day the meeting was to be held) from a Leeds Labour councillor, an email which contained serious allegations about WPUK and described the planned meeting as a “hate rally”.
As WPUK points out in its letter, no evidence has been made available to show that the council checked whether these allegations were true. Quite the opposite. As an initial public statement from Council leader Judith Blake shows, these and other allegations were taken at face value.
“Since receiving the booking, we have been made aware of further details regarding some of the views which have been raised by this group previously which are not in line with Leeds City Council’s values on gender and equality,” the statement said.
The council could now say in apology: “We are sorry that we failed to check whether the allegations about WPUK made by one of our elected members are true. We’ve now had a look and can see that they aren’t.”
Chances of the council saying this: 0/10 (the council would then have to explain why the allegations were taken at face value, which would expose the influence of a powerful Stonewall lobby within the council)
CLAIMING THE WPUK’S VIEWS ARE NOT IN LINE WITH THE COUNCIL’S VALUES ON GENDER
It’s only a footnote to the above, but the council doesn’t have a policy on gender. So, to claim that WPUK’s views “are not in line with the council’s values on gender” is deeply misleading (and a nice insight into where the council’s collective head is at on the issue).
The council could now say: “We’re sorry we claimed that WPUK’s views are not in line with our values on gender. We’ve checked that too and it turns out we haven’t got a policy on gender.”
Chances of the council saying the above: 6/10
Chances of the council adopting a policy on gender in the foreseeable future: 0/10 (they wouldn’t dare take the risk).
BREACH OF THE RIGHT TO PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY AND OF EQUALITIES LEGISLATION
In its letter, WPUK says the council “has betrayed the right of its own citizens to meet peacefully to discuss a public consultation on legislative changes. Despite its claims to support equality, it has actively discriminated against women, denying them the opportunity to discuss a piece of legislation that directly affects them.”
It adds: “We believe that the council’s cancellation of the booking was in breach both of our right to peaceful assembly and of equalities legislation.”
There is, of course, no way that the council could apologise for the above. It has already publicly denied that it breached equalities legislation and the right to assembly in a response to a post on Leeds online magazine CV.
To do so now would be an admission of guilt that would open it up to legal proceedings.
Could it, however, say in apology? “We’re sorry you feel your right to assembly was breached. That wasn’t our intention. As a token of our good faith, we would be happy for you to arrange another meeting in the Civic Hall.”
Chances of that apology happening: 2/10 (while holding a WPUK meeting on council premises would be seen as an honourable act of conciliation on the council’s part, it would also be taken as a public defeat by the trans activists who campaigned for the booking to be cancelled and by the Stonewall lobby within the council, a perceived defeat which would have national ramifications)
WPUK says three times in its letter that it believes the allegations made against it by the councillor referred to above are defamatory.
I’m no lawyer, but any apology from the council that would satisfy me would have to include it publicly dissociating itself from the allegations.
The council will, of course, be consulting its lawyers as we speak about the implications of a possible suit for defamation being pursued.
So, could the council now add to its apology? “Our lawyers are looking into the allegations made by one of our councillors about your organisation. In the meantime we are sorry we acted on them, we publicly dissociate ourselves from them and apologise for them.”
Chances of that happening: first sentence 10/10, second sentence 0/10 (see Stonewall lobby etc above – unless a defamation suit is pursued)
The issues around gender self-identity – including the meanings of words like “sex”, “female”, “woman” and “gender” – are inevitably going to end up in the courts. Would a suit for defamation be a good place to start?
The response to WPUK, when it comes, will give us a clearer idea of Leeds council’s appetite to be taken as a test case.