17th October 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

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.

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About Ryan Taylor

Ryan Taylor has worked as a reporter since 1995, and has been at The Shetland Times since 2007, covering a wide variety of news topics. Before then he reported for other newspapers in the Highlands, where he was raised, and in Fife, where he began his career with DC Thomson. He also has experience in broadcast journalism with Grampian Television. He has lived in Shetland since 2002, where he harbours an unhealthy interest in old cars and motorbikes.

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9 comments

  1. Brian Smith

    Shetland Islands Council has made the mistake of its life about this matter, as the unions said at the outset. I attended a meeting when it was first mooted, and pointed out that such a suggestion would be more than unpopular. ‘Oh,’ said one of the Council’s consultants, ‘it’s just a free lunch’!

    I fear that the Council hasn’t the foggiest idea what it is doing at present. They should try some self-examination for a change, during their final weeks of power.

    Reply
  2. Les Lowes

    This is the sledgehammer approach to employee relations, they really ought to show restraint in wielding it on this occasion. Many more voters in Shetland would agree with this lady. They going to crush all of us then? Why not beat up all your employees who are at variance with what councillors are prepared to do?

    Reply
  3. Stewart Mack

    Why doesnt this surprise me? – The Council appear at times to operate in a manner that would be at home in a Dads Army script (remember that anyone?) yet if questioned or challenged they take the huff and try to take their ball back, i have never heard such a load of clap trap.

    Are the Council, who lets remember are the biggest employer in the Isles, saying that their employees are not allowed to criticise their workings/decisions?? – A basic democratic right of all, If we exclude Council employees (And obviosuly their spouses would ahve to be excluded for insider knowledge!) then the biggest proportion of Shetland will be excluded from any debate on the future of our isles.

    Or is it perhaps the Council dont like hearing the truth?? Especially so close to… an election….. Hmmm i wonder. The answer, for some at least, is in the ballot box- If only we could elect the senior officials who sit back safe and virtually untouchable knowing a 6 figure payoff might await irrespective of how good or bad they might be. Electing those staff members might make them realise that they work for US, something often forgotten i think.It would do the elected members some good to remember that they work for each and every member of their constiuency, we pay their wages and expenses we hire them and we can quite quickly fire them. We, the population are entitled to voice our opinion.

    Just out of interest, the £5,000,000 wasted on the payout to the harbour board for the bridge that never was (and was never going to be!) would have paid for the lunch club until the summer of 2074 at current rates.

    There should be a petition for this girls reinstatement and free speech for all, we cant let this drop….

    Reply
  4. Maureen Bell

    How very sad! What has SIC become?

    As a visiting Lerwick Lass I have had the priveledge to enjoy lunch and good company at the Freefield Centre, one of the very few facilities available in Lerwick. I am very glad to learn that a many signed protest has been produced and I agree with the suggestion that a volunteered 5% reduction for all the senior SIC employees would make great savings and might go a long way to heal the very obvious rift between Councillors and Shetland residents.

    Reply
  5. Sandy McMillan

    The way the Shetland Island Council, are treating there Employees, Elderly, and the Shetland Public in General, with there petty going ons, they are becoming near as bad as the Middle East Dictators, If the Shetland Island Council carry on down this road, I can envisage a revolt of some manner, whether it be a similar demonstration, as was held two years ago, the Shetland Island Council may find themselves confronted by more demonstrations of greater magnitude, where has democracy gone, there are councillors that speak out against the Shetland Island Council, they don’t get suspended, to suspend this employee for stating a few home truths is absolutely outrages, I hope the Union takes up her case, after all she was only trying to help the elderly.

    Reply
  6. Michael Grant

    I would like to hope that the person/persons who signed for the new Sullom Tugs
    have also been suspended as they have signed for 14million of scrap metal,one rather doubts it as these higherarchy are untouchable.Get a grip S.I.C your an embaressment to these Islands.

    Reply
  7. Marina Thomason

    Did the person who said that the old library was about to fall down get suspended when their fears proved to be unfounded, after millions had been spent on another building?

    Did the person/people who steam-rolled over the harbour trust so they could build a bridge to Bressay get reprimanded when the SIC were sued and had to pay almost £5 million to the harbour trust?

    Did the person/people who awarded a £3 million contract to a company to build a new pier in Walls that was not capable of completing the job get hauled over the coals?

    If the answer to any of the above is “no” then to my mind that is a far bigger crime then an employee voicing her opinion in the local paper.

    Reply
  8. Gordon Dargie

    The first rule about lunch club is that nobody talks about lunch club!

    What fantasists are responsible for this case?

    Reply
  9. Peg Young

    I didn’t think the SIC could get any more inane, but I was wrong. Freedom of speech is obviously dead in Shetland. The ghost of Dodie Willie Blance and councillors like him must be looking on in utter disbelief and anguish at the state Shetland is in. There surely MUST be some honourable, intelligent and sensible people who can be voted in to replace this sorry lot.

    Reply

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