CAMPAIGNERS anticipate most councils in Scotland will have removed voting rights for non-elected religious representatives in the next five years due to a “domino effect” which has been sparked in the past 12 months.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) request filed by The National revealed religious representatives still have the right to vote on educational matters in most council areas, with the vast majority having had no discussion in the last three years on changing this.

Rights have, however, been ditched in a handful of areas – Perth and Kinross, Moray, Scottish Borders, Fife, Orkney and Highland.

Perth and Kinross kicked off the trend in 2019, followed by Moray in 2021 and the Scottish Borders in 2022. Meanwhile three councils – Orkney, Fife and Highland – have all got rid of church representatives voting rights this year, suggesting the move is picking up pace across the nation.

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Midlothian has said while there is one church representative on the education advisory committee, they are not allowed to vote.

Stirling Council has, meanwhile, decided that only elected members will have voting rights on all council decision-making committees, the Audit Committee and the Public Safety Committee, from the next election in 2027.

The City of Edinburgh Council is set to present a report on removing voting rights later this year while East Lothian has been in discussions over consulting on the issue in recent months.

East Ayrshire did consider voting rights of non-elected members in 2019 but it was decided they would be kept in place, while Dumfries and Galloway said it has reviewed the issue in the last three years but no changes have been made.

A 50-year-old law obliges every council in the country 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.

Fraser Sutherland, CEO of Humanist Society Scotland, said it will take time for councils to catch on across the country, but he does believe the issue of removing voting rights will appear quite rapidly on council agendas over the next few years.

He told The National: “Most councils have not looked at removing rights and it is one of these things that’s going to take time to filter through to different councils as they see other areas taking the decision and realising perhaps it’s not as hot potato as perhaps maybe some of them fear it would be, and that for areas that have taken the decision to remove voting rights, the sky hasn’t fallen in.

The National: Fraser Sutherland thinks the 'domino effect' of councils getting rid of voting rights for religious reps will continueFraser Sutherland thinks the 'domino effect' of councils getting rid of voting rights for religious reps will continue (Image: Humanist Society)

“This is something we’ve been campaigning on since about 2014 but we never really got anywhere for a while. What’s happened now is a domino effect – Perth did it a few years ago and then you’ve got Orkney, Highland and Fife all happening this year. Stirling are going to remove it and Edinburgh are looking at it.”

Asked if he saw that domino effect continuing, he said he thought most would opt to make a change in the next five years but there could be hostility in some areas.

“Definitely [most councils will have removed rights in the next five years]. I don’t see any reason why not,” said Sutherland.

“I can’t see it not coming up in agendas across a whole load of other councils now - Aberdeen, Aberdeenshire, the Lothians, Falkirk, all these places.

“Where we’ll see the most contention around it I think is around the Greater Glasgow area because of concerns around sectarianism and that’s where per population head, there’s a lot more denominational schools.

“Also in the Western Isles the Free Church has a particular influence within the council. A lot of the councillors have links to Presbyterian churches so I would be very surprised if the council there would vote for this change.

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“But there is definitely a domino effect happening and I can only see it going one way.

“The argument against making this change is not particularly strong. The biggest opponents are the Catholic church and their argument is it puts denominational schools at risk. I don’t see how that’s the case given that none of the councillors are intending on closing denominational schools.

“Why we’ve raised the issue of voting rights is because it’s the only part of governance in Scotland where people have this unelected right within a democratic system. It’s the only example of it, except in Westminster with the House of Lords.”

In some cases, church representatives do opt to abstain from voting.

There have been attempts to remove church representatives from education committees 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.

A Church of Scotland spokesperson said: “Every local authority has three places for a religious representative on the education committee.

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

“The key purpose is to support the best interests of young people and their education.

“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.”

A spokesperson for the Catholic Church said: "Church represenatives are valuable members of local authority education committees and their position is enshrined in law.

"To depive them of voting rights, when they represent the Catholic church and families - of all faiths and none - who make an active choice of Catholic education, will remove an important representative voice from local decision-making."