Petition PE01623

Unelected church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees

Calling on the Scottish Parliament to remove the constitutional anomaly that imposes unelected Church appointees on Local Authority Education Committees.

Redirect to Petition PE01623



Calling on the Scottish Parliament to repeal Section 124 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, as amended by Section 31 of the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, which currently requires Councils (and, more generally, Local Authorities) to include three (in some cases four) nominees of religious bodies on their Education Committees. Such Committees should be left free to decide for themselves who, if anyone, to co-opt.



We would not dream of forcing this elected Parliament to include nominees of unelected outside bodies on its Education and Skills Committee. Why then do we continue to impose such an obligation on Scotland’s local authorities? That we do so is a constitutional relic, which should be consigned to history. It is contrary to the principles of our democratic society. It unjustly excludes non-believers (and many believers) from positions of responsibility, in violation of their human rights. It has proved unworkable in practice, as well as unsound in principle. Whatever needs it may meet, would be far better met by voluntary co-option by democratically accountable bodies, much as many such committees co-opt representatives of parents and. Since the primary legislation refers to Local Authorities broadly defined, the problem will not automatically disappear even if, as has been suggested, the educational system is reorganised.



Since we are calling for legislative change on a devolved matter, our only recourse is to the Scottish Parliament.

A closely related petition (PE1498) was lodged on behalf of Edinburgh Secular Society (a separate body from us) in 2013, forwarded by the Public Petitions Committee to the Education and Culture Committee, and closed by that Committee because at the time an MSP, John Finnie, had drafted legislation. However, that draft was not pursued, and so the matter has not hitherto received the full consideration that it requires (full details at and links therein). Current discussions regarding education, equality, and constitutional processes in Scotland give the matter a new urgency.



Introduction: For historical reasons, the 1929 Local Government (Scotland) Act required local government Education Committees to include Church nominees, a requirement repeated and formalised in the (pre-devolution) 1973 and 1994 Acts (we append a list of all such appointees, and the methods used to select them, as of Summer 2015). We now call on the Scottish Parliament to remove this requirement.

Note that nothing in this Petition would prevent Education Committees from consulting or co-opting such individuals, if they so choose. On the contrary, their contributions would have added weight and legitimacy if their presence were by invitation, rather than imposed.

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 enforced presence on such powerful committees of unelected individuals is a matter for the gravest concern.

Reasons for change: We list the main reasons for change, and enlarge on each in turn below.

  • The present arrangement violates human rights
  • It is undemocratic
  • It undermines the sovereignty of the electorate
  • It assumes a consensus that no longer exists
  • It requires the secular authorities to make inappropriate decisions regarding religion
  • It has proved difficult if not impossible to follow in practice
  • It restricts the ability of elected Councillors to co-opt individuals of their own

The present arrangement violates human rights: It creates positions of power within local government that are restricted to those holding specified religious affiliations, namely Church of Scotland, Catholic, and whatever denomination is selected by the Council for the third representative. Those holding other religious beliefs, or the more than one third of Scots who hold no specific religious belief, are ineligible. This is direct discrimination against individuals, and against all groups who do not happen to be represented.

It is undemocratic: It places in positions of power individuals in whose appointment the electorate has had no say. The appointments bear little relationship to demographics, even among believers; the Episcopalian Church of Scotland, with 25,000 communicating members, [1] was awarded positions on 10 committees (see Appendix).

It undermines the sovereignty of the electorate: As the Church of Scotland has explained, [2] in 19 out of Scotland’s 32 Councils, the gap on the Education Committee between the governing party or coalition, and the opposition, is three or less, so that the opposition in alliance with the three Church appointees can override the duly elected government. The Church also points out that, given the Scottish electoral system, a similar situation can be expected to continue indefinitely.

It assumes a consensus that no longer exists: Census figures show a steady decline in religious affiliation among Scots. According to the 2011 census, [3] 37% of the population describe themselves as having no religion, a rapidly increasing segment of the population, while Scottish Government figures [4] show those with no religion as an actual majority among the young. Thus we can no longer assume general acceptance of policies based on religion, nor that Church appointees represent the general will.

It requires the secular authorities to make inappropriate decisions regarding religion: Councils are required to nominate one, out of the various competing religious organisations within their jurisdiction, to provide the third representative. In the hypothetical (but not unprecedented) event of schism within the Church of Scotland, Councils would also have to decide which Church to recognise as having inherited the right to nominate. Both of these situations, one actual and one hypothetical, involve improper meddling by the secular authority in religious affairs.

It restricts the ability of elected Councillors to co-opt individuals of their own choosing: Both common sense, and the legislation cited above, restrict the number of co-opted members of Education Committees. If, as present, three of this number must, regardless of the elected members’ wishes, be representatives of religious bodies, this restricts the number of places available for teachers, parents’ representatives, and others whom the elected Councillors may wish to co-opt.

It meets no identifiable need: The difficulty (see below) encountered by many Councils in fulfilling the requirement for Church nominees clearly shows that there is no general demand for them. If (as may well happen in some areas) local opinion would favour of the presence of representatives of religion as advisers or even as members of particular Council Education Committees, our proposal leaves the elected members completely free to issue the appropriate invitations.

It has proved difficult if not impossible to follow in practice: Freedom of Information requests have established (see Appendix) that, as of July 2015, one Council (Orkney) had appointed no religious representatives; one major Council (Glasgow) had been unable to fill the position of third representative; eight Councils had filled that position by newspaper advertisements that had attracted only one applicant; two Councils had appointed the third representative from the Church of Scotland, contrary to the law; in one case a Councillor who had just lost his seat in an election had then successfully put himself forward, citing experience with the Boys Brigade; one representative nominated himself when asked to consult with Church colleagues; two Councils had vacancies due to the failure of the nominated Church to respond; in one case, the sitting representative agreed to stay on when an advertisement attracted no applicants; and in one Council, sitting members are automatically reappointed after each local election. Thus in 18 out of 32 cases, one or more of these appointments was either not made, or made by a legally or morally defective process.

Response to counter-arguments: It was at one time argued that the Churches had a special interest in the schools, by virtue of their historical connection and contribution. Now, however, we would surely agree that the school system exists to serve the interests of its pupils, and, secondarily, of the wider community that funds it.

It is claimed that the Church nominees strengthen democracy by broadening its local base. We do not see how this can be the case, since for the Catholic, Church of Scotland, and Episcopalian Church representatives, nomination will be made by the Church hierarchy in an ecclesiastical unit more extensive than the individual Council area. It is claimed that Councils benefit from the input of the Church nominees. Our petition would leave the Councils free to solicit such input, to the extent that the elected members choose to do so.

It is claimed that special representatives for the Churches are appropriate, since Scotland is historically and culturally a Christian country, and around half its population are Christians. But this very argument shows the presence of the Church appointees to be unnecessary; the local electorate and their chosen Councillors will be and should be influenced by their heritage and beliefs, just as the national electorate and their chosen MSPs will be and should be influenced by their heritage and beliefs, making special representation redundant.

It is claimed that our proposal is part of an attempt to drive religion from the public sphere. This claim is without foundation since the Churches, and individual believers, will be and should be fully entitled to express their views and to organise, just like everybody else. Indeed, interviews [5] conducted by the Scottish Churches Parliamentary Office showed widespread support among MSPs with religious beliefs for the principle of Church-State separation, and for the added moral authority that this would give to Church pronouncements.

It is claimed that our proposal abridges freedom of religious expression. Nothing could be further from the truth. The present situation gives special privileges to three particular religious outlooks within each Council area, at the expense of other religions and of world views not based on religion. Moreover, there is nothing to stop prominent Church members from standing for election on their own merits; there is distinguished precedent for this.

In short, the present arrangement is an inherited anomaly. It is corrosive of good government, bad both for Church and the civil authority, a century-old hangover, based on assumptions that are no longer generally shared, inappropriate in a 21st century democracy, and should be abolished. SNP MSP Kenneth Gibson has stated [6] that “to have 26 bishops – the ‘Lords spiritual’ – in the House of Lords is a nonsense. It is beyond belief that this is tolerated in a democratic country.” The same logic, we maintain, applies to the Church appointees on our education committees.


Responses to the petition: 

Petitioner Submission of May 29th 2017

Scottish Government submission of May 25 2017

Petitioner submission 24 March 2017

Scottish Government 3 March 2017

The Clergy Letter Project letter of 19 October 2016

Church of Scotland Church and Society

Andrew Strachan

Megan M Crawford

Janet Briggs

Iain Campbell

Edinburgh Secular Society

Dr Graeme Campbell

Glasgow Theosophical Society



Scottish Catholic Education Service

Interfaith Muslim Council of Scotland

ScottishGovernment PE1623_P_SPTC

National Secular Society

Petitioner Response 16 December 2016

Scottish Council of Jewish Communities

Humanist Society of Scotland

Glasgow Jewish Representative Council


Appendix: list of church nominees, with notes on appointment procedures



1] Church Times, 14 June 2013; numbers are probably now smaller

2] PE1498


4] Scottish Government: Scottish Social Attitudes Survey 2014: Public Attitudes to Sectarianism in Scotland, Table 2.4 shows 68 percent of 18-24 -year-olds and 56 percent of 25-39 -year-olds describing themselves as “no religion”. An actual majority of the age cohorts now beginning to send their children to school.


6] Herald, 27 December 2015