Religion - Defending a broad church for councils

8th November 2013 at 00:00
We are a non-partisan voice on committees, say faith leaders

A landmark attempt is being made to overturn the requirement for religious representatives to sit on local education committees.

The move by Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie would still permit councils to include unelected religious representatives on committees, but they would be stripped of their voting rights. Religious groups have reacted with concern and accused "the forces of secularism" of misrepresenting the issue.

Mr Finnie, an independent MSP, said: "It is simply an anomaly that in modern-day Scotland we can have unelected representatives of religions being able to vote on local government committees." The fact that they have the ability to influence major financial decisions "runs counter to the very idea of democratic governance", he added.

Legislation requires that each of Scotland's 32 local education committees includes three religious members with voting rights: one from the Church of Scotland, one from the Catholic Church and another reflecting local religious beliefs.

Mr Finnie, whose proposal for a private member's bill was lodged this week, said there had been instances of "the preferred view of the elected representatives of the people being blocked by the appointed religious representatives". He pointed to a 2012 defeat of Highland Council's ruling coalition over the location for a pound;4 million Gaelic school.

The bill follows a petition to the Scottish Parliament on the same issue from the Edinburgh Secular Society, which has carried out research suggesting that religious representatives hold the "balance of power" in 19 local authorities.

"The proposed bill affords an opportunity for the mainstream churches and our elected politicians to reflect and act on the changing demographics within Scotland," said Edinburgh Secular Society chairman, Gary McLelland. "They can show vision and leadership by actively supporting the bill and the democratic principles that lie behind it."

But Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, said: "It's completely absurd and a bit sinister that we have the forces of secularism gathering around the voice of religion in Scottish society, and the contribution it can make to the education of our young people."

He said that religious representatives did not "represent narrow denominational interests" and that council officers and elected councillors constantly praised their contribution.

"They are representing a far wider constituency than any political party; more people are members of churches than of political parties," Mr McGrath added.

"They are not whipped into following a party political line. They bring views based on their own experience and their own sense of the local community and its needs."

A Church of Scotland spokeswoman said that religious representatives enhanced the decision-making process, adding that they were "valued as an independent, non-partisan voice that adds value to often difficult discussions without being aligned in any way to a particular view or position".

Meanwhile, a senior Church of Scotland figure, who asked not to be named, said secular groups were using next year's Scottish independence referendum to further their own agenda.

"They wish to impose a secularist, as opposed to a pluralist, view on the debate about what a new Scotland should look like," he said. "They are using the present political uncertainty to promote their own brand of faith."

Mr Finnie's proposed bill addresses other issues of transparency and accountability, such as inconsistent voting practices and the inability to watch council meetings online. It has gone out for 12 weeks of public consultation.

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