Published: 02/09/2012 07:00 - Updated: 31/08/2012 16:15

Clergy embroiled in school site vote controversy

David Alston
David Alston

THE clergy should to be barred from voting on major education issues, according to the council’s depute leader following an embarrassing defeat for the coalition on a £4 million school.

Councillor David Alston says having three religious representatives on Highland Council’s education committees threatens democratic decision making because they are unelected.

His comments come after the SNP/Lib-Dem/Labour administration lost a vote last week on where to build a new Gaelic school in Fort William.

Councillor Alston (Black Isle) complained that the coalition was defeated 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 says.

"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."

The Roman Catholic Church and Church of Scotland each have a permanent place on the committee. A third member is on a two-year rolling basis from the Episcopal, Free Church or Free Presbyterian churches.

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

The main religious denominations in the Highlands have 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.

Councillor Alston says the issue of mandatory religious members has not been formally debated by the coalition but he wants to see the law reviewed.

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

Mr Mayo, from the Scottish Episcopal Church, says membership is 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."

The Independents’ leader, Carolyn Wilson, claims the clergy’s membership would never have been criticised if the coalition had won the vote.

"The religious representatives have always brought in their outside knowledge to education issues," said Councillor Wilson.

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

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