August 20, 2021   5 mins

Back in 2013, when Boris Johnson was Mayor of London, I was surprised to get a message from City Hall. One of Johnson’s deputies, Stephen Greenhalgh, wanted to know if I would be willing to join him as Co-Chair of the Mayor’s Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Board — the body that draws up policy to tackle domestic and sexual violence in London. Johnson and Greenhalgh wanted to bring in an independent expert and decided to invite me on the advice of a number of women’s organisations.

I jumped at the chance, even though I am a member of the Labour party, and we worked amicably together for the next three years. Fast forward to 2021: Johnson is prime minister, Lord Greenhalgh (as he now is) is a government minister and I am out. Now I am in a peculiar situation: I have voted Labour all my life, yet was brought into City Hall by a Conservative administration — and sacked by its Labour successor.

The dismissal arrived last Friday afternoon, as I was writing and giving interviews about the dreadful murders in Plymouth less than 24 hours earlier (I have written a book about the relationship between misogyny, domestic abuse and terrorism). The last thing I expected, in the middle of such horror, was to be sacked by email.

After eight years of unpaid work on behalf of women and girls in London, it seems reasonable to expect that Sadiq Khan or Sophie Linden, the deputy mayor who replaced Greenhalgh, would have wanted to tell me themselves. But I have not heard a word from Khan and I only had a call from Linden yesterday after the Times published a story about the incident. Before that, all I had received was a series of diary notifications from her office, cancelling all the meetings I was supposed to have with her over the next twelve months.

The news was delivered in an email from Diana Luchford, a former civil servant at the Home Office, who is now CEO of the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. I had to read it twice before the meaning sank in: I am out, thus removing independent scrutiny at a moment when the behaviour of the Metropolitan police towards women has been fiercely criticised.

Take the kidnap and murder of Sarah Everard by a serving officer, followed the force’s callous handling of a vigil to commemorate her. Or its failure to investigate when two murdered sisters, Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman, were reported missing last year. If ever an outside voice were needed to raise women’s anxieties at City Hall, it is surely now.

My sacking has been attributed to a “governance review”, even though I made it clear months ago that I wanted to stay on as Co-chair. Luchford’s email did offer a sop: that I could remain on the board as an “advisor”. But that would remove my influence over the agenda and access to important meetings behind the scenes.

As Co-Chair, I was able to make sure that vital issues raised by recent events were discussed. For example, I argued that we needed to know what the Metropolitan Police intend to do to improve the way they identify sexual predators in their own ranks, and to make sure that complaints of domestic abuse against serving officers are handled properly. I also expressed my concern, privately, that the Mayor’s focus on issues such as knife crime risked diverting attention from crimes against women, including black women in London who suffer disproportionately high levels of rape and sexual assault.

At the end of March, just weeks after the abduction of Ms Everard, the number of rapes reported in London reached a ten-year high. The figures are shocking, and I thought they would be discussed at the most recent meeting of the London Crime Reduction Board, which is chaired by the Mayor. When I asked why we were not talking about the rape statistics, I was told they would be on the agenda of the next meeting — in October.


Linden has insisted that the sacking has nothing do with my attempt to protect women-only spaces in refuges, which receive key funding from City Hall. Last year I became aware that some women’s organisations were becoming alarmed by tweets from the Mayor’s official Twitter account. They felt under growing pressure to admit male-bodied trans women — men who have not undergone surgery but “identify” as women — to spaces currently reserved for female victims of domestic violence. No one is suggesting that trans women who suffer domestic abuse don’t need services, but they should be provided without affecting the principle of women-only spaces.

“Trans women are women, trans men are men,” Khan declared in February, repeating the mantra of trans activists. “Trans people deserve the dignity and safety of being recognised as their gender,” he tweeted a few months later when it was reported that the government had dropped plans to allow people to self-identify as the other sex. “I’m dismayed that the Govt has made a U-turn on its own consultation to make the Gender Recognition Act more straightforward.”

It didn’t matter that trans activists were demanding almost total deregulation of the legal process of “changing” sex, which would make it less onerous than adopting a child or getting a driving licence. Or that self-ID has huge implications for women, most obviously for vulnerable women who need spaces away from men in refuges, hospitals and prisons. Sadiq Khan was fully on board — and had ignored requests from women’s organisations, including the Labour Women’s Declaration, for a meeting.

I discussed the Mayor’s tweets with Karen Ingala Smith, indomitable CEO of nia, the organisation that provides services to victims of sexual and domestic violence in east London. We decided to write to Linden, warning her about the impact Khan’s statements were having on organisations that depend on City Hall for funding: “How can it have anything other than a chilling effect when the Mayor publicly takes sides with a group of activists on such a contentious issue?” we asked.

We received an equivocating reply, repeating the Mayor’s view that “trans women are women” and making the dubious claim that the “basic human rights [of trans people] remain unmet”. Linden told us that the Mayor’s approach to providing services “is led by the needs of victims and survivors on a clear principle of non-discrimination”, a puzzling statement since women’s organisations are highly unlikely to discriminate on grounds of age, race, religion or disability.

They might exclude someone with male genitals from a women’s refuge — but that would be a lawful use of the exemptions in the 2010 Equality Act. We wrote again, seeking an assurance that no women’s organisation supported by the Mayor would be penalised financially for doing so. Linden did not reply.

Then, last October, we wrote directly to Khan, reminding him that he voted for what is now the Equality Act when he was a Labour MP in 2009. “If you no longer support the Act in full, including the provision to restrict access on the ground of biological sex in certain circumstances, we believe that such a significant shift should be publicly acknowledged and debated,” we wrote. Ten months later, we are still waiting for a response.

Now I’ve been ousted. Yesterday, Linden took to Twitter to deny claims that I had been sacked after raising concerns about transwomen in refuges. She reiterated: “This is simply not true. The structure of all our boards at City Hall is being changed. [My dismissal] has nothing to do with any views Joan has expressed.” In response, all I can say is that I’ve spent years advocating for the safety of women and girls — and having an outside expert at City Hall seems to me as important as ever.

Joan Smith is a novelist and columnist. She has been Chair of the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Board since 2013. Her book Homegrown: How Domestic Violence Turns Men Into Terrorists was published in 2019.