Success: East Lothian Council ends religious reps’ voting powers

A Scottish council has become the sixth this year to end voting powers for unelected religious representatives, following campaigning from the National Secular Society.

East Lothian Council voted yesterday to remove voting privileges from the three religious representatives appointed to the council’s Education and Children’s Services Committee.

The decision followed a consultation in October in which 84% of respondents said religious representatives should not retain their vote. These respondents included the NSS, which said allowing unelected religious appointees to vote is “undemocratic, unrepresentative and unjustified”.

The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 obliges local authorities in Scotland to appoint three religious representatives to their education committees, at least one of whom must be appointed by the Roman Catholic Church and one by the Church of Scotland.

In its response to the consultation, the NSS said reserving a special role in policymaking for representatives of specific religious institutions excludes the majority of Scottish citizens based on their religion or belief, and “clearly runs counter to principles of equality”.

It said religious appointees “do not speak for the vast majority of Scots” and instead “serve to uphold the agendas of religious institutions, primarily the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church”.

The most recently available Scottish Social Attitudes Survey data shows 58% of Scots, including 74% of 18–34s, have no religion.

The council’s decision means unelected trade union representatives will also be unable to vote.

Councillor: “the opinion of the public is quite clear”

The motion to remove votes from unelected members was carried by 11 votes to 10. Councillors in favour of the move included members of the Scottish National Party, the Conservative Party, the Scottish Greens and an independent councillor.

Conservative councillor Lachlan Bruce added: “I think the opinion of the public is quite clear in the consultation.

“If voters do not like something I do, they can kick me out at the next election. That is something they can’t do to the trade union or religious reps.”

SNP councillor Lee-Anne Menzies added: “This is about the democratic process.

“The public can vote us in and vote us out, they cannot do that to the religious or union reps, they are not answerable to the public the way we are so should not have voting rights.”

Councils across Scotland are increasingly questioning the appropriateness of religious representatives. In August, the City of Edinburgh Council voted to end religious appointees’ voting powers. Orkney Council and the Highland Council voted to remove these privileges in May, followed by Fife Council and Stirling Council in June.

Perth and Kinross Council, Moray Council and Scottish Borders Council have also removed religious representatives’ voting powers.

NSS: Public response “speaks volumes”

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: “We welcome East Lothian Council’s decision to join five other councils this year in removing the unjustifiable voting privileges of religious representatives.

“The council’s consultation found the overwhelming majority of respondents agreed that these voting powers needed to go.

“That speaks volumes, as does the sheer number of councils this year which voted to end these voting powers. This should cause the Scottish Government to rethink not only the religious appointees’ votes, but the wisdom of requiring any religious representatives on local education committees at all.

“Their presence is undemocratic and merely entrenches division and inequality. It’s time for unelected religious reps to be removed from Scottish councils entirely.”

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