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Religious representative on Orkney council committee responds to calls to change role’s voting rights

Rev Fraser Macnaughton outside Orkney Islands Council. Picture by Andrew Stewart
Rev Fraser Macnaughton outside Orkney Islands Council. Picture by Andrew Stewart

The only religious representative on Orkney’s education, leisure and housing committee has responded to calls to remove voting rights from people in his role.

Reverend Fraser Macnaughton has said he feels the role he held since last October and hopes to return to next Monday holds a bigger purpose than pushing a religious viewpoint.

Earlier this week, Humanist Society Scotland wrote to all councils in Scotland urging them to end voting rights for church representatives sitting on local education committees.

The national body has pointed to cases where church votes could become tie-breakers for closely contested issues.

It says the removal of these rights is especially important in areas that have a close balance between opposition parties.

Calls to remove voting rights for church representatives

As Orkney’s council is made up of 19 independent councillors and two greens, there’s no danger of such a representative deciding a tied vote between two parties.

However, Orkney councillors John Ross Scott and Steven Heddle, have questioned the role of religious representatives on Orkney’s Education, Leisure, and Housing committee altogether.

During the committee’s meeting last year, at which Rev Macnaughton’s nomination was accepted by councillors, Mr Scott said he felt like having seats for three religious reps on the committee was like “the dark ages“.

Mr Heddle took issue with the representatives being given full voting rights on the committee while having not been elected by the wider public.

Instead, they go through a process where they are nominated by their parent body before being accepted, or not, by councillors.

Orkney councillors call attention to rights given to religious representatives on education committee

Under Scots Law, Scottish councils have to appoint three religious representatives to their education committees.

In Orkney, at least one of them must be appointed by a protestant church.

On Monday, at the first general meeting of the new council, Orkney’s new councillors will consider nominations for the three religious representative roles on the education committee.

Rev Macnaughton has again been nominated by the Church of Scotland to sit in a chair, as have Reverend Susan Kirkbride, representing the United Reformed Church, and Marie Locke, also representing the Church of Scotland.

Rev Macnaughton replaced Hugh Halcro-Johnston on the council’s committee.

Mr Halcro-Johnston said that, to his knowledge, the other two seats have never been filled before.

A former council convener, Mr Halcro Johnston held one of the religious rep seats for around seven years.

Previous church representative chose not to exercise right to vote

During that time, he chose never to exercise his right to vote.

He said he knew how councillors felt about the issue. Although he does not believe the right to vote should be taken away.

Rev Macnaughton also spoke to the P&J this week. He gave his thoughts on the criticism around the religious rep roles on education committees.

He said he didn’t consider his role to be to “just represent the church or to push the religious angle”.

“It’s much bigger than that”, he said.

‘You’re either appointed to a committee or not – I’m not an observer’

“In a small community, to have a breadth of voices is an important thing.

“It gives a sounding board for the members of the committee to bounce ideas off.

“I think can add to the richness of the discussion or debate.

He was also asked how he feels about the calls to have votes taken aware from the religious reps. He said he doesn’t agree.

He said: “You’re either appointed to the committee or you’re not – I’m not an observer, for example.

“There’s maybe a conversation to be had, at a national level, about whether they need to look at the legislation.

“That legislation has been there for a long time. Unless people are minded to change that legislation, you’re on a committee or you’re not.

“You’re not half on it.”

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