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Community / Convener delivers sharp riposte to UHA campaigner over council’s equalities duties

Malcolm Bell. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

SHETLAND Islands Council’s (SIC) outgoing convener Malcolm Bell has hit back at a campaigner who has accused the local authority of breaching its duties under equalities legislation by hosting civic receptions for Lerwick Up Helly Aa.

Scalloway resident Peter Hamilton is seeking greater involvement in the annual fire festival for women and has threatened to report the council to regulatory bodies including the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

Hamilton says the council is supporting discrimination with his “main contention” being that it “has been neglecting its duties with regard to the promotion of equalities” – with Bell repeatedly stating the SIC does not believe it is breaching its duties.

He intends to report both the convener and the council to a number of watchdogs including the public service ombudsman and the human rights commissioner by 4 March if he does not feel any progress has been made.

In addition to hosting a civic reception in Lerwick Town Hall for the event, which last took place in January 2020 prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the council also makes a nearby children’s playpark available for the annual burning of a Viking galley ship.

In an email responding to private and public correspondence from Hamilton earlier this month, Bell accused the campaigner of misrepresenting his previous statements on the subject.

He said Hamilton had implied he had said the civic reception was “doing no wrong in honouring men” because “their women are present”.

“This is not the case and misrepresents what I actually said. I did explain that invitations to civic receptions are never based on sex or gender. Women are assuredly not invited only to accompany ‘their men’ as you state,” Bell wrote.

“Your characterisation as such is both patronising and demeaning to the many women who have enjoyed this reception, on an equal basis to men, over several decades.”

Bell said that prior to the Covid-19 pandemic he had hosted many civic receptions throughout the year and the criteria for the one held on Up Helly Aa day was no different to the criteria for any others.

He rejected Hamilton’s request for the council to publish legal advice it received on the matter in 2019, saying the local authority “maintains the right to confidentiality of communications between a legal adviser and their client”.

Bell said the 2010 Equality Act permitted associations to restrict membership to people who share a “protected characteristic”, with the only exception being any restriction on the basis of skin colour.

He said that corresponded with the right to freedom of assembly and association under the 1998 Human Rights Act, and the council “cannot impose any restrictions on the exercise of those rights”.

Bell said it was not his role to regulate an association’s compliance with equalities legislation, and noted Hamilton’s intention to make a complaint to the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

“I have no personal interest in who takes part in Up Helly Aa,” the convener continued. “That is a matter for the Up Helly Aa community, both male and female, to determine. However in the abstract, if you ask me should anybody be prevented from doing something solely on the basis of their sex (or any other characteristic) then my answer would be no.

“I have publicly encouraged both sides in this debate to engage and that the current gap in festivals, caused by the pandemic, is an ideal opportunity. I note the Up Helly Aa committee have indicated their willingness to do so. I welcome that.

“I am bound to observe, however, that any discussions are unlikely to be fruitful unless they are conducted in a business-like manner and an atmosphere of mutual trust and respect. There is no role for the convener to play in facilitating discussions and I must be absolutely clear I will not do so.”

Bell added that in some of his correspondence Hamilton had mentioned Sarah Everard, the woman who was murdered by a serving police officer in London. “Evidence around the nature, extent and causes of crime are complex and I do not believe it is reasonable or appropriate for you to, so freely, imply causal links to such appalling crimes.”