One of our most important campaigns is about removing undemocratic voting rights from religious representatives on local education committees. Due to a historic piece of legislation all local councils have to include three religious representatives on their local education committees. But there is no need for them to have voting powers. Over the past few months we’ve backed a number of councils who have removed these rights.
We work with politicians from all parties to put our case forward. In June, Fife Council became the third council in quick succession to remove religious voting rights. We caught up with a local councillor, James Calder, who supported the motion, that was passed by 36 to 32 votes. He gave us his perspective on why this is such an important move for local democracy, and talks about the pressure faced from religious groups.
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you got involved with politics?
Having been brought up in the Dunfermline area, I got involved in politics not long after finishing university. I first stood for election in 2012 for the Liberal Democrats and got hooked. At the time I was working for a local business in Dunfermline that traded internationally but I was keen to work for my local community. I was elected in 2017, becoming my party’s education spokesperson on Fife Council. Since 2022, when I was re-elected, I’ve also been Party Deputy Leader on Fife Council and City of Dunfermline Area Convener.
How did you get interested in the issue of religious votes on school councils?
I was initially interested due to previously sitting on the Fife Council Education and Children’s Services Committee. As a new councillor, I found the idea of religious representatives having voting rights somewhat anachronistic. I had respect for the religious representatives on Fife Council but concerns from a democratic point of view.
These were amplified after a vote about P1 testing [tests for 4-to-5-year-olds] when most councillors on the committee voted to abolish the tests in Fife. However, a minority of councillors were able to overrule the majority due to votes of religious representatives. Although we were able to overrule this at full council, to me this was unfair due to their lack of accountability. It also caused significant delay on the decision.
Last year I took part in a fringe event at my party conference with the Humanist Society to discuss the role of religious representatives. After this, alongside some of my colleagues on the Council, we put forward a motion that eventually led to the removal of the voting rights. The fringe event certainly inspired us to look at this issue.
Support needs to be given to councillors who decide to back this campaign. It has been quite tough, with a lot of pressure from some religious groups to keep the status quoJames Calder, Fife Councillor
Why do you think this is such an important cause?
Fundamentally, this is an issue of democratic accountability and equality of opportunity.
Many people won’t know that religious representatives have voting rights and many would be angry to discover that people who don’t have to contest their vote have this level of power. I am a father, and while my daughter is not yet at school, I do not feel that decisions on her education should be made by people who are not elected.
In regards to equality of opportunity, giving voting rights to religious representatives who represent a very small cross-section of society is fundamentally an issue. That cross-section of society already has a representative in their locally elected councillors.
We’ve seen religious reps’ votes removed from four local councils in quick succession over the last few months. What do you think the future holds?
While it is up to councillors in other areas to make up their own mind, over recent months we have seen a significant change in thinking. While I think there needs to be some sensitivity in dealing with this, I could easily envision other councils deciding to go the same way as places such as Fife and the Highlands.
Support needs to be given to councillors who decide to back this campaign. It has been quite tough, with a lot of pressure from some religious groups to keep the status quo, and sticking to principles isn’t always easy.
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