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Disability rights advocate Helen Whitehead not allowed to speak at council meeting

A resident broke down in tears after a county councillor refused to let her speak at a council meeting.

Disability rights advocate Helen Whitehead was not given permission to speak about her experiences with a wheelchair provider despite waiting patiently for four hours.

She suffers from a rare connective-tissue disorder called Ehlers Danlos syndrome as well as spinal arthritis so occasionally uses a wheelchair.

Helen Whitehead
Helen Whitehead

The campaigner, from Thanet, has previously run for a seat at the district council in a bid to represent other disabled people.

She attended today's Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee in the hope of sharing her experience with the provider of wheelchairs in Kent and Medway, Millbrook Healthcare.

The contract the NHS has with the provider was put on the agenda after the committee received complaints from users about long waiting times and broken equipment.

Despite raising her hand to speak, the chairman of the Health Overview and Scrutiny Committee, Cllr Sue Chandler (Con) did not allow her to do so.

Cllr Chandler said: "At the back of the room there is a member of the public but I have to say I'm really sorry that I can't allow you to speak because it's not a public meeting.

"I think the very fact that you are here, as a user of this service, speaks volumes about some of the complexities and some of the issues there have been."

All meetings at Kent County Council are open for the public to attend, however, the constitution restricts them from talking at the meetings.

Helen Whitehead at the meeting
Helen Whitehead at the meeting

Former chairman of the scrutiny committee, Cllr Peter Lake (Con), said he has previously taken legal advice when he found himself having to deal with a similar situation.

The legal experts suggest residents should contact their representatives who can speak on their behalf.

However, Cllr Chandler added representatives from Thanet clinic commissioning group are "anxious" to hear her thoughts so they will be in touch.

She explained the public can email the committee with their concerns and members would "take that up on your behalf".

Cllr Ian Thomas (Con) proposed Ms Whitehead should be able to speak, which Cllr Karen Constantine (Lab) seconded.

However, the chairman reaffirmed her decision not to allow the "distressed" member of the public to have her say.

Once the webcast was turned off, Cllr Chandler had a "quick word" with members of the committee claiming that allowing the visitor to speak would have "set a precedent".

"I have numerous requests from members of the public to come and speak and on the whole it would not add anything to our meeting for that to happen" - Cllr Sue Chandler

She said: "I understand exactly why people felt that we should have maybe listened to that member of the public.

"But it is a very difficult balance to both take into account the individual patient experience but also the fact that we have to ensure the committee works at a strategic level.

"It is not a public meeting. I have numerous requests from members of the public to come and speak and on the whole it would not add anything to our meeting for that to happen.

"They are always welcome to send a statement, which I will circulate."

All members of the committee shared their support with the chairman in her decision.

Cllr Sarah Hamilton (Con) added her concerns how this may have led to disclosure of private information being made public, especially due to the distress the guest was in.

She said: "I think given the sensitive nature of some of the things we cover in here, individual cases are not necessarily appropriate to be shared in this chamber, particularly someone gets distressed and can't escape it."

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