An affront to democracy; unelected Church nominees sit and vote on Council Education Committees in Scotland (and England)
A question for your Holyrood candidates
I will be asking my Scottish parliamentary candidates how, in their view, Council Education Committees ought to be selected. Should they simply consist of elected councillors, plus others (e.g. teachers) that they vote to co-opt? If not, what arrangement would the candidate prefer? And readers may also want to ask about this; I would love to hear the candidates’ answers. Why I am asking this strange question? Because of these strange facts:
By pre-devolution law, all Council Education Committees must include three individuals nominated by Churches. One nominee is from the Catholic Church, and one from the Church of Scotland. The third is from a religious body selected by the Council, having regard to local demographics. The elected councillors themselves have no further say in the matter, nor do those they represent. Non-believers, and members of any other than the three privileged denominations, need not apply. Nor need experts in curriculum development, child health, social planning, or any other form of worldly expertise.
And just in case any of my English friends are thinking “silly old Scotland again”, did you realise that there are two such nominees on every English Local Authority Education Committee, one Church of England and one Catholic? Presumably the larger number in Scotland reflects the more fractious nature of our ecclesiastical politics:
Education Committees control a larger part of Council budgets than any other Committee. They are the ultimate employers of School Principals and teachers, as well as being represented on senior teacher selection panels. They decide on the opening and closing of schools and whether a school should be denominational or nondenominational, and control local practice in such matters as religious education, religious observance, and instruction about sex in human relationships.
The requirement for representatives of religion on these Committees dates back through Acts in 1994 and 1973 to the 1929 reorganisation of local government in Scotland, and the earlier provisions on which it was based. To a time when the formation of the public education system was fresh in the memory, and when the population of Scotland was overwhelmingly religious.*
Almost a century later, none of this is still true. According to the 2011 census figures, the largest single religious category is “None”, while only 54% of the population describe themselves as Christian. These numbers vary greatly from region to region; the legal requirement does not. The 2014 Scottish Government Social Attitudes Survey shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”. So the Nones are an actual majority in the age cohorts now beginning to send their children to school. And surely no one would claim that the pre-1918 system gives the Churches an inherited right over education. We are talking about children, not property.
The role of the Church nominees is real, not ceremonial. According to the Church of Scotland itself, they hold the balance of power in 19 of Scotland’s 32 Education Committees, so that in an actual majority of Councils, the wishes of the controlling party or coalition can be overridden if these nominees side with the opposition. Given, moreover, the admirably conversational tone of much Scottish politics, their influence will not be limited to such formal occasions. And from time to time they represent the Council on teacher selection panels.
Why this matters
Space does not permit full elaboration of the case for abolition of these privileged positions, so the following incomplete summary must suffice:
The arrangement violates human rights. It excludes nonbelievers, and followers of any belief system other than the three represented, from equal participation in the process of government
It is anti-democratic. It places part of the machinery of government under the influence of individuals in whose appointment the electorate has no say. The point here is not that these individuals are religious; so indeed many elected councillors. It is that they are unelected. They sit and vote on the most important of all local authority committees, having completely bypassed the democratic process
It assumes a consensus in favour of religion that no longer exists. Nonbelievers are now the single largest group in Scotland, and an actual majority among the young
It restricts the ability of elected Councillors to co-opt individuals of their own choosing, since both law and common sense require that the Committees have a majority of elected members
It has proved difficult if not impossible to follow in practice. Freedom of Information request found that, as of July 2015, seven councils had failed to fill all positions; one (Orkney) had appointed no religious representatives; eight had filled the third Church Representative position by newspaper advertisements that had attracted only one applicant; one representative had nominated himself when asked to consult with colleagues; and for these or other reasons, in 18 out of 32 councils the process had clearly proved defective.
It gives power to unelected individuals with extreme and unrepresentative views. I blogged on this in 2013, and the situation has not changed. The haphazard procedures described above make it easy for extreme Churches to gain the right to nominate a representative. Thus, from the limited information available on Church websites, we know that there are at least six representatives of Churches (in Clackmannanshire, Highland, Inverclyde, Na h-Eileanan Siar, North Ayrshire and Souh Lanarkshire) who believe that the prescribed Earth and Life Sciences syllabus is a pack of lies, the same number believing in the literal physical eternal punishment of those who reject Jesus, and one who believes in the curing of physical ailments by laying on of hands. For the nominees of these Churches, holding these extreme views becomes a job requirement for Education Committee membership, despite the science content of the Curriculum and the educational goals of tolerance and inclusiveness
It risks placing teachers and school management teams in an impossible position. I know of cases where a six-day creationist is simultaneously a member of school chaplaincy teams, and of the Education Committee overseeing these same schools. Consider the dilemma of a science teacher who may wish to confront him
It gives double representation to specific privileged viewpoints. If a concern arises related to the special interests of one particular religious group, constituents belonging to that group can appeal, both to their own council members, and to the relevant Church nominee
Finally, it gives the Councils an unwanted and unwarranted voice in the internal affairs of religion itself. They are forced to nominate one from the numerous religious organisations in their area, at the expense of all the others. And in the event of schism within a Church, for which there is precedent, they would be required to choose between rival claimants.
The simple remedy
A one-paragraph Act, revoking one clause of the existing legislation, is all that is needed to remove the offending requirement. If the elected councillors still wished to co-opt representatives of Churches, or the public chose to elect them to office, they would, of course, be free to do so. But imposed Church nominees on Education Committees are an indefensible anachronism, incompatible with the realities and aspirations of a modern democratic Scotland. It is time for them to go.
It’s a simple argument. Council education committees currently have unelected special interest members, this a legacy quid pro quo from when the churches handed over their schools to be run by the state. The issue should not be that these members are religious but that they have not been elected. Only those who have been elected should have voting rights.
* Parallel legislation regarding England specifies two representatives of religion, one from the Church of England and the other from the Catholic Church; the difference between England and Scotland presumably reflects the more fractious nature of religion in Scotland; the 1929 Act was presumably drafted just before the (partial) healing of the Great Disruption that had split the Church of Scotland since 1843.
Church of Scotland offices by Kim Traynor via Wikipedia under Creative Commons licence. Committee membership as of September 2015, from FoI responses by Councils. Church history diagram by Hogweard via Wikipedia, public domain; click to enlarge or see here for full scale view. St Mary’s cathedral Church, Edinburgh, by Finlay McWalter via Wikipedia under GNU licence; church membership figures for Episcopalians as of 2013, from Church Times
Saudi blogger facing 1,000 lashes; Amnesty appeal to King Abdullah [Petition closed. More info as available]
Petition now closed for timing reasons. I will share more information about the case as available.
Join Amnesty’s letter writing campaign (form letter provided; individual even better) to King Abdulaziz regarding Raif Badawi. Write, publicise, tweet. Badawi was sentenced to 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes after starting a website for social and political debate. Reports suggest that administration of the punishment will begin this Friday, 9 January (after prayers) and continue at a rate of 50 lashings per Friday, for a further 19 Fridays if he survives so long, which is doubtful. Some reports (we are checking on the accuracy of these) say he is diabetic, which would make wound treatment more difficult, and it is unclear what quality medical attention he will be receiving.
King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz would wish to be known as a wise and just ruler. He is widely credited for the 2002 Arab-Israeli peace initiative, and has carried out various internal reforms, including the creation of what is now known as the King Abdulaziz Center for National Dialogue. The terms of this dialogue, however, are strictly limited. The use of social media in Saudi Arabia is closely monitored, with harassment and severe punishments for those who criticise the authorities, while last October Saudi Arabia’s top Muslim cleric last week described Twitter as “the source of all evil and devastation”. International protest at Badawi’s treatment will at worst show that such barbarism carries a cost, with implications for future decisions, and at best may strengthen the hands of those, even within the Saudi government itself, who might wish for reconsideration. Indeed, Amnesty campaigns on behalf of prisoners of conscience have in the past, on occasion, been surprisingly successful. A consortium of intellectuals with relevant connections has also been writing to influential Saudi princes (government in Saudi Arabia is verymuch a family affair) on Badawi’s behalf.
According to Wikipedia (see also here, here, here, and here for reports from the press, the BBC, Human Rights Watch and CNN respectively) Badawi was first detained on apostasy charges in 2008, but was released after a day of questioning (in Saudi Arabia, apostasy carries an automatic death sentence). The charges were revived, but not acted on, in 2012, the year in which he was arrested for allowing material criticising the authorities to appear on his website.In 2013, he was sentenced to seven years in prison and 600 lashes for founding an Internet forum that “violates Islamic values and propagates liberal thought”, and this was increased in May 2014 to 10 years imprisonment and 1,000 lashes. Badawi’s lawyer Waleed Abulkhair has himself been jailed after setting up Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, a human rights organization. Saudi Arabia is currently a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
Badawi was barred from leaving Saudi Arabia in 2009; his wife and three
children now live in Canada, where they have obtained political asylum.He is the recipient of a number of awards, including the One Humanity Award from PEN Canada, the Nietzen Prize of Reporters Without Borders, and, very recently, the Thomas Aikenhead Award from the Scottish Secular Society (this last having been made after consultation with his wife, who advised that it would probably be more helpful than not). His official Facebook page* carries details of representations being made on his behalf, including one on 18 December 2014 expressing the concern of the Scottish government over his predicament, in response to a letter from my friend Ramin Forghani about the case. Other messages of support are noted on his Twitter page.*
Saudi Arabia is a major customer for the US and UK arms industries, and it was the Saudi army that, at the invitation of the Emir of Bahrain, entered Bahrain to suppress the popular uprising of 2011.
*Currently managed by his wife.