We have a guest blog from Councillor (Cllr) Katie Lomas who was one of two councillors who faced discrimination at Full Council on 15th July 2021. We would like to take this opportunity to say that we have extended our solidarity to both councillors affected and thank Cllr Lomas both for the blog and for standing up for disability rights at the meeting.
I am a Labour Councillor in York, I represent my home ward of Acomb and am proud and privileged to be in such a position.
I found myself in a very odd position this week. In preparing for the City of York Council meeting I sought some advice from the Monitoring Officer (who is there to advise on such matters) about what I needed to do (if anything) with regards to declaring an interest in a motion that was coming up on accessibility in the city centre. I was fairly certain that I had a personal interest and, because I take transparency seriously, wanted to know if I should declare it and if I needed to what level of detail I needed to give. At that point I was reluctant to give too much detail. I have seen the awful abuse that other women in politics have received as well as public narratives around disability that are similarly dire.
The response I received shocked me to my core. I challenged it privately and through the Leader of my Group of Councillors. The response hardened – I was told that I had a prejudicial interest which meant I would not be able to participate in the debate or vote on the motion. The reason this shocked me so much was that I believe my interest, as a disabled person who has a blue badge, in the matter of disabled access to the city centre was not more prejudicial than for example someone who cycles participating in a debate on cycling infrastructure. I was being told, quite clearly, that because of my disability and the blue badge I have been given as a reasonable adjustment to enable me to participate in ordinary activities I would be treated differently (and less favourably) than my colleagues who are not disabled. Moreover I would have to leave the room while non-disabled colleagues debated disability issues.
I believed this to be direct discrimination on the grounds of disability and so, ahead of the meeting I sought advice and support from colleagues. I was distressed and angry, and recognising this I sought out reassurance that I was correct in my position. Despite all efforts the meeting time arrived and I was still in the same position. When the time came in the meeting to declare interests I read out the following statement.
“I have an interest to declare because I am disabled and have a blue badge. My view is that this is a personal interest but no more prejudicial than for example someone who cycles participating in a debate on improving cycling infrastructure. I have been advised by the monitoring officer that I should recuse myself from the debate as this is a prejudicial interest because the blue badge is a service that I receive. I do not view it in that way. It is a reasonable adjustment to enable me to participate in daily life on a level playing field with others who are not disabled.
To prevent me from participating in the debate is to treat me differently directly because of a disability and this is discrimination. It cannot be that the code of conduct excludes people from debate in the grounds of a protected characteristic. Is the Monitoring Officer advising anyone who has might use or benefitted from social care that they have a prejudicial interest in motion 3 or anyone who might use planning services that they have a prejudicial interest in motion 1? Would a woman be advised that she cannot take part in a debate on women’s rights? Would a person of colour be advised they could not take part in a debate on racism?
I take my responsibility in public life seriously so in the absence of any other option I will not participate in the debate but I want the public to understand why, and to see how I am being discriminated against and silenced and prevented from participating in a debate that I believe I should be able to participate in. One of the basic tenets of disability campaigning is “nothing about us without us” and this council is shameful in purposefully excluding a disabled councillor from this debate.
I call on the Lord Mayor now to intervene and use the power and privilege he is afforded in his position to avoid this direct discrimination in a meeting he presides over.”
The reaction was incredible. Visible anger and outrage from Councillors across the room, from all parties and none. The Lord Mayor sympathised but said he was not able to act. During the remainder of the first part of the meeting I was deluged with comments and messages from people thanking me for speaking out.
During the section of the meeting where members of the public can speak several contributors referenced what was happening and said that it compounded the feelings that the Council was just not listening to disabled people about access to the city centre.
Local Democracy Reporter Chloe Laversuch contacted me and broke the story on social media. We spoke in the break and I shared the text of my statement with her. More and more messages arrived, all condemning the actions taken and supporting me. Several Councillors approached me to offer their solidarity and support as well as share outrage at the way I and another colleague had been treated.
As we resumed the meeting after the break the Lord Mayor made an announcement. He said that during the break he had consulted on the issue and the Monitoring Officer and Chair of the Joint Standards Committee had agreed to issue a ‘dispensation’ to allow the two Councillors with prejudicial interests to join the debate, as it was in the public interest to hear what we had to say. This was just compounding the harm though, a dispensation meant that it was the view of the Council that I did have a prejudicial interest but they were nevertheless allowing me to take part. This feels worse that being silenced. It retains the direct discrimination – by retaining the view that I have a prejudicial interest because I am disabled – yet offers me chance to speak as some kind of favour that I should not really be allowed. I think it is telling that the announcement was made without any communication with me, a public announcement about me made with no discussion, consultation or even warning.
I took the opportunity to speak on the motion however because if I had not there would be no disabled voices in the debate except for those that Cllr Melly had sought in drafting the motion and her speeches.
In the run up to the meeting the Green Councillor who is Deputy Leader of the Council submitted an amendment to Cllr Melly’s motion. The amendment significantly changed the motion. It removed much of the content that Cllr Melly had been asked by Disability Campaigners to put in and completely mis-represented the processes that had been followed (or more properly, not followed in the case of consultation). My view was that this was a wrecking amendment and I spoke against it. The amendment was ‘seconded’ by the Liberal Democrat Councillor who is Executive Member for Finance and Performance.
Here’s what I said about the amendment.
“This amendment is aimed at taking all of the positive actions out of the motion and is further testament to the disdain with which disabled people are treated by this administration.
This amendment seeks to remove the requirement to act to make reasonable adjustments to avoid discrimination.
This amendment removes all of the criticism of the Council’s approach to date and will consequently fail to put anything right or to change any future approach to considerations of access.
This amendment astoundingly seeks to rewrite history suggesting that disabled voices have been heard and that it was not solely due to the relentless campaigning of disabled people and allies that the administration even bothered to start a consultation, many weeks after the changes to access had been imposed.
This administration really must learn a lesson – to get something wrong is human but to try to pretend it never happened, and to attempt gaslight those harmed by your mistake is unforgivable.
I urge all Councillors who expressed solidarity with me and Cllr Mason about the discrimination against us this evening to reject this amendment, do the right thing and show disabled people in York that you are listening to them on accessibility.”
Unfortunately the amendment was passed, therefore completely undermining the motion. We therefore took the extraordinary step to vote against the amended motion, because to support it as amended would, in our view, be adding to the ongoing harm caused by the approach to accessibility in the city centre.
The whole series of events has been deeply distressing and angering. To experience such blatant direct discrimination is hard, and I have experienced it before but in the past I have been able to point it out, to make sure that it stopped and when I have patiently explained the discrimination have been able to effect change (most of the time). This was different however, and I genuinely expected more from a Council. Councils are subject to the Public Sector Equality Duty which goes beyond the basic requirement in the Equality Act to avoid discrimination. It requires the Public Sector to promote equality.
On receiving the news that I was to be excluded from speaking on this motion I was angry and distressed. Since then I have questioned my own judgement, been forced into making a very public disclosure of information that I was not planning to disclose in that way. I have been forced to speak out because otherwise I (and a colleague) would have been made to leave the room while people who aren’t disabled discussed a motion about disability. I have lost sleep, been left shaking with anger and outrage, struggled to eat properly and almost lost confidence to do the job I was elected to do. I am extraordinarily grateful to all those who have contacted me to offer support, or to share my outrage. Both approaches are equally helpful and many people have done both. I am especially grateful to my fellow Labour Councillors in York who have shown exceptional ally-ship in offering support and sharing outrage but who have all unfailingly made sure that they didn’t do or say anything about me or my situation without checking in with me first.
I genuinely believe that there should be “nothing about us without us”. Not only do the Council not want to engage with disability advocacy and campaign groups, they also tried to make disabled Councillors leave the room while they debated issues we were well placed to contribute on. The application of a dispensation is no resolution to this. It simply confirms the Council view that disabled Councillors should not speak on matters relating to disability but were given special permission on this occasion. I cannot allow this to stand so I will continue, as far as I can, to expose the ingrained discrimination against disabled people and get this appalling wrong righted.
Cllr Katie Lomas
16 July 2021