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Community / UHA campaigners at loggerheads with council again

All 900+ guizers participating in the Lerwick Up Helly Aa are male. Photo: Shetland News

THE GROUP campaigning for women to be allowed into Lerwick Up Helly Aa squads has clashed again with Shetland Islands Council (SIC) – claiming that it was in breach of the equality act after a freedom of information request revealed that the public holiday after this year’s festival cost the public purse an additional £22,000.

The Up Helly Aa for Aa group said the information showed a “significant public involvement” and therefore “a legal responsibility on the part of the council to fulfil its equality duty under the Equality Act 2010”.

But the SIC responded by saying that this was not the case as any public holiday costs the local authority an equivalent amount of additional money, mainly through paying staff extra to work.

The world-renowned Lerwick Up Helly Aa is organised by a private all-male committee which so far has not responded to any correspondence from the campaign group.

The local council is involved in facilitating parts of the festival through road closures, making local venues available – such as schools – as well as hosting a reception in Lerwick Town Hall in which the freedom of the town is handed over to the guizer jarl for the duration of 24 hours.

Back in May, the SIC issued a statement saying its legal team had reaffirmed the council’s position that its relationship with the Lerwick Up Helly Aa and its junior festival does comply with the equality law, a view that is challenged by campaigners.

Responding to the campaign group’s FOI requests, the council said: “Please be advised that the day of Lerwick Up Helly Aa is not a designated SIC public holiday.

“In accordance with the Shetland Islands Council annual leave and public holidays policy (25 October 2016) the ‘day after Lerwick Up Helly Aa’ is a recognised public holiday for all Shetland Islands Council employees regardless of their location, although some services must remain open on public holidays.

“Regarding additional costs to the taxpayer by way of extra time, time and a half, double time or related costs incurred by taking this as a public holiday in relation to council employees or service providers. Additional costs for the day after Lerwick Up Helly Aa, 2019 totalled £22,027.92.”

Up Helly Aa for Aa said the responses demonstrated that the SIC had no choice but to fulfil its duties under the law of Scotland.

A spokesperson for the group said: “We await responses to further FOI requests, but Up Helly Aa for Aa consider the information […] to already show a significant public involvement – and therefore a legal responsibility on the part of the council to fulfil its equality duty under the Equality Act 2010 to question discrimination in the status quo and to encourage understanding and inclusion in our communities.

“To point out the obvious – SIC does not have a choice – it is legally obliged by the law of Scotland to fulfil its duties.”

But council chief executive Maggie Sandison rebuffed that view in a short statement: “The 22K is the specific additional cost by way of extra time, time and a half, double time or related costs incurred by council employees or service providers for the day after Up Helly Aa in 2019, but clearly any public holiday has equivalent cost.

“I have already stated that the council’s involvement with Up Helly Aa does not contravene the Equalities Act 2010.”

The campaign group responded by saying: “In this particular case though, it is a cost incurred by a public holiday across Shetland specifically for the purpose of recovery from the Lerwick UHA – an event/association argued in some circles to be private, and one which overtly excludes women and girls from participating in key roles.”