RELIGIOUS representatives voting rights on education should be removed in East Lothian as part of an effort to “tidy up democracy”, a Green councillor has said.

The council is currently consulting on whether it should take away the rights from three unelected members on its education and children’s services committee, which includes three religious appointees alongside a trade union rep.

At the moment all four have a say on any decision affecting education policy in the area, but this could soon change as it has done in several local authorities already this year.

If the rights are removed from unelected members, East Lothian would become the sixth council in the past 12 months to do this after Edinburgh, Fife, Orkney, Highland and Stirling – the last of which has decided to remove them from 2027.

A 50-year-old law obliges every council in Scotland to appoint three religious representatives to their education committees, but it has never been laid out in legislation that these people must have a vote.

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Humanist Society Scotland insist there is now a “snowball effect” of councils addressing what it describes as an undemocratic part of the country’s governance system where unaccountable, unelected church representatives are having sway over education policy.

East Lothian only has two faith primary schools and no religious secondary schools, meaning there are more religious reps with voting rights than there are denominational schools in the area.

Green councillor Shona McIntosh said removing voting rights from unelected members is about “tidying up democracy”.

She said: “I think it’s a bit to do with what type of country we want to be.

“I grew up in the West of Scotland, I understand why there’s faith schools and why we have people wanting to feed in and be part of the conversations and I’m not suggesting getting rid of those places, but it’s never been part of the law they had to have voting rights, it’s just been customary and it’s not very in keeping with modern society.

“There is the possibility that the unelected members might hold the balance of power in a vote and I think that’s a problem.

“I do think it’s about tidying up your democracy.”

McIntosh added she felt the law crowds out other faith groups given that two of the three spots have to be given to the Church of Scotland and Catholic Church.

The National:

The Church of Scotland argues its representatives rarely choose to use their vote while the Catholic Church claim the threat to remove voting rights is an attempt to get rid of faith schools in Scotland.

But McIntosh hit back at both of these arguments.

She said: “It’s a real shame [for the Catholic Church] to view it like that. I understand why parents might wish to send their child to a faith school and this is not about that. It’s just about what role the church representatives have in the democracy and strategic running of things.

“The Church of Scotland have said the reps hardly ever using their voting rights, and that seems to me to be quite a strange way of arguing they should keep them. If they’re not using them, is that because there’s a sense it’s not very appropriate for them to get involved in something where there might be a political disagreement?”

When the issue was first discussed at a meeting earlier this year, McIntosh said there was a palpable sense councillors had a duty to address it given neighbouring Edinburgh and Fife had.

Fraser Sutherland, CEO of Humanist Society Scotland, said the organisation would be responding to the consultation stressing church representatives should not be given a privileged spot on education committees, particularly in an increasingly diverse country.

He told The National: “We will be reiterating the undemocratic nature of the system where someone is appointed just on the basis of their faith. We don’t think that’s fair.

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“The right people to be taking decisions are those who are democratically elected. They are then accountable to the electorate, church representatives are not.

“Religious groups should have a say in public life, I have no issue with that, but that’s different to having a privileged place to vote.

“This is about who should have a vote, in the same way that if you’re a democrat you oppose the House of Lords.

“The vast majority of people in Scotland are not religious but of those that are there is an increasing diversity and so this doesn’t really represent Scotland anymore. Why are we trying to pretend that is does?”

Sutherland added he feels councils in the west of Scotland will soon come under pressure to look at voting rights as more local authorities in the east change their ways.

He added: “I think part of that is perhaps a nervousness in the Greater Glasgow and west coast area about sectarianism, for example. The Greens have a significant group in Glasgow City Council so I can’t see any way this issue will not come up in west areas and it will be interesting to see the debate.”

There have been attempts to remove church representatives from education committees fully in the past. Ex-Green MSP John Finnie proposed a Private Members Bill to remove the requirement for local authorities in 2013, but it was dropped the following year after a consultation only garnered 207 replies – just 17% of which agreed with the move.

A petition to the Scottish Parliament on the same subject in 2014 was also closed because of that bill.

Archbishop Leo Cushley, the Catholic Bishop for the Archdiocese of St Andrews & Edinburgh, said: “This decision is another step in a process to remove faith education from schools in Scotland.

“Church representatives are valuable members of local authority education committees, and their position is enshrined in law. To deprive them of voting rights will cause local constituents to question the commitment of East Lothian Council to the future of Catholic schools.”

A Church of Scotland spokesman said: “The church has a distinctive call and duty to every person in Scotland, whether or not they are Christian or a member.

“Church representatives have a wealth of expertise and experience and seek to be good community partners and offer support and encouragement.

“Very few matters come to a vote and our representatives do not usually choose to vote on matters of policy or of a political nature. They are there to serve the wider community.”

The consultation in East Lothian will close on November 10 and can be accessed here.