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Letters / We can no longer sweep this issue under the carpet (Up Helly Aa)

With respect to the reporting of the Shetland Islands Council (SIC) press release earlier this week (SIC says its Up Helly Aa involvement does not breach equality law; SN, 1/5/2019) we would like to stress that this is not a ‘ruling’ in any legal sense – only courts and Parliament can make these rulings. This is a SIC clarification of guidance following an investigation that SIC initiated. Local authorities and other organisations must comply with the law; they do not have the power to make law.

In 2018, Up Helly Aa for Aa wrote twice to the Lerwick UHA committee in support of those girls and women who would like to join squads. We received no response. We also wrote to the Junior UHA committee to support four S2 Anderson High School girls who applied to form a squad.

The Junior committee did respond but only to confirm that they would not accept applications from girls. As a consequence of both committees refusing to engage with us, we wrote to SIC to ask if we could work collaboratively with them to encourage an end to this discrimination and confirm their commitment to their Public Sector Equality Duty. Up Helly Aa for Aa did not submit a complaint to SIC. SIC instead chose to initiate a complaints process. We are disappointed that SIC has instead triggered this more formal complaints process.

We are surprised that SIC issued a press release before allowing Up Helly Aa for Aa the opportunity to read their Stage 2 response.

Public authorities and other stakeholders have a wide and varied role in permitting community events and festivals to take place in public streets, particularly when the use of schools and a town hall are granted, and it would be impressive indeed if SIC have been able to obtain independent legal advice or perhaps Counsel’s Opinion on such a specialist matter so quickly and so exhaustively. We look forward to any such legal advice resulting from this investigation being published quickly by SIC, in the interests of fair and transparent government, and to SIC’s commitment to its freedom of information duties, which are there to ensure the same.

We note that SIC has now publicly admitted that there are women and girls who have made their concerns known to SIC regarding the prevention of their full participation in this public festival. We can no longer sweep this issue under the carpet. The fact remains that there are females in Shetland who do wish to participate but who are being prevented from doing so solely because they are women or girls.

One of our main concerns is the message that is being sent out to schoolchildren and young people who are preparing for their future participation in a modern society which does not accept exclusion from events and festivals on the grounds of one of the Protected Characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, whatever the justification may be. Shetland should not become known as the one place in the country where discrimination is permitted and in fact encouraged by the local authority.

We look forward to moving forwards with Shetland Islands Council with regards to how it tackles its duties as a local authority in carrying out all of its statutory functions in accordance with its stated compliance with its equality duty whilst women and girls are still prevented from taking part in this festival in a role of their choosing.

Up Helly Aa for Aa remains committed to working collaboratively with both UHA committees and with SIC to resolve this ongoing issue.

Sally Huband
Up Helly Aa for Aa