Onora O’Neill confirmed as Equality & Human Rights Commission Chair

Onora O’Neill has been confirmed as the new Chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission – as we mentioned before, she was the preferred candidate, and her appointment has been confirmed after a hearing held by Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights.  The (uncorrected) transcript of the hearing does make interesting reading (excerpts below the jump).  

It confirmed what I thought was her view of human rights…

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: … Apparently, if your name is Googled next to “human rights”, what it brings up is your essay “The Dark Side of Human Rights”… Do you accept that your appointment might cause some legitimate anxieties in some quarters?

Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve: I hope that people read what I have written and not just the titles, but one can never trust that to happen. My view is that the dark side is the promulgation of rights without thinking about the counterpart duties, without which they are not a reality. That is why I said earlier I think that on some occasions the friends of human rights—the would-be friends—short-change it, because they do not address the practical questions. Who ought to do what for whom if this right is to be respected? It is that practical question that, to my mind, creates a reality of human rights.

…and she said positive things about improving the quality of evidence…

Baroness Berridge: You say it could do a good job. What, in your mind, is a good job for the EHRC?

Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve: I think a good job is, first of all, having high-quality evidence about where things are not working. Getting that evidence is not simple and, of course, it requires the contribution of many other people, but it has to be high-quality evidence and somebody has to do that however much they rely on intermediaries to collect evidence. I think I would be concerned to achieve rigour about that evidence and not to be using, as it were, the worst cases as if they were the standard cases but to be focusing on the worst cases of people whose human rights are, indeed, short-changed. I think of people too frail to feed themselves who turned out not to be being fed in certain nursing homes and hospitals, which, to my mind, is a very fundamental human rights violation.

…and the quality of argument in public debate…

Baroness O’Loan: … Some of the debates that occur in the public domain are not, if you like, predicated on as much reasoning and philosophy, perhaps, as they might be. Do you think there is a chance to inject some of your own philosophical approach into those debates?

Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve: It is a temptation I am always trying to resist, but not always successfully. Let me put it this way. I think there are junctures at which improving the arguments is helpful in public life. To give a human rights example, in my opinion, most of the debate since the phone hacking scandal broke, and we have seen people disputing the relative weight of rights to freedom of expression and rights to privacy, has been pretty futile, because people did not clarify—and I mean among that leading journalists, and even some politicians—which conception of freedom of expression they had in mind. They did not look at the arguments and, therefore, they could not find a way, other than blunt assertion, to justify certain limitations and not other limitations.

…but also made me worry about whether she has a full and substantive grasp of problems of equality and discrimination…

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: … Do you feel that the issues on equality for women are more or less resolved now?

Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve: Some and not others. My own perception is that the difficulties that women have are often not merely because they are women. Women as such may have a fairly well protected position now. It is because they are, for example, women and carers or women and very isolated. In general, the important thing is to look for the combination of circumstances that render people genuinely vulnerable to others. Of course, some of those are rather obvious—trafficked women, for example—but others are much less obvious. I suppose the frail elderly are a category who we cannot obviously distinguish in writing legislation, but the old as a whole are not disadvantaged the way the very frail are.

Baroness Lister of Burtersett: Indeed, it is the Equalities and Human Rights Commission… So in terms of the equality groups that are represented in that Commission, how do you see the particular relationship there?

Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve: I think it is an extremely delicate thing to get the relationship between groups that represent certain interests or certain groups of people right. I am very struck that there is a difference between a group being vociferous and it representing people of very great vulnerability. My experience, on occasion, of working with patient support groups is that those who have family members with some of the most debilitating and difficult medical conditions are not in a position to be vociferous or active at all, because of what they are facing. I would regard it as very important not automatically to hear the voice of the groups that are well organised and well supported and have ample funds and high-powered communications operations at the expense of those that are different, and there are a lot of them. I am thinking about the people who are frail, isolated, and greatly vulnerable.

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws: One would say that probably managing a college in Cambridge involves many tensions. One of the things that does not arise and is not in your experience is dealing with issues of race. Cambridge is not well known for its embrace of the bigger race issues. You have certainly been dealing with issues around women over the years, but what about race? Do you feel that it is something that you really have experience in handling?

Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve: I had a good deal of contact with GEEMA, which is the Group to Encourage Ethnic Minority Applications, and I also listened rather carefully to undergraduates, who find, in some cases, that classifying themselves using our ethnic monitoring categories is something that they do not welcome and do not like. Some of the more confident would say they just falsify that information. Others say, “I do not like being pushed to take sides between my mum and my dad when I have to classify myself”, and I believe we have to move on in this country and recognise that an awful lot of us have a racially or ethnically mixed background and that we must not, as it were, be forcing people to identify themselves in a set of categories that are obsolete. We have to monitor, but we have not, as it were, to impose institutional classifications on people.


One thought on “Onora O’Neill confirmed as Equality & Human Rights Commission Chair

  1. Maybe it’s worth explaining why I find that last response about monitoring categories particularly worrying: discrimination precisely imposes categories on people which they may not have chosen, but we have to monitor *those categories* in order to see its effects.

Comments are closed.