Dear Leeds Council

This is a copy of the letter we sent to Judith Blake at Leeds City Council regarding the cancellation of our meeting at the Civic Hall on 28th September.

Following receipt of this letter, we are now in correspondence with Leeds Council.

Dear Judith Blake,

We are writing on behalf of Woman’s Place UK, an organisation formed last year to make sure that women’s voices are heard in the debate on the consultation to reform the Gender Recognition Act (2004). We have held 18 public meetings around the UK to debate, in a peaceful and respectful manner, the concerns women have about the proposed reforms.

We would like to make a formal complaint about the Leeds City Council’s treatment of us when we arranged to hold a meeting at Leeds Civic Hall. We believe that the council’s cancellation of the booking was in breach both of our right to peaceful assembly and of equalities legislation.

We would also like to challenge comments made about WPUK which are untrue and which we believe to be defamatory.

In April this year, a local organiser booked Leeds Civic Hall to hold a public meeting with the name A Woman’s Place is Speaking the Truth. The local organiser initially spoke with Staff Member A on the phone, booked the room and made an arrangement to see the room in July. Staff Member A then emailed out the forms for the microphones, catering and tables.

When the local organisers met Staff Member A on 6 July, they explained that we would need extra security at the meeting because our meetings have been constantly subjected to intimidation and harassment from activists opposed to women’s voices being heard. These have included a bomb threat when we met in Hastings and aggressive protests from masked activists at other meetings.

We are unable to announce the venue of our meetings in advance, to avoid activists bombarding the venue with threats and intimidation to force them to stop hosting the event.

On 24 July, councillor Councillor X confirmed sponsorship of the event, doing so after seeking permission from Councillor Y. We understand that Councillor X gave Councillor Y details of the Woman’s Place UK website to check. By the time of the event, at least six councillors knew of the booking.

On 20 September, the local organiser confirmed with Councillor X the sponsorship of the event. The following day, the local organiser received a call from Staff Member A to say no booking details (such as numbers, and microphones required) had been received. Although the local organiser thought she had sent them, she went to Civic Hall to confirm the details in person. She spoke on the phone to the person in charge of security to discuss the security arrangements, including the need to have three security guards in total, with one extra on the door and one in the room.

On 22 September, the local organiser and two colleagues had an appointment with Fabian Hamilton MP to invite him to the meeting. Although he couldn’t come, he said he would pass the details on to Cllr W and Cllr Z to see if they could go in his place. At roughly the same time (ie a week before the meeting), the local organiser sent email invitations to 30 councillors, explaining why the venue would not be announced until the day. (This is in addition to the six who already knew about the event.)

On the afternoon of 28 September, the day of the event, the local organiser received a call from Staff Member B saying that the booking couldn’t go ahead. Initially the reason given was that plaster was falling from the ceiling in the banquet room, and that it was a health and safety matter.

Later, the local organiser called Senior Staff Member C, who told her that the issue wasn’t health and safety, but security, and the council hadn’t realised the meeting would be so controversial. Senior Staff Member C seemed unaware that the event was sponsored by a councillor.

Despite the local organiser’s attempts to resolve the issue, she was not allowed into Civic Hall to talk to staff, and at 4pm she was told to leave. We were forced to arrange another venue at short notice.

Nobody at the council has had the courtesy to send us a formal, written cancellation or explanation.  We have seen on social media an email sent by you to others, which said:

“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.”

There is no suggestion in this email that the meeting was cancelled because of security issues. Instead, it appears that council cancelled the meeting without making any attempt to investigate the untruthful allegations made about our organisation.

In response to FOI requests made by many individuals, the council claims that it didn’t know that the booking was for Woman’s Place UK until 28 September. (It said the name of the event had been given as Women’s Peace is Speaking the Truth – the word “peace” was a handwritten error on the booking form that the local organiser herself corrected.)

The claim that the council was unaware of the nature of the booking is simply false. As already mentioned, it was made clear in April that the booking was for Woman’s Place UK and a number of councillors were aware of the event.

The FOI response then goes on to state that it was only on 28th September that the council became aware of the potential security concerns – even though these had been laid out very clearly several times by the local organiser.

The FOI response also says that the council“received a number of complaints from people concerned about the alleged use of controversial and potentially discriminatory language at similar events that had been organised by the group in other parts of the country.”

Emails published alongside the FOI response demonstrate the nature of these complaints. Cllr Lennox, for example, referred to Woman’s Place as a group “dedicated to attacking the rights and freedoms of trans women to define themselves as such, and live and interact as women in public spaces.” She also described our planned meeting as a “hate rally” and described us as a group “which seeks to harm and dehumanise the trans community in such insidious and malevolent ways.”

These accusations are completely untrue and we believe them to be defamatory.

Let us be clear: our public meetings (many of which have numbered trans people amongst the speakers and in the audience) have been held to discuss an issue on which a public consultation was being carried out by the government. We would draw your attention to the guidance from the government:

“We also want to be clear that this is an explorative consultation and we do not have all the answers. That is why, as we consult, we are mindful of the need to engage with all perspectives. We particularly want to hear from women’s groups who we know have expressed some concerns about the implications of our proposals. To be clear this consultation focuses on the Gender Recognition Act; we are not proposing to amend the Equality Act 2010 and the protections contained within it. We do realise, however, that there are concerns about interactions between the two Acts and we want to use this consultation as a way of gathering these views.”

If a gathering of women to discuss the topic of a public consultation is now to be deemed a “hate rally”, how on earth is a consultation to take place?

Another email from chief executive Tom Riordan claims the booking was made “under false pretences” – again, completely untrue.

It is particularly alarming that the false accusations (which we also believe to be defamatory) in Cllr’s Lennox’s email were accepted at face value, with no attempt to check their truthfulness.

Woman’s Place UK exists to give a voice to women concerned about the protection of single-sex spaces. At our meetings, we have heard from victims of rape and domestic assault, for whom the existence of a safe single-sex space is paramount.

Earlier this month we won the Emma Humphreys Memorial Prize, set up to recognise women who work against male violence. How shameful that Leeds City Council – in its own words an organisation “committed to public sector guidelines on equality”– seeks to deny these women a voice. How cowardly, too, to cite “security” as an issue, and to cave in to extremist misogynistic bullies who issue threats of violence against women.

Leeds City Council exists to serve the needs of its citizens, who pay for its services through taxation. In cancelling the booking, and generating a false version of events, Leeds City 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.

We look forward to receiving an apology from the council for its shameful behaviour in closing down women’s right to speak freely about matters of deep personal concern to them.

We also request that you meet with some representatives of Woman’s Place UK so that we can resolve this matter and attempt to move forward.

As your letter, the responses to the FOIs and all the referenced tweets are in the public domain, we intend to publish a copy of this letter (with the names of the local organisers and staff redacted) as a public statement on Friday.

We hope to hear a response from you by then.

Yours sincerely,

Kiri Tunks, Ruth Serwotka, Judith Green

Co-founders, Woman’s Place UK