Disabled councillor loses seat on Wisbech Town Council for non attendance but she felt 'degraded and embarrassed' trying to access council chamber
PUBLISHED: 11:11 28 October 2016
A disabled councillor is fighting a decision to kick her off Wisbech Town Council for not going to any meetings for six months - despite numerous pleas for help with access problems to the council chamber.
Councillor Brenda Lay has struggled to get to meetings as it involves getting up a flight of stairs outside on a make shift ramp, then struggling to get into a stair lift and making her way to the second floor.
Somebody then has to carry up her walker so she can get to the council chambers.
Cllr Lay has suffered osteoarthritis for many years and has extremely limited mobility.
She said: “I asked if some meetings could be held at the Oasis Centre on Waterlees or the Boathouse that both have excellent access; I was told it would be looked at, but nothing ever happened.
“I want to do my best to serve the people in my ward, but it became so difficult and I felt embarrassed and degraded trying to get in the town hall.”
This week, with no warning, Cllr Lay was sent a letter saying she must step down, which means a by-election must be called to replace her, at a cost of around £7,500.
Councillor Virginia Buckner said: “It is appalling treatment.
“Here is somebody who genuinely wants to serve as a councillor, who has asked for support in holding some meetings elsewhere.
“We have two councillors who only attend prior to their six month cut-off who appear to be physically able bodied. Mrs Lay on the other hand wishes to attend but has been prevented due to poor access.
“We are disappointed at the lack of empathy and support for a disabled councillor.
“A ramp had to be hauled out and other councillors had to help get her in the building in her wheelchair.
“It was not always possible to get the ramp out as the entrance was sometimes blocked by vehicles,” she added.
“She found the stair lift a challenge and the whole experience distressing,” Cllr Buckner said.
Her husband, Councillor Alan Lay, said: “It became so difficult to get in the chamber - yet holding some meetings elsewhere could be so simple to arrange.
“We are fighting this decision.”
He added: “Access to the council chamber is impossible except when a set of ramps are installed by the staff at the town hall. Then once inside the hall, if she transfers to the chair lift to go up the curved long flight of steps, the wheeled machine is left in the way at the bottom of the stairs.
“The entire make up of the building is not suitable for the intended use by any disabled person.
“The chair lift has also given us a lot of trouble as it is not reliable.
“There is only one way in and out; no escape route other than the stairs.
“The chair lift like any other lift must not be used in an emergency.
“I have asked the clerk on at least two occasions to get another venue, with no luck as to an answer to the problem.”
As a county councillor he said there had been two recent examples of councillors being allowed to remain even though they had been off sick for longer than six months.
He added: “Brenda’s problems are now so bad that she cannot walk at all. She lives in wheeled vehicles and has to have help by two people to get her into an ambulance for a hospital visit.”
Fellow town councillor Samantha Hoy, and a former mayor, said she and her colleagues were unaware of how close Mrs Lay was to the six month rule.
“It is people’s own responsibility to take note of it,” she said.
Cllr Hoy, also a county councillor, said the two decisions at Shire Hall to allow councillors to continue were made ahead of the six-month rule coming into force.
“Once you fall foul of the act that’s it – after six months you cease to become a member,” she said.
Councillor Steve Tierney, however, penned a blog today claiming that “rarely have I seen something quite as despicable as a lady’s illness being used to make political capital.”
He said that it is wrong to state that it is “Cllr Lay’s disability that has prevented her from coming to council meetings. This is not true”.
He writes: “I was one of the many councillors who often helped Brenda Lay to get into the council chamber when she was first elected.
“Council was made aware of her difficulties and responded by having a crafted metal wheelchair ramp designed and made specifically to resolve her difficulty.
“For the main stairs into the listed and historic council chamber there is a powered stair lift, which Brenda Lay has used successfully on the occasions that she has attended the council.
“In regards to the parking outside, we have marked and coned an area for her to park. Her problems were resolved in the proper way – and it was useful to do so because this will mean that should another person with similar disabilities need access in future they will also be able to do so.
“Making these upgrades was right and proper and town council did so. After which, both the Lays expressed their satisfaction with the result.”
Cllr Tierney adds: “It was only AFTER those alterations that Brenda Lay’s health deteriorated and she became – by Alan Lay’s account – quite unwell.
“Her absences over the last six months have been due to her poor health and nothing to do with her disability. Indeed, many councillors including myself have asked after her health and Alan has given updates. Alan has been forced to stay at home and look after her on several occasions for both town and county meetings, again – quite right and proper for him to do so.
“So to recap – apparently Cllr Brenda Lay has missed six months worth of meetings. “ When this happens, a councillor stops being a councillor automatically. This is not a council decision. It’s not something any councillors have “decided” – it’s not up to us – it is electoral law.
“The only way to avoid this is to ask for a “Special Dispensation” for illness, which must be done before the deadline is reached. I doubt that any councillor would have opposed that Special Dispensation if it had been requested, but it was not requested.”
In other parts of his blog he says other councillors who have now attacked the town council could have alerted Mrs Lay to the six month rule – especially he own husband.
He said: “Brenda Lay has not been “forced off” anything. Brenda Lay, due to her ongoing illness, has been unable to attend meetings for six months. If Brenda Lay had wanted a Special Dispensation, then that would have been simple.”
Cllr Tierney said that “frankly, I think it’s pretty damn rotten to try and bully Brenda Lay into attending meetings if she cannot, and equally rotten to suggest there is anything shameful about her becoming ill.
“Anybody can become ill. It is not something people ‘choose’ to do. I like Brenda Lay; she is a very nice lady. I wish her nothing but the best, and I’m confident every other councillor would say exactly the same.
“If she is not well enough to come to meetings, she should be given the time and space to recover fully and not badgered and heckled and made into a political football.”
However Cllr Virginia Bucknor insists the alterations carried out were minimal to help Mrs Lay.
“The ‘alterations’ just meant a second ramp,” she said. “I have been there and watched the degrading challenge that Brenda had to try and make.
“Even once and finally in the chamber, if an emergency arose it would be almost impossible for many disabled people to get out. The issue had been raised time and again to have just an occasional meeting in a more suitable place.
“I asked the clerk and council leader as recently as last Monday (being unaware her six months were up) and the town clerk said it was quite feasible.”
Cllr Alan Lay said today: “Unless prior notice is given, the entrance to the town chambers is up three steps, and pass by a large heavy front door.
“Once inside the reception area Brenda has to transfer to the chair lift, which is not 100 per cent reliable. Then when she gets to the top of the lift again she has to transfer to a walker. Now she is unable to use the walker.
“Meanwhile her electric scooter is in the way at the bottom of the stairs.”
He added: “There is no other way in or out of this building. In the event of a fire electric power could well fail. The chair lift may be battery operated but it is not easy to get in and out of, and when working, travels very slowly.
“My opinion is the whole building is not safe and definitely not fit for purpose for any meeting.
“A lift could be installed out the back but then again not to be used in an emergency.”
• Eight years ago Simon King also lost his seat on Wisbech Town Council for non attendance after the then clerk ruled his attendance at the annual assembly did not constitute a full council meeting. Mr King remained a district councillor and is now a cabinet member and has also won a seat on the county council but has not contested a town council seat since then.
• A letter to Mrs Lay says that she last attended a council meeting on April 25. She had not submitted a request for the council to consider granting a dispensation so “it is with regret that I must inform you that your membership of Wisbech Town Council has now ceased.”
• Section 85 (1) of the Local Government Act 1972 says “if a member of a local authority fails throughout a period of six consecutive months from the date of his/her last attendance to attend any meeting of the authority, he/she shall, unless the failure was due to some reason approved by the authority, cease to be a member of the authority”.