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Highland Council scraps voting rights for unelected religious representatives and youth convener

By Scott Maclennan

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The River Ness with the Junction Church to the right and the Free Church to the left. Picture: Alison White.
The River Ness with the Junction Church to the right and the Free Church to the left. Picture: Alison White.

Highland Council has voted to ban all non-elected members of its education committee from having a vote in a move that affects not just the three religious representatives but also the youth convener.

A motion was agreed after considerable debate in the chamber as to whether it was right or wrong for religious or anyone else who was unelected to potentially hold sway over education decisions.

Greens Councillor Ryan Mackintosh tabled the motion arguing that as "only 33 per cent of people living in Scotland now identify as Christian” that undemocratic that is “we allow unelected religious representatives the ability to vote.”

But the wording he chose for the move almost saw the motion hit a stumbling block as he was accused of excessively focussing on the religious aspect rather than the democratic one.

Cllr Mackintosh’s move drew both support and objection with at least one member saying they would back his motion over an amendment to take no action because it seemed “anti-religious” in the first place and pro-democratic in the second.

'Separation of church and state is vital'

Cllr Patrick Logue raised the issue that the motion could impact the youth convener role while asserting that on at least one occasion a clergyman had offered what he said were unwelcome views on LGBTQ+ education.

“I think in terms of principles, the principle of separation of church and state is vital. I take the point about the youth convener,” he said.

“I am aware that in 2017 ‘church appointee tells education committee learning about LGBT lifestyles leaves children disturbed’.

"Now, that individual is perfectly entitled to that view, is perfectly entitled to express that view but I do question whether or not they should have a policy-making vote that impacts upon LGBT+ children in our schools.

“Especially as he used his position to attempt to have the word homophobic removed from recommendations to reduce bullying in our schools.

“And I can tell you from my own personal experience that homophobic bullying is rife in schools and I really have an issue with anyone, whether it be a church leader or anyone else telling me or this council that we should remove the word homophobic from advice on bullying.”

'It's about democracy and accountability'

LibDem group leader Alasdair Christie put it very succinctly, saying: “I think to me it's about democracy and accountability. Nobody's saying they can't be on the committee.

“What we're saying is when you put your hand up to vote at that point you should be held accountable, regardless if the decision will be a good one or a bad one. At the point of voting you're accountable, you're responsible

“I think that's the sensible thing in the 21st century, sensible thing when we talk about democracy, the central thing is that people who are not standing for election, do not have a vote – pretty simple.”

'In order to vote you should be elected'

SNP Cllr Liz Kraft said that though she was a Christian herself she was also a democrat and only those voted in by the public should get to vote.

“I am a Christian. It is fundamental to the way I live my life however I'm also a democrat and I believe in order to vote you should be elected,” she said. “I welcome their attendance at committee, I value their input but votes I believe should be for elected members only.

'Charles de Gaulle'

Cllr Sarah Fanet said: “I just cannot believe we are having this conversation in modern Scotland in 2023. I will start making it clear that as a practising Christian, I do not see anything anti-religious or any attacks on my faith in this motion. The only aim I can see is fairness.

“The most devout Catholic French politics has ever had – Charles de Gaulle – always made a point when he was attending a mass as head of state, for example for a funeral, to not to take Holy Communion because he was there to represent all the people of his country.”

'Clearly focused on religious representatives'

Cllr Mackie stated: “The actual content of the motion is clearly focused on religious representatives. I know when I was elected back in back in 2017 as one of the youngest members of the council a fair group of us had a little bit of an issue regarding the youth convener effectively having that right to vote.

“But in all honesty of all the doors I knocked, out of all the people that I've discussed educational issues with – not a single person has mentioned the voting rights on the education committee.

He added: “If it was quite transparent and essentially had both elements fully contained in it, I think I could probably find myself supporting it but as it stands I'm quite content with voting rights and as it stands.”

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