Government refuses to reveal why it violated North Carolina LGBT boycott over transphobic laws

Exclusive: The Government claims that ‘public interest favours withholding this information’, although one Lib Dem peer lamented that ‘the nasty party still doesn’t understand that discrimination is bad for business‘

Jon Stone
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 08 November 2016 13:45 GMT
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International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who resigned in disgrace from David Cameron’s Government but was reappointed by Theresa May, has a long history of opposing gay rights
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who resigned in disgrace from David Cameron’s Government but was reappointed by Theresa May, has a long history of opposing gay rights (Getty)

The Government has refused to release a cache of emails that would show whether ministers deliberately violated a boycott of the US state of North Carolina over its anti-transgender person laws.

The Independent used freedom of information law to demand correspondence from the minister in charge of the Department for International Trade, Liam Fox, relating to the setting up of the office. The site, in Raleigh, NC, was announced days after he took office.

Major international companies including Deutche Bank, Paypal, Pepsi, and Hewlett Packard have cancelled expansion plans in North Carolina in light of it passing a law that forces people who have changed their genders to use the wrong bathroom, as well as the scrapping of some LGBT anti-discrimination protections. Firms said it would not be right to force their employees to work in a state that enshrines discrimination against them in law.

Dr Fox has an outspoken history of opposing LGBT rights. He voted strongly against same-sex marriage and gay adoption rights, and was absent for the votes on civil partnerships, scrapping Section 28, gender recognition, and equalising the age of consent. In 2013 he claimed that scrapping the ban on same-sex marriage “smacks of social engineering”.

The Tory MP resigned in disgrace from David Cameron’s government after he gave a lobbyist and close personal friend access to Ministry of Defence meetings, but was reappointed as a top minister in charge of commercial deals under Theresa May.

Officials admitted there was a “public interest” in revealing whether the anti-LGBT laws had been a factor in siting the office but said there was an even stronger “public interest” in ministers not having to reveal to the public why the decision had been made. A spokesperson for the department said only that the location of the office was chosen “because of their potential for UK trade and investment”, but would not comment on whether the anti-transgender law had been considered.

The downtown area of Raleigh, NC
The downtown area of Raleigh, NC (Public domain, Mark Turner)

Raleigh is only the 40th biggest city in the US and is overshadowed regionally by cities such as Jacksonville, Alabama, Washington DC, and Baltimore. Its biggest employers by far are the State of North Carolina, the local school system, and the local university and hospital systems.

Liberal Democrat peer Liz Barker, who has previously raised concerns about the office, called on the British Government to follow the lead of corporations who had boycotted the state.

“Just as some of the biggest global corporations are boycotting the state North Carolina because of its treatment of trans people under the notorious law HB2, Liam Fox has opened a new UK Government trade office,” she said.

“The nasty party, which introduced Section 28, still doesn’t understand that anti-LGBT discrimination is bad for business.”

In its response to the request to release the documents the Government said: “Openness in government can increase public trust and engagement with the government and its decision. We recognise that the decisions Ministers or officials make have a significant impact on the lives of citizens and there is a public interest in their deliberations being transparent.

“However, these public interests have to be weighed against a strong public interest that policy making and its implementation are of the highest quality and informed by a full consideration of all the options. Ministers and officials must be able to discuss policy freely and frankly, exchange views on available options and understand their possible implications. Taking into account all the circumstances of this case, we have concluded that the balance of the public interest favours withholding this information.”

Questioned about the relevance of the LGBT law, a Government spokesperson added: “The locations of new trade offices in the US were chosen because of their potential for UK trade and investment, given these areas’ economic productivity and well-established research and development institutions.

“Establishing a presence in these cities will help us to increase our reach across the United States to the benefit of UK businesses."

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