Edinburgh Secular Society exposes religious interference in the heart of local democracy

News release

  • Edinburgh Secular Society (ESS) exposes religious interference at the heart of local democracy in Scotland’s education committees.
  • Releases collated details of all 91 unelected ‘religious representatives’  sitting on Scotland’s 32 local authority education committees [i],  [ii].
  • Identifies one of Europe’s ‘most active creationists’ at the centre of school decision making in South Lanarkshire [iii], [iv].

Wednesday 17 July 2013      For immediate release

Edinburgh Secular Society has taken unparalleled action by publishing consolidated details of all 91 unelected religious representatives sitting on the education committees of Scotland’s 32 local authorities.  These are representatives not voted for by their electorate, but simply undemocratically appointed after nomination by their local churches.

Nevertheless, they have full voting rights on all educational issues coming before their local authority. Furthermore, council-tax payers foot their expenses bill. And the undemocratic nature of these appointments has angered many elected officials [v].

In a significant number of areas of Scotland, these unelected representatives hold sway. Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council, in a report earlier this year to their General Assembly, appears proud to claim “We estimate that . . . Church Representatives hold the balance of power on 19 Local Authority Committees (of 32). [vi].

Edinburgh Secular Society believes that continuing with this practice is damaging to local democracy in Scotland, and politics in general.

Prof. Norman Bonney, social science researcher and ESS founding member notes:

The legally required appointment of religious nominees to local authority education committees is profoundly undemocratic. There is concern expressed in the press today (14 July, by the Chief Executive of the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisations) that turnout in local government elections is too low. This revelation about the influence of unelected religious nominees on the decisions made by local council education committees can only further undermine public confidence in the accountability of local authorities to their local communities. There has to be a fundamental rethink of these arrangements to ensure that education committee decisions are made by councillors and not by unelected religious representatives.

Patrick Harvie, MSP for Glasgow, comments:

In a society in which increasing numbers of people don’t practice any religion, it’s high time that we questioned a practice which gives religious hierarchies an influence over every child’s education. I’m particularly concerned at the involvement of people who would promote utterly unscientific notions like creationism; pushing this absurd ideology at children is the very opposite of education.

Bailie Dr Nina Baker, Glasgow City councillor (one of two Scottish Green Party seats on the city council’s executive), says:

Whilst I can see that representatives of major world faiths might have a role in advising on curriculum content for the teaching of comparative religion in schools, I believe they should have no right to vote on councils’ decision-making bodies. Those votes should be reserved for accountable, elected members only. A recent contribution from the Roman Catholic representative on Glasgow’s executive was to make clear his church could never accept the principle and practice of shared-campus schools, a policy with full cross-party support.

Commenting on the presence of unelected religious representatives on local authority education committees, City of Edinburgh Councillor Sandy Howat adds:

Unelected, unaccountable and I would suggest untenable? Undemocratic influence over public education is fundamentally at odds with the principles of respect, equality and shared freedoms. All contributions to committee deliberations should be welcomed, yet continued undemocratic privilege of the few over the many is an outdated tradition we should remove.  As we look to create a fairer Scotland with liberty at its core, we need to ask ourselves what this ‘privilege’ says about our values; it’s time for a new enlightenment.

ESS notes that these ‘religious representative’ placements are not open to those without any declared religious beliefs, nor to humanists, or to the many minority religious faith groups, as the law calls for representatives to have a recognised ‘place of worship7.  Such discrimination should be of concern to all fair-minded electors in Scotland.

Edinburgh Secular Society is calling on the Scottish Government to review the clause, with a view to removing it from the Act. The group also believes that it is not compliant with the Equality Act 2010.

***  ENDS  ***




[i]       List of 91 unelected religious representatives sitting on Scotland’s 32 local authority education committees: online at  http://edinburghsecularsociety.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Religious-Reps-Edinburgh-Secular-Society-July-2013.pdf

Data from Local Authorities by Freedom of Information requests, or from information publicly available on the Internet

[ii]      Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994 c. 39 Part I, Chapter 6, Education Section 31 stipulates that three (four for an islands area) unelected but church appointed religious representatives must sit as voting members on an education committee.

[iii]     ‘One of Europe’s most active creationists is my good friend Dr. Nagy Iskander’, Ken Hamm, President of Answers in Genesis creationist group writing at:  http://blogs.answersingenesis.org/blogs/ken-ham/2013/04/10/reaching-scots/

[iv]     Dr Nagy Iskander: Sits unelected on the Education Resources Committee of South Lanarkshire Council as religious representative of Westwoodhill Evangelical Church, East Kilbride, and as one of seven chaplains at his local school. He discusses his teaching of the bible at his local schools and ‘the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ’. (circa 07:00 min at http://www.answersingenesis.org/articles/am/v4/n3/iskander-audio)

[v]      ‘Councillor David Alston says having three religious representatives on Highland Council’s education committees threatens democratic decision making because they are unelected.’ Inverness Courier 31 Aug 2012

[vi]     ‘We estimate that these three Church Representatives hold the balance of power on 19 Local Authority Committees’: Church of Scotland Church and Society Council Deliverance to CoS General Assembly  May 2013 p3/31 para 11.4.3)

Notes to Editor

  • For further information contact Gary McLelland – Chairman  07813060713 or Colin Emerson – Vice-chair  07706  837 007.
  • ESS campaigns for freedom of religion, and freedom from religion.
  • ESS is affiliated to the National Secular Society; however, views expressed here are those of ESS alone.
  • ESS provides speakers for TV/Radio interview, quotes and pictures on request.
  • Download press release: ESS News Release Religious Reps 2013-07-17

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