Freefield Centre staff member sent home
A council worker at the Freefield Centre in Lerwick was sent home after writing an outspoken letter against proposals to close the building.
The action taken over Torana Bland from Leaside in Firth, who helped run the busy five-day-a-week OAP lunch club, has sparked real concerns surrounding freedom of speech.
Her letter is understood to be in the hands of the council’s legal team which, it is believed, could choose to either discipline or dismiss her.
Ms Bland sent a letter to The Shetland Times criticising the council’s decision to consider closing the centre during their recent mammoth talks in the town hall. The eight-hour SIC meeting last month was aimed at curbing its public spending by £15.2 million by 2013/14, although £7 million-worth of the proposed cuts have been held over and are now awaiting a “review”.
The centre’s lunch club, worth £80,000, is one of the 30 services whose fate still hangs in the balance. Ms Bland’s letter insisted the
SIC had been “sneaky, secretive and made a bloody pig’s ear of the jobs they have been entrusted with”.
She added: “Why don’t you grow up and do the job you are paid to do, and not pick on the vulnerable, and those who cannot speak for themselves. You are nothing but a set of bullies. You are slowly turning Shetland into a ghost town.”
Ms Bland was sent home in light of the letter’s publication on 2nd March. She did not comment to The Shetland Times about her circumstances and this paper did not learn of Ms Bland’s current situation from her.
The case has been highlighted in two letters to this week’s Readers’ Views. Frances and Kenneth Loynes, from Voe, have warmly regarded the lunch club as a chance to enjoy a “wonderful” meal and meet new people. Ms Bland’s letter, they said, was “heart-felt” and “true”.
Mr Loynes later told The Shetland Times: “When we were in town we used to go there for our lunch. All the people who worked there were very good. It’s a good facility for all the people who go there.”
Asked about Ms Bland, he said: “She had to go to a meeting and they told her not to go to the centre. She was just going to be at the centre that day.
“She was only expressing her opinion. She was only saying what everybody was thinking. If you can’t voice your opinion you might as well not say anything. I’d like to see her get her job back.”
Someone else who put pen to paper for the letters’ page this week was Lerwick man Jimmy Wiseman, from Haldane Burgess Crescent. Mr Wiseman is also a regular user of the centre, which on Wednesday was feeding over 30 people within its walls.
“It’s typical council, they are picking on the people who can’t speak back – can’t defend themselves,” he said. “She’s no supposed to run down the councillors, because the councillors are her employers, apparently. You’re not supposed to knock your employer. But she was just saying what she saw, and that was that.
“She’s no here so she’s bound to be gagged. She can’t say what she thinks. It’s okay for me and the boys to say what we think because they can’t touch us; we’re just supposedly old folk and she’s working for the council.”
Mr Wiseman defended Ms Bland’s position, and criticised high salaries among senior-ranking SIC officials. Cutting just five per cent off the wages of top earners would go a long way to make savings, he said. “They are trying to cut this place, and there are heaps of places they could cut.”
Among the diners at the Freefield on Wednesday was Doreen Williamson, from Leslie Road, a regular visitor who last month mounted a protest against the £80,000 saving and gained the support of Lerwick Community Council.
She submitted a petition with over 1,500 signatures against the centre’s closure to the council this week and she had been shocked to learn that Ms Bland was no longer able to turn up for work.
Mrs Williamson said: “What happened to freedom of speech? It’s bloody ridiculous. She got on extremely well with people. She hadn’t been here long, but you’d think she’d been here all her life.”
Her friend Amy Mouat added: “When she was working here and we all heard the news everybody was down in the dumps. It’s been the talk all the way along. It has put everybody in a fighting mood.”
Another regular is former Lerwick town provost Bill Smith, who also chaired Shetland Islands Council’s education department. Mr Smith had not heard of Ms Bland’s circumstances, but was highly critical of the council’s actions in cutting services.
“There is little, if any study, that has been done into the impact of the cuts at that level,” he said. “I have experienced squeezes and freezes in past years. This is not the first time the council has been short of money. When I was concerned with it I would have fought it tooth and nail.”
The council refused to confirm this week what Ms Bland current position was, while her union representative was also unable to comment on the issue.