Published: 30/08/2012 13:54 - Updated: 30/08/2012 13:58

Clergy at centre of Highland school vote row

David Alston has questionned if clergy should be allowed vote
David Alston has questionned if clergy should be allowed vote

The depute leader of Highland Council wants clergy and other religious representatives to be barred from voting on major education issues, following an embarrassing defeat suffered by the coalition on a £4million school.

Historically, the main religious denominations in the Highlands have always enjoyed membership and full voting rights on the local authority’s education committees in a tradition stretching back decades.

It harks back to when responsibility of Scotland’s schools was taken on by the State from churches but they were granted a say in the education system.

By law, all councils must have three religious representatives on their education committees but Councillor David Alston claims it threatens democratic decision making because they are unelected.

The Roman Catholic, Church of Scotland and other Presbyterian denominations sit on what is now called the adult and children’s services committee in Inverness.

The issue was brought into focus after the SNP-Liberal Democrat-Labour administration surprisingly lost a vote last week on where to build a new Gaelic school in Fort William.

The committee voted by 14 votes to 13 for an amendment tabled by the opposition Independents against the political coalition’s favoured location which was supported by the religious representatives, including Sutherland and Ross-shire clergyman Rev Chris Mayo.

Councillor Alston said it had not lost the councillors’ vote but was beaten by unelected members.

"The religious representatives have a right to vote and might have good views and I am not attacking the fact that they voted," he said. "But it is a historic anomaly, the views of the church are important but very seldom does it happen to speak out in the committee.

"I would be in favour of them speaking out but not voting."

He said the issue of mandatory religious members had not been formally debated by the coalition but the depute leader said he wanted to see the law reviewed.

He added if there had to be religious involvement then it should also be opened out to multi-faith leaders.

"If they should be allowed a vote it shouldn’t just be restricted to the Christian faith," he added.

Rev Mayo, who has an Episcopalian congregation in East Sutherland and Tain, said membership was a matter for the politicians.

"Until such time as the appointment of the three representatives is reviewed we will continue to serve on behalf of our communities, reflecting, contributing and voting in such a way as to represent the best interests of those communities insofar as we can determine them," he said.

"From my own individual situation, I bring as a representative not simply my role as a priest within the Scottish Episcopal Church but also two decades of working life within both the public and private sectors. Any considerations I make are informed by faith and working life experience, much of which is of direct relevance to the adult and children’s services committee."

The Independents leader Carolyn Wilson claimed the clergy’s membership would never have been criticised by Councillor Alston if the coalition had won the school vote.

Controversially, the coalition will attempt to reverse the school decision and ask the full council to vote on the school site next week instead.

Councillor Wilson said: "Would they have had the same reaction if the church members had voted with them?. The religious representatives have always brought in their outside knowledge to education issues."

Councillor Wilson also questioned why Councillor Alston – who is a NHS Highland board member – had not called for that organisation’s three members who also sit on the committee to lose its voting rights.

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