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Background Info

PETITION BACKGROUND INFORMATION

Introduction: For historical reasons, the 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act required Local Authority Education Committees to include Church nominees, a requirement repeated and formalised in Sections 124 and 31 of the (pre-devolution) 1973 and 1994 Acts. These appointees are immune from electoral scrutiny and do not even have to declare their outside interests. They sit and vote on these important Committees whether the elected Councilors want them or not, and hold the balance of power on 19 of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees.


We now call on the Scottish Parliament to remove this requirement, by repealing the relevant clauses, leaving the elected Councillors free to decide for themselves what role, if any, to grant Church representatives


Note that nothing in this Petition would in any way prevent Education Committees from consulting or co-opting such individuals, if they so choose. On the contrary, their contributions would have added weight and legitimacy if their presence were by invitation, rather than imposed.


Education Committees control a larger part of Council budgets than any other Committee. They are the ultimate employers of School Principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels.  They decide on the opening and closing of schools, and whether a school should be denominational or non-denominational, and control local practice in such matters as religious education, religious observance, and instruction about sex in human relationships.


The enforced presence on such powerful committees of unelected individuals is a matter of the gravest concern. In 2013, John Finnie MSP sought to initiate change, but the attempt was abandoned for procedural reasons. Since then a report - Religion in Scots Law: Report of an Audit at the University of Glasgow - sponsored by their Humanist Society of Scotland, has been published and is available at https://www.humanism.scot/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Religion-in-Scots-Law-Final-Report-22-Feb-16.pdf. This concluded that whilst in other areas institutionalised Church privilege was diminishing, it was increasing as regards education.


The importance of democracy in the educational system is universally acknowledged. For instance, on 13/09/16, John Swinney, Education Secretary assured the Scottish Parliament that under his proposals "..councils would remain democratically accountable for schools" while in its comments "..the Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) said the review must enhance support for schools and promote local democracy" [1]


The present arrangement is in breach of this ideal. It violates human rights, is antidemocratic, undermines the sovereignty of the electorate, assumes a consensus that no longer exists, and has proved difficult if not impossible to follow in practice.


The present arrangement violates human rights, because it creates positions of power within local government that are restricted to those holding specified religious affiliations, namely Church of Scotland, Catholic, and whatever denomination is selected by the Council for the third representative. Those holding other religious beliefs, or the more than one third of Scots who hold no specific religious belief, are ineligible. This is direct discrimination against individuals, and against all groups who do not happen to be represented.


It is anti-democratic because it places in positions of power individuals in whose appointment the electorate as a whole has had no say. Moreover, the appointments bear little relationship to demographics, even among believers; the Episcopalian Church of Scotland, with 25,000 communicating members (Church Times, 14 June 2013; the numbers are probably now smaller), was awarded positions on 10 committees.


It undermines the sovereignty of the electorate. As the Church of Scotland has explained (http://www.scottish.parliament.uk/S4_PublicPetitionsCommittee/General%20Documents/PE1498_F_Church_of_Scotland_14.02.14.pdf), in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Councils, the gap on the Education Committee between the governing party or coalition, and the opposition, is three or less, so that the opposition in alliance with the three Church appointees can override the duly elected government. The Church also points out that, given the Scottish electoral system, a similar situation can be expected to continue indefinitely.


It assumes a consensus that no longer exists. Census figures show a steady decline in religious affiliation among Scots. According to the 2011 census, 37% of the population describe themselves as having no religion, a rapidly increasing segment of the population, with an additional 7% stating no religious preference, while the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014, Public Attitudes to Sectarianism in Scotland, Table 2.4, shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as "no religion"; these are the age cohorts now beginning to send their children to school. And in any case, given the diversity of viewpoints among believers, the Churches do not necessarily have a mandate to speak even for their own members on specific issues. For all these reasons, we can no longer assume general acceptance of policies based on religion, nor that Church appointees represent the general will.


It meets no identifiable need, and proves difficult, if not impossible, to follow in practice. The difficulty encountered by many Councils in finding Church nominees clearly shows that in some areas there is no demand for them. If, in other areas, local opinion would favour the presence of representatives of religion as advisers or even as committee members, our proposal leaves the elected members free to issue the appropriate invitations.


Anomalies across the recruitment process. Freedom of Information requests have established that, as of July 2015, one Council had appointed no religious representatives; one major Council had been unable to fill the position of third representative; eight Councils had filled that position by newspaper advertisements that had attracted only one applicant; two Councils had appointed the third representative from the Church of Scotland, contrary to the law; one representative simply nominated himself when asked to consult with Church colleagues; two Councils had vacancies due to the failure of the nominated Church to respond; in one case, the sitting representative agreed to stay on when an advertisement attracted no applicants; and in one Council, sitting members are automatically reappointed after each local election. Thus in 17 out of 32 cases, there is reason for concern about the way in which the system is operating.


The Church of Scotland’s Guide to Good Practice (Sec. 3.1, opening paragraph) refers to the Church’s “privileged position” which its justifies by referring to its “historic link” to education which it traces back to 1872, and invites its appointees to exercise their “statutory right” and endeavour “to influence council education policies in areas of interest to the national church, including the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools.” (Italicised words are direct quotations; full text at http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/9848/The_Role_of_the_Church_Representative_Appointment.pdf)


This “privileged position” negates democracy. The only “interest” that we should be considering is the interest of the pupils, and of the broader community to which they belong and which pays for the system. Some“Christian values”, such as compassion, are generally shared, with no need to invoke the Churches. Others, such as the value placed on specifically Christian beliefs, are not, and those of other faiths or no faith, now a majority of new school parents, may even find them offensive. And a specifically Christian influence on “the development of the curriculum, Christian values, religious and moral education and religious observance in schools” is directly contrary to the Scottish Government’s policy of inclusiveness and, in the case of religious and moral education, objectivity.


It may be that Councils benefit from the input of the Church nominees, and our Petition leaves the Councils to judge that for themselves. And to the extent that Scotland is a Christian country, special representation for Christianity is unnecessary, since the actions of individual Christian voters and Councillors will be and should be influenced by their heritage and beliefs, without the need for duplicate representation.


Our critique of religious privileges should not be portrayed as an attack on religion. On the contrary, interviews [2] conducted by the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office showed widespread support among MSPs with religious beliefs for the principle of Church-State separation, and for the added moral authority that this would give to Church pronouncements. And, of course, there is nothing to stop prominent Church members from standing for election on their own merits; there is distinguished precedent for this.


This “privileged position”, to use the Church of Scotland’s own expression, is an affront to democracy. It is a constitutional relic, which should be consigned to history. It violates equality, by excluding non-believers, and many believers, from reserved positions of power. It has proved unworkable in practice, as well as unsound in principle. Since the primary legislation refers to Local Authorities broadly defined, the problem will not automatically disappear even if, as has been suggested, the educational system is reorganised. Whatever needs it may meet, would be far better met by voluntary co-option, much as many such Committees already co-opt representatives of parents and teachers.
In short, the present arrangement is an inherited anomaly. It preserves antiquated privileges on the basis of outdated presumptions, has no place in a modern democracy, and should be abolished. SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson has stated [3] that “to have bishops - the ‘Lords spiritual’ - in the House of Lords is a nonsense. It is beyond belief that this is tolerated in a democratic country.” The same, we maintain, applies to the Church appointees on our education committees.


REFERENCES:


1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-37341835
2] http://www.actsparl.org/interviews.html
3] Herald, 27 December 2015
 

 

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