Bishops battle for influence

27th November 1998 at 00:00
ANGLICAN and Catholic bishops are fighting to retain voting rights on local education authorities as ministers move to abolish council education committees, writes Clare Dean.

Proposals unveiled in the Queen's Speech this week spell the end of the traditional council structure, concentrating power in the hands of small cabinet-style committees.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott believes the current structure is confusing and inefficient with councillors holding long meetings yet having little influence.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, which Mr Prescott heads, said: "Paternalism and inwardness needs to be swept away. "

A draft local government Bill, announced this week, would give councils powers to introduce elected mayors and cabinet-style government. The churches, which currently have a vote on the education committee, fear that they could be relegated to a consultation group.

They argue that in areas such as Lancashire half the schools are church schools - so they have to have an input into planning.

"If they are going to take away voting rights in an area like that, it is a nonsense," said Margaret Smart, of the Catholic Education Service.

In other authorities, the churches hold the balance of power. The Archdeacon of Northolt, the Venerable Pete Broadbent, who chairs the London diocesan schools board which works with 18 councils, said: "We have a major stake in education in partnership with the local authorities. We don't want to see our right to vote to be eroded."

The churches, the DETR and the Department for Education and Employment discussed the proposals at a meeting last week.

The DETR said that rather than the churches losing influence the proposals were intended to increase their representation. In future they would have a place on scrutiny committees, able to hold councils to account and propose policy.

The DFEE said it did not believe many councils were going to scrap education committees immediately. "It is not compulsory. It would be a matter for them," said a spokesperson.

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