Story by David Dunning and Chloe Laversuch (Local Democracy Reporter for York)
There was outrage tonight after two councillors in York were told they could not take part in a debate about accessibility in York city centre because they were holders of the blue badge.
Councillor Katie Lomas and Councillor Ashley Mason were advised by council officers that they would have to leave the debate during the full council meeting held at York Racecourse this evening (Thursday 15 July)
York Lib Dems said: “absolutely appalled by the decision of officers”
Labour group leader, Pete Kilbane, tweeted “We are in uproar and this issue will not stop here.” He says they will now make a formal complaint about the decision.
There has been condemnation from the Greens and the Conservatives too.
Cllr Lomas, who represents Acomb, was furious and this is what she said at the start of the meeting:
“I have an interest to declare because I am disabled and I 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, however, been advised by the monitoring officer, that I should recuse myself from the debate as in her view, this is a prejudicial interest, because she believes the blue badge to be a service that I receive,
“I do not view it that way. My blue badge is a reasonable adjustment, which enables me to participate in daily life on a level playing field with others who are not disabled.
“To prevent me from participating in this 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 on the grounds of a protected characteristic. Is the monitoring officer advising anyone who might use or have benefited from social care that they have a prejudicial interest in motion three, or anyone who might use planning services, that they have a prejudicial interest in motion one.
“Would a woman be advised that she cannot take part in a debate on women’s rights? Would a person of colour be advised that they could not take part in a debate on racism?
“I take my responsibility in public life seriously. “So in the absence of other 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 directly 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 principles of disability campaigning is nothing about us without us. And this council is shamefully 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 is presiding over.”
Councillor Ashley Mason said in the meeting: “I’m registered blind and have a blue badge so being your advice not to take part in that, I’ll leave the room at that point.”
During the course of the break in the meeting, The Lord Mayor of York, Reverend Councillor Chris Cullwick, chairing his first full council meeting, took advice again having previously expressed sympathy for Cllr Lomas’ position.
He said: “I’ve taken the opportunity to consider the advice provided by the monitoring officer to councellors Mason and Lomas.
“I’ve also spoken with the Chair of the Joint Standards Committee, Councillor Rowley and Councillor Rowley is content as I am to grant a dispensation to both councillors on the basis that it says it is in the interest of inhabitants of the council’s area to allow the members to take part in that item on the agenda.”
Cllr Katie Lomas sadi in reply her participation was “via ‘dispensation’ so the discrimination remains – disabled councillors can still be prevented from participating in future matters relating to accessibility. Unlike anyone with any other protected characteristic.”
It appears that this will not be the end of the matter though. Tonight there are some very angry people on social media.
You can hear more about it on the Late Show tonight at midnight on www.yorkmix.com/radio which will also be available as a ‘Listen Again’ from Friday.
In a statement tonight on Twitter York Lib Dems said: “We were absolutely appalled by the decision of officers on the matter and many councillors pointed this out during this meeting.
“We’re happy to see that both Cllrs Mason and Lomas are now rightly allowed to contribute to this important motion.”
Lars Kramm, York Green Party Coordinator for York Outer & the villages said: “We strongly believe that it cannot be legally acceptable that any protected characteristics can automatically be a pecuniary interest.
“Why would we work so hard to increase diversity in politics when we exclude people from the debates that need diverse perspectives and experiences the most?
“This reflects very poorly on a council that claims to be a Human Rights City and need urgently an investigation and inquiry.”
Councillors were set to debate a motion calling for improvements to help all residents get into and around the city centre.
A York Disability Rights Forum spokesperson speaking at the meeting said they had been “inundated with people contacting us about city centre access with heartbreaking stories from those no longer able to reach the central post office or a bank or even to visit places they love such as City Screen cinema”.
Despite advising the councillors that they could not take part in the debate about access because they had blue badges and therefore a prejudicial interest in the issue, the monitoring officer did allow the council leader to take part in a vote of no confidence in himself in a meeting in May.
Council leader Keith Aspden was allowed to take part in the debate and vote against the calls for him to resign.
The no confidence vote was called after a critical public interest report was published which criticised the handling of the council’s £400,000 payout to the former chief executive and Cllr Aspden’s involvement in the decision.
The report raised concerns over a meeting to decide the payout, which was chaired by Cllr Aspden at a time when the former chief executive had lodged an employment tribunal claim against him.