The Oxford Union has released a public response to an Equality and Access report, which recommends that the society adopt a series of reforms to improve their procedures and governance.
The report was commissioned after Ebenezer Azamati, a graduate student from Ghana who is also blind, was forcibly removed from the chamber in 2019, and had proceedings brought against him for “violence and dishonesty”. The proceedings were dropped, and Mr Azamati settled with the Union out-of-court. Brendan McGrath, the then President of the Union, resigned following the scandal.
Doughty Street Chambers carried out an analysis of the Union’s rules and practices, and produced a report listing 81 recommendations for the society to implement. The Union accepts 77 recommendations “in their entirety”, and “all 81 in some form”. Some of the reforms will need to face a vote from members of the society.
An executive summary of the report, cosigned by the Union President Chengkai Xie, and President-Elect Molly Mantle, was announced in the chamber before a debate on the motion “this house would give up liberty for safety” was held.
“The recommendations have provided us with much useful insight and the valuable opportunity to examine our practices and procedures. There is a real appetite for reform amongst committee members and we look forward to implementing these changes. We understand that alongside implementing immediate changes, we must commit to long term action and will be patient whilst we achieve it,” the summary said.
Section four advised the Union on how to use the Equality Act 2010 “as a basis for procedure”. The Union said they would do so, and introduce “impact assessments as a basis for future decision making.
The Union said they accepted “all recommendations” in the report to create a “welcoming and inclusive culture”. This is set to begin by adopting a “new statement of expected standards of behaviour”, which would be implemented in conjunction with reforms to their disciplinary procedures.
The report also advised the Union on how to make the leadership of the society “more accessible”, and provided a series of recommendations for committee members. The Union said that committee members already undergo “mandatory training”, but accepted recommendations made in the report such as moving training to an earlier point in term and expanding its content.
Section 10 of the report focussed on the experiences of members and guests. This included a review of how accessible the Union is to disabled people, and recommended that the membership fee structure should be removed. The Union said they are “taking steps to restructure [their] membership”, including highlighting the option to pay the membership fee of £286.34 in instalments.
Section 10 also recommended that the Union produces a new “consideration of how events with ‘controversial’ speakers may effect the experience of members”. The union said they have “begun discussing the best way to restructure our invitations process, in order to better assess the impact speakers may have”.
The report also recommended that the Union implement a variety of policy changes to “improve the working environment for the Society’s paid staff”. The Union said they would work with stakeholders to create these policies, and ensure they were in line with wider equality and access aims.
President of the Oxford Union, Chengkai Xie, told Cherwell: “Many members will recall the events of Michaelmas Term 2019 surrounding the mistreatment of Mr Ebenezer Azamati, which led to significant public criticism of the Union and the resignation of the then-President. That did not showcase the Union at its best. We have reflected on our practices.
“Following the incident and the subsequent proceedings, the Union commissioned an in-depth review of our rules and practices by experienced barristers. Recognising the significance of the review, we are making the Executive Summary of the report, containing all the recommendations, fully available on our website. I am tonight also pleased to be able to announce the publication of our official statement responding to the review. We wholeheartedly welcome the review and have already begun addressing many of the problems it identifies.
“Some of the changes we hope to implement will require the support of this House. I would now like to ask you for that support, as we look to the future. I hope that you will be compelled by our commitment to reform when these improvements are brought to a vote.
“I thank my committee for their vigour and contribution. I especially owe my debt of gratitude to my successor Molly Mantle, my Development Officer Amy Gregg, the Most Senior Deputy Returning Officer Eden Smith, and the Ex-Returning Officer, Daniel Dalland for their continuous support.
I am excited to be President at this time of change. I will dedicate my term of office to making the Union a more inclusive and welcoming place.”
Image Credit: NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organisation / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0