Petition to remove unelected Church nominees from Education Committees: final report

For full background on the Scottish Secular Society’s petition for the removal of unelected Church representatives from Local Authority Education Committees, see here, and for the most recent posting on the topic see here. Now read on:

It’s complicated. Our petition, though closed, is very much alive, and has achieved its objectives, unless, of course, it hasn’t.

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Spencer Fildes and Paul Braterman testifying to Public Petitions Committee

The Public Petitions Committee (full report below) tells us that the petition has done its work. Maybe; we suspend judgement until we see the shape of Scotland’s post-review educational system. And if we don’t like what we see, the Committee has invited us to reopen the issue. At that point we will actually be in a stronger position than if the petition had been left open, since in a new submission we will be able to tailor our arguments to the situation as it will then be. (And one change in the situation, in the few days since the Committee met, is a further reported decline in religious affiliation in Scotland, especially among the young.)

Meantime, we are thanked for raising important issues, the Scottish Government has undertaken to review our concerns, and the matter has also been forwarded to the Education and Skills Committee, who will assuredly bear it in mind when the time comes to discuss the promised educational reorganisation. By a remarkable coincidence, the Convener of the Petitions Committee is the same person as the Deputy Convener of Education and Skills. Moreover, the membership of Education and Skills includes Tavish Scott (MSP for Shetland), a declared supporter of the reform that we seek, so we can be confident that the issues will receive full attention. So, more to the point, can the Scottish Government as it drafts its plans for education change.

To quote the petition’s website https://www.parliament.scot/GettingInvolved/Petitions/ChurchAppointees  “29 June 2017: The Committee agreed (by division: For 3; Against 1; Abstentions 1) to close the petition under Standing Orders Rule 15.7 on the basis that the Scottish Government has given a commitment to consider the issues raised in the petition as part of its Education Governance Review, and has confirmed that it will carry out an Equality Impact Assessment on any policy changes made through that review. The Committee also agreed to highlight the issues raised to the Education and Skills Committee.”

So that’s it, really, for now at least. There has been a massive shift from the situation even three years ago, when the Government spoke clearly in praise of the current situation, one that has been made increasingly untenable by changing public opinion. it also seems clear, reading between the lines of the report below, that MSPs with experience of how the unelected Church appointees interfere with the Democratic process would welcome their removal. This I now see as only a matter of time, and perhaps not much time at that, and I am proud to have been part of the process that made this happen.

Parliamentary Committee documents are not obvious candidates for holiday reading, but in this case I enjoyed reading the official report because of the interplay of personalities. Almost like analysing a scene from Shakespeare in High School:

The Convener:  [Johann Lamont, Labour, Glasgow; former leader of Scottish Labour, now much concerned with the quality of governance, as well as specific outcomes]

PE1623 is on unelected church appointees on local authority education committees. The petition is by Spencer Fildes, on behalf of the Scottish Secular Society. The Scottish Government has replied to the questions that arose from our previous consideration of the petition and has confirmed that it will carry out an equality impact assessment on any policy changes that are made through its education governance review. It adds that it will address separately any proposals in the petition that are not addressed through its governance review.

The Scottish Government has published information on the next steps in its education governance review, which was debated by the Parliament yesterday afternoon. The petitioner welcomes the commitment and clarification that the Scottish Government has provided. Do members have any comments or suggestions on how we should take the petition forward?

Angus MacDonald: [Deputy Convener, SNP Falkirk East. States religion as Church of Scotland]

The petition seems to have done its job, as the Scottish Government has given a commitment to consider the issues that the petition raises as part of the education governance review and has confirmed that it will carry out an equality impact assessment on any policy changes that are made through the review. I move to close the petition under standing orders rule 15.7.

Maurice Corry: [Conservative, West Scotland. Spokesperson veterans’ affairs. Councillor Argyll and Bute. Member, Highland Reserve Forces. I had expected that he would oppose the petition in the name of tradition. I was wrong.]

I would not close the petition, convener, as we need to take the point about the need to look at the “Education Governance: Next Steps” document and how it pertains to the petition. We should keep the petition open until such time as we have considered that as a committee.

The Convener:

I simply make the point that the education governance review is a big and wide-ranging document, and the petition relates to a very small part of it. We have a choice: we can close the petition, and the petitioner can come back if they are unsatisfied with what the Scottish Government does in relation to the equality impact assessment, or we can do as Maurice Corry suggests and keep the petition open. Do members have a view on that? Either way, we would not be closing the opportunity for the petitioner to bring the issue back. [Emphasis added]

Rona Mackay: [SNP Strathkelvin and Bearsden. Supporter]

For that reason, I think that we should keep the petition open at this stage. I am not sure what could be gained from closing it until we know whether the petitioner is satisfied with the changes in the governance review.

The Convener:

Brian?

Brian Whittle: [Conservative, South Scotland. Former Olympic athlete and industrial chemist. When I gave evidence for the petition, I was particularly impressed by Brian Whittle’s cross-questioning, which led me to refine my own position]

What?

The Convener:

Do you have a view?

Brian Whittle:

I am being Kofi Annan here, sitting on the fence. However, I am inclined to close the petition, to be honest, given that the petitioner has the option to come back again.

The Convener:

It is always a fine balance. The question of whether we close a petition is something that has shaped the history of the Public Petitions Committee itself. We recognise the issues; the Scottish Government has said that it will address them. The option is open for the petitioner to submit the petition again if they are unhappy with what the Scottish Government has done on the question. We could also flag up to the Education and Skills Committee, which will be scrutinising the Government’s response, that this particular issue has been highlighted and ask it to at least ensure that it is part of its scrutiny. [Emphasis added] Would that cover it?

Rona Mackay:

That is a good point, convener.

Maurice Corry:

I certainly do not think that we should close the petition. I must stand by my original statement in relation to my experience with education committees in councils. I am sorry that I do not agree with the rest of the points. I agree that the matter should be flagged up to the Education and Skills Committee, but I stand where I stand.

The Convener:

That is helpful. I think that, on balance, across the committee, we do not agree with you. We understand the point that you are making, but I wonder whether the majority view is that we should close the petition.

Angus MacDonald:

I, too, have served on education committees at local authority level, and I am pleased to see that the Scottish Government has given a commitment to consider the issues that have been raised. I am still minded to close the petition.

The Convener:

If you want to push the matter to a vote, Maurice, we will have a vote for the purpose of recording your opinion. [Usually, this Committee has been proceeding by consensus. A formal vote is unusual]

Maurice Corry:

I am sorry—I stand by what I said, and you can take that as you wish.

The Convener:

I move, that the petition be closed on the basis that the Scottish Government has given a commitment to consider the issues raised in the petition as part of its education governance review and has confirmed that it will carry out an equality impact assessment on any policy changes made through that review. We also have the reassurance that the issue will be flagged up to the Education and Skills Committee and that the petitioner is able to return at a later stage if they are unsatisfied with the Scottish Government’s action.

For

Lamont, Johann (Glasgow) (Lab)
MacDonald, Angus (Falkirk East) (SNP)
Mackay, Rona (Strathkelvin and Bearsden) (SNP) [Note change. Given the referral to Education and Skills, she is happy with this course of action. So should we be]

Against

Corry, Maurice (West Scotland) (Con)

Abstentions

Whittle, Brian (South Scotland) (Con)

The Convener:

We have three voting for, two voting against and one fence-sitter—it is entirely your right to do that, of course, Brian. The committee is agreed to close the petition.

We recognise that there are important issues in the petition, and we thank the petitioner for bringing the matter to the attention of the Parliament and the Government.

About Paul Braterman

Science writer, former chemistry professor; committee member British Centre for Science Education; board member and science adviser Scottish Secular Society; former member editorial board, Origins of Life, and associate, NASA Astrobiology Insitute; first popsci book, From Stars to Stalagmites 2012

Posted on July 5, 2017, in Education, Politics, Religion, Scotland and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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