New Chair nominated for Equality and Human Rights Commission
Baroness Onora O’Neill has been chosen by the Minister for Women and Equalities, Maria Miller, to be the next Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Her appointment will need to be reviewed by a parliamentary committee before it is confirmed. The selection comes in the wake of Trevor Phillips leaving the Commission after a controversial two terms as Chair.
Baroness O’Neill is a philosopher and a crossbench member of the House of Lords, who has held several academic positions and sat on the boards of various organisations to do with public science and bioethics. She has written extensively about choice and autonomy, so it will be interesting to hear her thoughts about disability equality. The incoming Chair’s background is one of privilege – she was privately educated and studied at Oxford and Harvard – and she is used to dealing with abstract academic issues rather than the nuts and bolts of disability politics on the ground. Time will tell whether she can connect with the needs of disabled people at grass roots level. Encouragingly, giving evidence to the Commission on Assisted Dying last year, she recognised the potential pressures on people with impairments and serious illnesses, saying that the idea of effective legal safeguards for assisted dying involved “misleading and unrealisable fantasies about individual autonomy”. She said that assisted suicide is “not safely legislatable”. We will have to wait for her appearance before the Joint Committee on Human Rights to find out more about where she stands on the issues that matter to disabled people.
It has been rumoured that Baroness O’Neill will be presiding over a sinking ship. Although the Commission escaped the government’s ‘bonfire of the quangos’, its budget has been slashed, its helpline has been given to a private provider, and its grants programme has been cut. Is the Commission being hollowed out ready to be shut down altogether – or will it be allowed to find a way to struggle on with a new operating model? Under this government, it’s anybody’s guess.