- Council says it has no obligation to provide facilities but then makes embarrassing U-turn
Last updated at 4:31 PM on 13th July 2011
A breast-feeding mother has been ordered out of council offices after staff said it would ’cause an uproar’ among Muslim visitors, it has been claimed.
Emma Mitchell, 32, was about to feed her 19-week-old son, Aaron, when a receptionist at Oldham Civic Centre told her it was a ‘multicultural building’.
When she was told to use the toilets of a nearby shopping centre she argued with a manager before being offered an empty room under supervision.
Ms Mitchell, a carer who is currently on maternity leave, said: ‘It was just awful. I felt humiliated, intimidated and guilty through the whole thing.
‘We all live in Oldham and we all use this building, and I was doing what was one of the most natural things a mum can do.
‘If someone from another culture started praying in the waiting room, I wouldn’t say, “Excuse me, you’re offending me” I would respect it because it’s their culture.
‘So I shouldn’t be made to feel what I wanted to do was wrong just because it’s not in their culture.
Labour Councillor Shoab Akhtar said Oldham Council supports the right of mothers to breastfeed their children and actively supports it due to the long-term health benefits it provides.
But he added: ‘Unfortunately there are no breast-feeding facilities available at Access Oldham based at the Civic Centre nor are there any public toilets or baby changing facilities.
‘There is no requirement to provide such facilities at Access Oldham and we are committed to make the best use of the limited space that is available to provide facilities and meeting rooms where we can deal with issues that affect local residents quickly and effectively.
‘Not every building is suitable for breast-feeding and that is the case with the very busy, open-plan layout of Access Oldham.’
However the council made an embarrassing U-turn later in the day with Cllr Akhtar issuing a second statement in which he made an ‘unreserved apology’ to Ms Mitchell.
He said: ‘We fully support the right of mothers to breastfeed their children and actively encourage this due to the long term health benefits it provides
‘Ms Mitchell’s disappointing experience has highlighted the need to make all our staff fully aware of our policy and our legal requirements. All staff will be trained in the coming days to ensure this never happens again.
‘We are contacting Ms Mitchell to unreservedly apologise for the unnecessary difficulty she experienced.
‘As previously stated, Access Oldham does not have dedicated breastfeeding facilities available, however staff are now aware that they should make every reasonable effort to assist a mother’s need to breastfeed – whether she requests the use of a private room or otherwise.
‘We always act on feedback from residents and are glad that this issue was brought to our attention.’
Ms Mitchell was visiting the Citizens’ Advice Bureau at the council’s headquarters and was using computers there to find a babysitter.
Baby Aaron started crying for food when she asked the receptionist if she could use an empty corner of the room to breastfeed.
‘She said “Oh no, we don’t allow that in here. We’ve had that many complaints that we don’t allow it.”
‘I told her my son was hungry and I didn’t want to have to go away and come back.’
According to Ms Mitchell a manager then said ‘You absolutely can’t do that here’
With young Aaron still crying a member of the complaints department was also called and she told her to wait while she spoke to the receptionist.
Eventually the woman from the complaints team took her to a small room and stood waiting with her, but Ms Mitchell said she could not carry on and had to finish feeding him in her car.
She added: ‘It’s political correctness gone mad when they’re worried about offending people of other cultures over something so natural.
‘You wouldn’t eat your dinner in the toilets, so why should my son?’