‘Victory for transparency’: Oxford University must reveal Stonewall’s influence over its policies

A procession makes its way past Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, as part of an Oxford University degree ceremony - PA
A procession makes its way past Radcliffe Camera, Oxford, as part of an Oxford University degree ceremony - PA

Oxford University has been ordered to disclose the scores and feedback it received from a controversial workplace scheme run by Stonewall because of fears over the LGBT+ charity’s power to influence its policies.

The Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that the university must release details of the advice it was given by the charity because “the potential clearly exists for such a system to be abused if it is not transparent”.

Employers who sign up to Stonewall’s Workplace Equality Index are scored by the charity on their diversity efforts. Critics have argued that the paid-for scheme enables Stonewall to exercise undue influence on organisations ranging from government departments and universities, to NHS Trusts and local councils.

The commissioner’s ruling comes after the campaign group Sex Matters challenged Oxford University’s claim that disclosing the details of its application to Stonewall’s scheme would be a breach of confidentiality commitments and the commercial interests of Stonewall.

The commissioner, responding to a Freedom of Information appeal, found that it was not in the public interest to allow the university to keep Stonewall’s scoring and feedback secret.

“Whilst Stonewall is a charity, it is a charity with an agenda to promote,” the ruling stated.

“Whilst many may well agree with that agenda, it is not one that is universally accepted. Moreover, even those organisations which do enjoy broad support should not expect their actions to go free from scrutiny.”

Ruling puts pressure on other institutions

The ruling will put pressure on other universities including the London School of Economics and Swansea University, which campaigners said have also refused to provide information about the scheme to the public due to confidentiality.

A spokesman for Oxford University said it will comply with the commissioner’s decision notice. “While we carefully consider the feedback from Stonewall, we have always treated it as advisory only, and have not always followed it,” he said.

Dr Michael Biggs, associate professor of sociology and fellow of St Cross College at Oxford, said: “The University of Oxford has a proud tradition of open and democratic governance which has been undermined by lobby groups like Stonewall exercising secret influence over policies. This decision is a victory for transparency and inclusion.”

In a statement, Stonewall said the index was a voluntary initiative designed to support organisations “to create more inclusive workplaces for their LGBTQ+ employees”.

“All of us perform better when we can be ourselves, and it would be hard to make a case that anyone is adversely affected by policies that give gay, lesbian, bi and trans employees the same opportunity in the workplace to thrive as anyone else,” the charity said.