Scotland politics

MSPs call to scrap election returning officer payments

election count Paisley Image copyright Inpho
Image caption Funds are made available for the running of elections in addition to the returning officer payments

Extra payments to returning officers for overseeing elections should be scrapped, according to Holyrood's local government committee.

MSPs have held an inquiry into the system, which sees highly-paid council chief executives receive extra pay for running elections and referendums.

Members said the current system lacked transparency and could affect public views of the integrity of the system.

Returning officers have argued that the importance of the job merits extra pay.

The Scottish government has committed to consulting on electoral reform in the coming year, with new powers over the conduct of elections being devolved under the Scotland Act.

Each local authority area is required to appoint a returning officer for election counts in their area, with chief executives the usual candidates given their politically-neutral role. Funds are available to pay polling and count staff, on top of the payments to returning officers.

Almost £500,000 was available to share out between local authority heads in 2016, when they organised the counting of the Scottish parliament and EU referendum ballots.

While the committee concluded that "the Scottish electoral system is exemplary and met with high accolade from other legislatures", they said that "the current system of payments to returning officers should end".

'Lack of transparency'

Convener Bob Doris said: "Our committee has found that the current system of payments to returning officers is lacking transparency, which could have an impact on people's views on the integrity of the system.

"There is a lack of transparency around the value of these payments and how they are allocated, however we heard that payments can range from £2,500 in Orkney and Shetland to over £16,000 in Edinburgh and may reportedly be worth as much £1m in total.

"We believe that all costs associated with elections should be processed around the principles of openness and transparency if the public are to have confidence in how our elections are run."

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption Scotland went to the polls five times in three years between 2014 and 2016

The committee heard that payments were usually linked to the electoral roll for the area, leading to a disparity in the sums paid out.

The fee for overseeing a UK election in Edinburgh, including five constituencies, was £16,548 - 6.6 times that for organising counts for the same election in Orkney and Shetland, at £2,500. Committee witnesses questioned whether organising an election across sparsely populated and remote islands was really 6.6 times less intensive than organising one across a city.

MSPs also heard that some officials can claim two payments for Scottish Parliament elections, as they can be returning officers for both constituency and regional list votes.

Giving evidence to the committee, Glasgow City Council chief executive Annemarie O'Donnell highlighted the personal responsibility which falls on returning officers.

She said: "No-one goes into running elections to make a career, but it can end a career. That is an important point.

"We have to deliver elections with precision and accuracy. If we fail to do that, our reputations and careers and jeopardised as a consequence."

'Wholly inconsistent'

Mary Pitcaithly, chairwoman of the Electoral Management Board for Scotland, argued that the importance of the role meant there should be some extra pay.

During the inquiry, she told BBC Scotland: "It would be appropriate if people are concerned about the level of remuneration for there to be some objective review and we're entirely content for that to happen.

"But it would be wholly inconsistent with practice elsewhere if duties of the scale and the degree of responsibility and the civic importance of the returning officer role were to be not remunerated at all."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mary Pitcaithly was chief counting officer during the Scottish independence referendum

However, the Scottish Conservatives argued that the role should be "part of the job" for chief executives.

MSP Graham Simpson said it was "plainly wrong that council bosses who are already well paid from the public purse should receive thousands extra for this".

The committee's report recognised "the high level of personal responsibility" and acknowledged "the hard work and commitment shown by them".

It added: "The committee agrees that the role should remain independent and outwith political control in order to maintain confidence in those carrying out the role.

"The committee is not persuaded that the current system of remuneration is commensurate with the workload, responsibilities and liability of the role.

"The committee believes that the processes of appointing returning officers and their roles should be reviewed, and that any review should take into account the fees already available to returning officers to remunerate election staff, the frequency and routineness of carrying out elections and pressure on resources elsewhere in local authorities.

"The review should ensure that all staff involved in elections are remunerated appropriately."

A Scottish government spokesman said: "Scottish ministers are grateful to the local government and communities committee for its detailed work into the issues around payments to returning officers.

"We will take its conclusions into consideration as part of our forthcoming consultation on electoral reform, which will consider overall arrangements for elections to ensure they represent the best possible value for money."

A spokesman for the UK Cabinet Office said: "It is crucial that elections are properly resourced to make sure that they continue to be run effectively to provide a secure and fair democracy.

"But we must do this in a spirit of openness and accountability to drive best practice and deliver value for money. We are constantly looking at how we can improve transparency and public awareness about the funding of nationwide elections."

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