Edinburgh's Catholic archbishop to appeal direct to councillors to retain voting rights for religious reps
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The leader of Edinburgh’s Catholics is to make a personal plea to councillors not to take away the voting rights of religious representatives on the city’s education committee.
Archbishop Leo Cushley will appear as a deputation at the full council meeting on Thursday, August 31, to argue the case for continuing to allow the church and multi-faith reps to vote on issues. Sources said, however, the council looked set to remove the voting rights despite the Archbishop's appeal.
A legal requirement for religious representatives on education committees in Scotland was introduced in 1918 when Catholic schools were transferred to education authorities. Edinburgh’s education committee is made up of 11 elected councillors, three religious representatives – one Catholic, one Church of Scotland and one multi-faith – and two parent representatives. The councillors and religious reps can vote on any motions, while the parent representatives can attend and contribute to discussion but not vote.
But the right of unelected reps to play a potentially key part in decisions has come under question and some other councils have taken away their voting powers, including Perth and Kinross, where two religious reps cast the crucial votes which decided that a primary school should close. A report on the situation in Edinburgh is to be debated at Thursday’s meeting.
In his deputation, Archbishop Cushley is expected to tell councillors: “Catholic schools in Scotland are a part of the heritage of the Catholic community here, and they were entrusted in 1918 to the state, presently represented by you. Having entrusted this estate to you, for us not to have an active voice in council in matters touching upon Catholic schools makes no sense to us, unless there is another agenda at hand, such as one that is inimical to faith, be it in schools or elsewhere in the public square.”
And he will argue the church reps having the right to vote is “an expression of democracy”. He is expected to refer to the House of Lords, pointing out that all parties except the SNP have members there who are unelected. He is expected to say: “If you wish to take away our vote, perhaps your colleagues in the Lords should resign too. Perhaps those sitting in Holyrood, thanks to the list system, would like to do the same. My point is that our democracy has found various solutions in its search for participative government. And I believe the church reps’ vote is an example of that, and a good one.”
Parents and parishioners at Catholic churches in the Capital have been contacting councillors with postcards, asking them to “support Edinburgh’s Catholic community and reject this motion”. Derek Browning, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly is also due to address the meeting. And written submissions have come from the Edinburgh Interfaith Association, Edinburgh Sikh Community, the Muslim Community and the Scottish Hindu Foundation.
Green education spokesperson Steve Burgess said he hoped there would be a cross-party consensus in favour of removing the right to vote from religious reps. He said: “We think that people elected by voters should be the ones to take decisions about schools because they can be held to account for their voting, whereas people who are not elected can’t be. There are lots of other groups that have an interest in education who aren't represented. Even the parents’ representatives don’t have the vote. The religious representatives will still be at the committee and able to speak up and that is protected in law, so there’s no threat to that.”
The report to the full council noted that most decisions at the education committee were passed unanimously without a vote and there had only been four occasions since the start of 2021 when issues went to a vote. On one of these occasions, the only religious rep present abstained; in the others they voted – twice on Gaelic education and once on P1 standardised assessments.
Tory education spokesman Tim Jones argued that to remove voting rights was a breach of faith. He said: "In 1918, the Catholic church gave over its schools on trust to the city on the understanding they would still have a say in matters relating to their schools.” And his Tory colleague Marie-Clair Munro said: “To deprive faith representatives of voting rights on the education committee casts into doubt the commitment of some of our elected representatives to the future of faith schools in Edinburgh.”
The SNP, the Greens and the Lib Dems are expected to vote together to remove voting rights – enough for the proposal to pass – while the Tories oppose the move. Labour was said to have “struggled to reach a collective agreement”.
Lib Dem group leader Kevin Lang said it had been a “difficult and sensitive” issue within the council. But he said: “We have approached this on the basis of a simple principle, that public policy decisions should be taken by people who have been democratically elected and are accountable to the electorate. While the religious reps make an important and valued contribution and we want that to continue, we believe that ultimately it is for people who have been elected to take decisions on the council.”