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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Local Government and Communities Committee 23 November 2016

Agenda: Returning Officers (Payments), Decision on Taking Business in Private, Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 (Parts 2, 3 and 5)


Contents


Returning Officers (Payments)

The Convener (Bob Doris)

Good morning and welcome to the 12th meeting in session 5 of the Local Government and Communities Committee. I remind everyone present to turn off their mobile phones. As the meeting papers are provided in digital format, you might see members using tablets during the meeting, so if you see members using electronic devices, I promise that that is what we are doing with them. I say that parrot-fashion at every meeting, as a disclaimer. We have received no apologies, so I am delighted that we have a full house today.

The first agenda item is on payments to returning officers in Scotland. The committee will take evidence from a number of witnesses to explore the purpose and appropriateness of providing payments or fees to returning officers for the conduct of elections in Scotland.

I welcome Jonathon Shafi, who is the campaigns organiser at the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, Navraj Singh Ghaleigh, who is a senior lecturer in climate law at the University of Edinburgh, and Dr Toby James, who is a senior lecturer in British and comparative politics at the University of East Anglia. I thank you all for coming along this morning. It is most appreciated. No one has indicated that they wish to make an opening statement, so we will move straight to questions.

Perhaps we can just ask the most obvious question before we get to some of the technical aspects that we want to interrogate. There is significant concern about the amount of payments—£1 million in the past two years—that have been made mostly to local authority chief executives, and about such payments increasing and becoming more regular. Elections used to be a once-in-a-while occasion in Scotland, but it is evident that in the past 15 years there has been an election pretty much every year; two elections in a year has been known to happen. That is a significant amount of cash going to what members of the public consider to be highly-paid officials. There might be reasons why they received the sums, so I wish to interrogate that further. Do you understand the public’s concern? Would you comment on that?

Dr Toby James (University of East Anglia)

I am happy to start on that. First, thank you for inviting me to give evidence.

I entirely understand why the committee is interested in the subject and why there would be public concern about the amount of money that seems to be going to returning officers—especially when there is widespread austerity in the public sector and most people are not seeing major increases in their incomes. It is, however, important to be aware that the money is not a bonus that officials are taking; it is money that they receive for undertaking a particular task. They do it independent of their position and there is a case for their being awarded money for it. There is also especially a case for reviewing that and perhaps reducing the fee or redistributing the money.

A particular point to make is that there is a severe lack of transparency about the amount of money that is involved. For the BBC, for example, the figure that is widely cited—and the one to which I think you are alluding—tends to be the amount that returning officers could claim; it is not the amount that they do claim. As far as I am aware, we do not know how much of that money returning officers take as personal income and how much they use for other things—for example, paying their more junior staff for the overtime that they do.

The key thing is that an increase in transparency is needed and is certainly something that the committee could recommend.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh (University of Edinburgh)

I endorse most of that. I should start by saying thank you very much for the invitation. I apologise for the lateness of my submission, which I think you have all received.

One of the points I make in that document, in addition to what Dr James has just said, is that returning officers are a key node in the delivery of an incredibly important function of our electoral administration. The responsibilities that returning officers bear are statutory and there are criminal and civil liabilities.

That raises a question as to what exactly the monies are paid for. If they are paid for officers’ labour, there is certainly an argument that the job is a routinised one that, as you said, convener, occurs, at least in the last 15 years, annually or sometimes biannually. There are systems and procedures in place and staff who are considerably experienced. Therefore, from a labour perspective, it is not obvious that the payments are justified.

From a responsibility perspective, however, those officials are ultimately responsible for delivery of an election and will be held responsible if things go wrong, so a different argument emerges. I think that that is where we might better focus our attentions.

We might veer towards being risk averse in how we move forward from the status quo. Do we want to start moving on the basis of public disquiet such as it is, or is there—as was just said—a need for a more substantial evidence base about transparency of funds or other matters before we make strong claims for reform?

Jonathon Shafi (Electoral Reform Society Scotland)

First, I thank you for inviting the Electoral Reform Society to the meeting. Part of our agenda is to bring democracy closer to people; it is also to make democracy as transparent as possible and to build as much faith as possible between the people and the democratic systems and the representatives involved in the democratic process.

There are two key points that we want to make. First, we want to acknowledge the importance of the job of returning officer and some of the things that have been said previously about the responsibilities that are involved. We also want returning officers to be seen as ambassadors who are driven by their ambitions for democracy and by the delivery of democracy for the people. Therefore, we are concerned about the perception that people are involved in the process for high financial rewards, which is an issue of concern for the general public in the political context in which we live today.

The other point is about the idea of people being close to democracy and to the various processes around elections. We would like to see some balancing of how much the individuals are paid, so that people feel a sense of proximity to the process as a whole.

I suppose, also, because we are interested in strengthening democratic procedures, we would like to think about ways in which resources can be funnelled down the chain as far as possible, to ensure that we have a well-resourced democratic infrastructure.

The Convener

On transparency, we do not know how much any individual returning officer receives at any election, whether they take it all, whether they give it to charity or whether they give it to the lower-grade staff who have to do a lot of the work. That lack of transparency leads to a lot of concern. Should all that information be captured annually and consistently and be kept in one place so that members of the public can scrutinise it and make a judgment about whether they feel that the arrangement is appropriate? The absence of identifiable information causes even greater anxiety and concern.

If that information should be gathered as a matter of course, who should be responsible for gathering it? My understanding is that payments for local authority elections are driven by a process involving the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, that payments for Scottish Parliament elections are—now—driven by a process involving the Scottish Government, and that payments for United Kingdom and European elections are driven by a process involving the UK Government. How do we pull all that together to get transparency? It seems almost as if things have been set up to be as untransparent as possible.

Dr James

I agree entirely about the lack of transparency. It applies to returning officer fees, but it also applies to the wider funding of elections. My colleague Alistair Clark and I conducted a survey during the European Union referendum and discovered that many officials lack funding for the conduct of elections as well as for the compilation of the electoral register. There is no systematic process across the UK or in Scotland to collect that information.

The UK Electoral Commission conducted a financial survey of local authorities between 2010 and 2012, which gave a good picture of what was going on. However, the project has ended and did not, in any case, cover the issue that we are covering today.

I agree entirely that a systematic process should be put in place. The Electoral Commission might be well placed to do that, because, in connection with the survey that I mentioned, it invested a lot of time in developing a particular methodology for making the information transparent. The Electoral Commission in Scotland could collaborate on that work.

The Convener

Before I let Navraj Singh Ghaleigh answer, I make the general point that if a member of the panel has a broadly similar answer to one that has just been given by another member of the panel, they should not feel that they have to contribute on that point. Not everyone needs to answer every question.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

The issue very much depends on what you want the information for and what information is required. Do we want transparency about the aggregate sum that returning officers receive, or do we want to know how much each individual returning officer receives and what they do with the money? Those are two different questions that require two different solutions.

If we are interested in the aggregate sum, one approach might be for returning officers to inform the Electoral Commission how much they have received and what they have done with it, and the Electoral Commission would then disclose only the aggregate sum. If we were interested in the more detailed information, we would require a tougher non-voluntary scheme in which everybody’s receipts would be received. Of course, we do not ask returning officers what they receive in terms of their salaries, ordinarily, and the money that we are talking about is akin to a salary. That approach would, therefore, open up some quite difficult questions. If we are looking for a non-aggregate differentiated sum, there is a danger that the process would develop into a witch hunt. For example, it is well known that some chief executives give the payment to charity and that, quite reasonably, other chief executives do not. You can imagine where that sort of discourse would go.

Secondly, for those who do not take all the money, there would be pressure on them to do so in the future. There would be some unanticipated and deleterious consequences.

10:00  

The Convener

Mr Singh said that the payment

“is akin to a salary.”

However, when a chief executive, who gets a salary from their local authority, does the task of a returning officer, they cannot carry out other duties, so there is a displacement effect and the burden falls on other local authority staff.

We have heard that returning officers have done an exceptionally good job over the years. We would not want to undermine that success—there is no witch hunt whatever from this committee in that regard. However, we want to ensure that when financial recompense kicks in, we know how much it is and where it is going. If it is a salary, we need to know what public officials are doing for that salary. Just as important, lower-ranking public officials in local authority areas who have to take on additional burdens as a consequence should also be appropriately remunerated. Would full disclosure therefore be helpful?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

Full disclosure and transparency are really difficult to argue against—there is an intuitive preference for them. Nonetheless, we need to be careful about how such an approach is structured.

If the argument is that everybody down the chain who touches the work should be appropriately remunerated, no one can disagree; that is obviously the case. However, full transparency does not flow from that proposition. I agree with the former. As for the latter, I would want a much more worked-out scheme that made clear how the approach operated—if, indeed, it is operable. I think that in the preface to your question you described the multilevel nature of electoral administration in the United Kingdom and suggested how difficult it would be to collate the information.

The Convener

Absolutely.

Jonathon Shafi

Our approach is to look at democracy in an overarching sense. Politicians are subject to scrutiny in relation to pay, expenses and so on. Transparency in the structures and processes of elections is just as important, because it is about building public trust, not just in representatives and the debates that happen around an election, but in the process itself.

We take on board some of the difficulties that might be involved, but we want transparency—not least, because we want the process to be made even more effective. We agree that returning officers have done a good job, but we want to consider how we can maximise resources. In that regard, transparency will be vital.

Dr James

Transparency is a good idea. The news story has become widespread and has given rise to a perception that electoral officials—senior executives—are taking money when they should be promoting the democratic process.

If the reality is that the money is received for electoral services and is redistributed to pay senior staff, explaining that might be a positive thing for democracy, especially in the current climate, where there is considerable concern about elites, executives and the role of Governments around the world.

Ruth Maguire (Cunninghame South) (SNP)

A couple of witnesses have said—and the point has been made in the written evidence that we have received—that a good reason for remuneration is that some returning officers pay their staff out of the money. Indeed, we were told that some returning officers give the money to charity. Should we be relying on the benevolence of highly paid officers in paying staff who are involved in the process? Is it appropriate that such officers should decide to which charities public money goes?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

If we were to start with a blank piece of paper, we would not end up with the scheme that we have now. Ideally, a more rational scheme of reward would be preferable. I do not think that anyone would argue against that. When a key part of the system—namely, payments—is altered, there is a risk that the integrity of the system will be affected. It is probably not beyond the wit of humankind to come up with a system of payments that does not alter the system’s integrity, but it needs to be done carefully.

Dr James

On the issue of paying the staff, it is worth saying that staff are routinely paid—they are not volunteers. They have permanent positions and they receive salaries. However, in electoral services across the UK, business process pressures have built up over a number of years. There has been an increase in the number of late registration applications, because the process is now online and it has become very seasonal. Everyone naturally likes to do things at the last minute, whether it is Christmas shopping or voter registration. At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of people who apply for postal votes. Therefore, there is a lot of stress in electoral services at election time, which is leading to people putting in extra time, doing extra hours and working at the weekend.

It could be the case that returning officers are using the money to pay their staff, but we just do not know, because that information is not made public. I refer to the previous points about that.

Jonathon Shafi

That relates to the point that I made about transparency leading towards higher efficiency and maximising the resources that are available in electoral services. Therefore, I agree. It is a case of building, as far and as deeply as possible, the idea that our returning officers and associated staff are in this to deliver democratic services for the people. There is growing concern among members of the public. There are question marks, especially—as has been pointed out—as the political situation gets ever more terse.

Ruth Maguire

Thank you for those answers. Nobody quite responded to my question about whether it is appropriate for senior officers to be able to decide which charities those moneys should go to and how that might be perceived by the public. We all have our favourite charities, but it is public money that is being used.

Jonathon Shafi

Absolutely.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

It is public money, but if that money is akin to salary, it is their money. We do not second-guess how they disburse their salary.

Ruth Maguire

Yes, but in his written submission, Alistair Clark cited that point as a good reason for keeping the current system. That is what I am probing.

The Convener

Would anyone like to add anything?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

I would like to say something about transparency. We need to be clear about the burden that we are putting on transparency. Is transparency a good in its own right? Do we want to have transparency regardless of the consequences, or does transparency lead to particular outcomes? It has sometimes been said that transparency leads to greater efficiency or greater public trust. Is that the case?

The regime for election expenditure and income that was introduced by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 has radically expanded the amount of information that the public have on how political parties and political actors receive, spend and distribute income. Has public trust increased in that process? I would say that it almost certainly has not. That is not a reason for not having transparency, but it is a reason for being clearer about what work we want transparency to do and why we want it.

The Convener

Do you want to come back on that, Ruth?

Ruth Maguire

No, thank you—I am good.

Graham Simpson (Central Scotland) (Con)

I thank the witnesses for attending.

Mr Singh, you have said that we do not know the salaries of chief executives in Scotland, but we know exactly what they are—they are all on six-figure salaries. They are extremely well paid, and this is the nub of the question. They are very well remunerated people and, in the eyes of the public, the returning officer role should be part of their job. They should not be getting what Dr James has said is not a bonus but that is a bonus because it is in addition to what they are already getting. The question is, should they be getting paid extra for what many people would regard as something that should be considered part of their job?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

It is clearly not part of their job. Sections 23 to 27 of the Representation of the People Act 1983 created a statutory regime that demarcates very clearly that it is not their job. Returning officers have a range of functions and responsibilities that are separate from those of a chief executive of a local authority. It is not their job; it is an additional role that they undertake, which was previously undertaken in Scotland by sheriffs.

Dr James

It is valuable, but it is separate, and that insulates them from any other influences that they may have as chief executives of their local authorities. It is important that we have electoral officials who are independent and not subject to any other influences and who run elections completely independently.

Jonathon Shafi

I have nothing to add apart from the point that I have been making throughout. We want those individuals to be driven by the desire to deliver democracy, not by the sort of remuneration that you are referring to. That does not mean that we do not think that the jobs deserve adequate pay, but we think that it has to be brought closer to what you are referring to—the public good and, in particular, the public’s perception of that type of pay.

Graham Simpson

I would hope that they would be driven in any case, given the high-powered jobs that they have.

Mr Singh rightly refers to the statutory regime. The question that flows from that is: should the statutory regime change so that it becomes part of their job?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

There is also a broader question about whether returning officers are the people who should be doing the job while acting qua chief executives. Is there a broader need for an electoral management service that would undertake the role and a range of other roles? That question has been knocking around in Scotland and the United Kingdom for a number of years. The problem is that, as soon as we started to establish a new bureaucracy to undertake the function, any cost that we might think we were avoiding by taking away £1 million or whatever it is from returning officers would be quickly swallowed by the new electoral bureaucracy. You would have to specify what the new regime might look like.

Dr James

I agree that it is important to keep the existing system. You could centralise functions within one organisation such as the Electoral Management Board, but that would not necessarily save money, because it would then need more resources—it is the public purse that we are focusing on here. Research shows that centralised electoral bodies are sometimes more expensive and that having a local person on the ground who knows the constituents, the area and appropriate places where a count can be held is really important. When things are centralised too much, that local knowledge, which is very valuable, is lost.

Jonathon Shafi

I underline Dr James’s final point about proximity and local knowledge being vital to the delivery of democratic services.

Graham Simpson

I have one more question. If we accept that councils are best placed to carry out the role and that extra money should be paid—I do not necessarily accept that—should the money not go to the council rather than to one person?

10:15  

The Convener

That is a specific suggestion. Does anyone have a reflection on that?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

You would have to rewrite the contracts of local government officials, if you were willing to undertake that process.

The Convener

None of us is suggesting that it would be easy. Change has to be signposted and organised carefully, but that is not a reason not to make the change.

Jonathon Shafi

That is important. When we are talking about the levels of resources that we have to run elections and to ensure that there is public faith in them, we want to see those resources more efficiently and more broadly distributed. As we have heard, it will not necessarily be an easy process. I would underline that saying that we want those sorts of things to happen does not mean that we believe that the work that people have done up to this point has been invalid—I do not think that that is anyone’s position—but we are conscious that the building and entrenching of public trust will require a number of reforms as the years progress. Mr Simpson’s suggestion is a valid one.

Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP)

In 37 years in politics, this is the first time that I have heard of returning officers giving away payments to charities or staff. I am fairly cynical, as a number of my colleagues are, about the process. The reason for that is that, when I was on Glasgow City Council some years ago, I talked to someone about when the chief executive would retire. In those days, there were fewer elections. They said, “He’ll retire in an election year, because the fee that he gets counts towards his final salary, which means it bumps his pension up for 20 years,” or whatever it happened to be. We are not talking about a one-off payment; it could be costing the public purse a significant amount of money for a number of years. I cannot see how it can be justified to pay a returning officer, who in my experience is de facto always the chief executive of the council, £33,238 for the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. Mr Shafi talked about being motivated to deliver democracy, but that is more than any of the candidates were allowed to spend on that election.

Jonathon Shafi

Absolutely. Your contribution outlines the public attitude to the question. There are dangers, unless the issue is looked at and assessed, because it is one thing for people to feel that they are not in touch with their political representatives, which we know is a phenomenon, but it is quite another for there to be a perception that the democratic services and processes themselves are being undermined by the sort of thing that you are talking about. This relates to the previous points about local proximity. It is about the public feeling in touch with how their elections are run and really driving that into society as far as we can, so I would agree with Mr Gibson’s point.

Dr James

I do not disagree. There are obvious reasons to be concerned, which have been eloquently outlined, so it makes sense to review the fees that are being paid. I would add that we should be careful to think about the UK-wide system, so that we do not make things overcomplicated by having one rule for Scottish elections and another for UK-wide elections, because that would become difficult to administer. Perhaps we should kick off the conversation across the UK.

To build on some of the previous questions, there is a strong case for diverting some of those fees from returning officers’ services to expenses, as they are set out in the fees and charges order, because that would make more money available for local authorities to conduct the poll. The Association of Electoral Administrators has pointed out in consultation responses to previous inquiries that there are other things that could be covered. At the moment, local authorities are bearing the brunt of the cost of things such as postal vote applications, which come in the crunch period in the run-up to elections, and last-minute registration deadlines, which place real cost pressures on electoral services, and that takes money from all the other important services that they provide.

Kenneth Gibson

Mr Singh, would you like to add anything?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

Yes. Is that Mr Gibson? I cannot quite see the name plate.

Kenneth Gibson

Yes.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

Thank you. I have made exactly the point that you just made on public record previously, and I made it in my submission. I think that that is a serious risk that goes to the question of public confidence in the system.

I completely agree that reconsideration of the rates of those fees is appropriate. There is no doubt about that. One of the pieces of evidence from one of the representative bodies of chief executives made a remark about the fees being in line with those for other positions of responsibility, but they do not say which positions of responsibility they were comparing them with. That would be a proper area for exploration.

To go back to a previous point, if I may, if we are considering or mooting the idea of moving overall responsibility for electoral administration to council officials qua council officials, it might be worth while to look at the trajectory of that. Prior to 1977, there were sheriffs—independent and unimpeachable. After 1977, it was council chief executives, operating qua returning officers to ensure their independence from the process. Next, it would be local authority officials acting as local authority officials. I suggest that that would be an unhelpful trajectory for the purposes of public confidence in the process.

Kenneth Gibson

Mr Singh, in section 4 of your submission, on page 6, you refer to the returning officer charge being £2,500 in the Orkney and Shetland constituency, which is obviously quite a geographically diverse constituency, but in Edinburgh the charge was £16,548. Is the workload 6.6 times higher for Edinburgh?

To go back to the figure for Glasgow that I mentioned of £33,238 for the Scottish parliamentary elections, that is not only significantly higher than the average salary in the UK, let alone in Scotland, but nearly £11,000 more than the returning officer in Glasgow earned for the UK general election. I realise that there are one or two more constituencies in Glasgow for the Holyrood Parliament, but how are those figures calculated and how can they be justified in any way, in relation to Edinburgh versus Orkney and the sums of money paid in Glasgow from one election to another? I really cannot imagine that the workload is significantly greater.

The Convener

Mr Singh.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

It is actually Mr Ghaleigh, but never mind.

The Convener

My apologies.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

That is fine.

I can tell you how the charges are calculated. They are calculated according to—

Kenneth Gibson

The headcount.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

—and the charges order. It is a straightforward mechanical process that I lay out in my submission and in appendix 2. It is a straightforward method of calculation. Whether it is justifiable is an open question. I would not say that I am competent to answer that.

Kenneth Gibson

I want to ask the panel whether they think that it is justifiable.

Dr James

Briefly, I would say that the challenges are very different when running a poll in an urban area as compared with a very rural area. I do not think that it makes sense to say that it is six times more difficult, if you like. In some ways there are more difficult and pressing challenges in conducting a rural poll, such as finding polling stations and dealing with the types of logistical issues that come up in more remote parts of Scotland. It certainly seems that the existing criteria do not make sense, and my interviews and experience with returning officers reflect that.

Jonathon Shafi

I do not have much more to add. I pretty much agree with the last comment that was made.

Alexander Stewart (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Con)

Thank you, gentlemen, for your comments so far. I have a real concern about the whole process, and I think that the public does, too. There is an uncomfortable perception.

My experience of being on a council over the past 18 years—I have been at every election during that time—is that an industry has started to grow within councils themselves. There is a democratic services director and an election team that is working on a daily basis throughout the year to administer what is happening. I believe that registration for postal votes is dealt with through the valuation boards, so another arm of the organisation is dealing with that.

As we get closer to an election, the individuals come together to do their normal day job, which is administering an election. The returning officer, whoever he or she is, is the overseer for the week before and for the whole 24-hour cycle of an election day—polling stations might open at 5 am and, by the time the count is concluded, it can be 5 am the following morning. I appreciate that there is an antisocial element to all of that, but I still find it very difficult to believe that one or two individuals should receive the lion’s share of the funding when, in reality, there is a small army of individuals doing the job who receive no remuneration for it.

Jonathon Shafi

You have made a very good case for a wider distribution of financial resources. We want to see those resources pushed down the chain, much in the way that you have outlined.

People understand that there needs to be a wider layer of people involved in the process. I think that the public would appreciate it if the process was better and more fairly resourced, with the finance not concentrated into the hands of one individual. That is the direction of travel. The big questions are around how we start thinking about that and how it would be implemented.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

There is a distinction to be drawn between whether payments should be made and the level of those payments. If I understand correctly, you are making an argument on the latter point, and I agree with you.

Dr James

I have a comment about the army of people who are involved. Big teams are involved in running elections. One of the major changes across the UK has been the introduction of individual electoral registration, which has been a major business process change for every area. It has had cost consequences—it has made the process more expensive and it has also placed a particular burden on the individuals who have been working on it. I have research that shows that.

A survey that was undertaken in February this year shows that half of electoral officials—the army, if you like—have thought about leaving their positions in the past year as a result of that change. There is high stress, high pressure and a big turnover of staff. Although elections have been run very successfully in Scotland so far, that environment could create problems and pressures, with misunderstandings among new staff; therefore, people need to be nurtured and looked after. The army is as important as the commander, if you like.

Alexander Stewart

We must understand that, as the convener indicated, elections are becoming an annual performance or event. We should be trying to establish an audit trail of how successfully the process is being managed within an authority to see whether there really is value for money in the sums that are being paid to individuals who, as we have heard, already receive a large salary in comparison with many others.

The individuals who are in the “army” and who do the work are earning a fraction of the money that the returning officer has to be given—and you cannot say that it is anything other than a bonus. It is a bonus on their salary just for administering or overseeing something, ticking a few boxes or having a look at the end of the day to make sure that everything is sorted.

The army of people dealing with postal votes in the run-up to the election—in the week to 10 days before, and just before close of poll and so on—are the ones who have to deal with the pressure. In Scotland, a count is now electronic in many instances. If there is a hand count, an army of individuals are paid to fulfil that role and manage the situation. The returning officer is doing less and less of the role and less and less of the management.

The Convener

You make your point very well, Mr Stewart. Does anyone want to reflect on that?

Jonathon Shafi

I have just one comment to make on that. There is a strange contradiction in the sense that we want pressure to increase on electoral services, and, during the period of elections, we want the number of people engaging in elections to increase. That means more people voting, more people using a postal vote and more people registering. We want an increase in pressure, which is why we think that there needs to be a reaction to that. The two work hand in hand.

10:30  

Dr James

A theme in that comment and throughout this meeting so far is that elections have increasingly become an annual event and more routine. That is so, but the election process has become more complex. We have a greater variety of elections, different types of electoral systems and different types of ballots. There are more complex laws—there are 30 or 40 laws that returning officers must be aware of when they go into the electoral process, although the law commissions have recommended simplification of that to make it much more routine. It must be recognised that there is a degree of complexity for the returning officers and also for staff, which has become more of a problem.

The Convener

Mr Ghaleigh, do you want to add anything to that?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

Not at this point.

Andy Wightman (Lothian) (Green)

On the whole, people think that chief executives run elections. They see a returning officer at the count and they think that that is the chief executive. There is quite a bit of trust in the system, although there were problems in past elections—in 2007, for example. It is only when it comes to the money that people have begun to ask questions. The Representation of the People Act 1983 makes it clear that local authorities

“shall appoint an officer of the authority”

who need not be the chief executive—it could be any officer of the authority.

I have two questions. First, do the returning officers do the job in their own time? Secondly, there does not appear to be any statutory provision for anyone other than the returning officer—for example, deputies who have similar levels of shared responsibility—to get remuneration. The fact that deputies do get remuneration relies on the benevolence of the returning officer in thinking that they should—for example, if it has been a particularly difficult election. Can you clarify the latter point as well as whether returning officers are doing the job in their own time?

Dr James

Whether the returning officers are doing the job in their own time is difficult to know or measure. Having conducted interviews with electoral officials, I can say that a current theme is that many returning officers are very hands-on. They roll up their sleeves and get involved in the management process—for example, by choosing the location of the polling stations. Others, although they cannot devolve responsibility formally, are content to use middle management staff to do that for them. It is impossible to measure that.

However, that is only part of the picture. I think that a Westminster select committee looked at the issue of chief executive pay a couple of years ago, and the committee might find its report interesting. That is the other side of the coin.

Andy Wightman

As Mr Ghaleigh made clear at the beginning of the meeting, the responsibility of the post is considerable. There are liabilities to face if things go wrong, and people need to have trust in the system. I do not think that anyone is questioning whether existing returning officers are trustworthy, but there is a question mark over the extent to which existing returning officers should tend to be chief executives and how independent they are seen to be by the public. The money highlights that question in their minds. We will reflect on whether the law should be changed to allow greater flexibility in who can be appointed—for example, to allow somebody outside the council, such as a retired chief executive, to be appointed. I will leave it there.

The Convener

Does anyone want to reflect on that comment?

Jonathon Shafi

You are right to point out that the issue is not that people distrust returning officers but that—to put it bluntly—people distrust people who get loads of money. A lot of our research is based on the relationship between people’s incomes and their voting patterns—if they are even registered to vote. We find that, more often than not, the lowest voter registration and turnout numbers for elections coincide with the areas of lowest income. The sticking point is when we talk about money and financial remuneration. It would be much more efficient to have that money properly spread across the various arms of the services that we have discussed. That would help to breed the confidence that you are talking about.

A lot of what we are seeing in the discussion around democracy in more general terms demonstrates that democracy is constantly evolving. The structures and processes of democratic institutions do not have a full stop; we are constantly looking at ways in which we can improve and adapt. As part of that process, we have to look forward and try to forecast where problems might emerge. One area where problems may well emerge in a much more public fashion is the sense that financial remuneration is too high and not spread fairly around the service, as you have mentioned.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

In answer to Mr Wightman’s first question about whether the returning officer could be someone other than the chief executive or an officer akin to them, there is a statutory expectation that it will be the chief executive. In my submission I refer to the view expressed by the under-secretary of state at the time of the creation of that statutory expectation that that was the appropriate official.

The question of whose time the job is done in is a very good question. Chief executives are already incredibly busy, carrying out a large amount of highly pressured work. On top of that, almost on an annual basis, they have to carry out the enormously responsible job of running the democratic process. When does that occur? Are they working 24-hour days? How much of the work is deputed? My concern is that that is a rather masochistic approach to the labour market, which I thought that we had given up on. We do not think that it is valuable for people to work all the hours that God sends just to demonstrate their worth. If you were to argue that it is a professional job of great responsibility that needs to be done properly, that is not the way in which you would do it. It would become too pressured.

The other question is about devolving the money. The money is not paid for labour—it is not paid for the quantum of work that a person does. It is paid for the responsibility of the job, and the responsibility does not flow down; rather, it rests with the returning officer.

Dr James

Although there are legal impediments to giving the role to someone else, one advantage of the returning officer being the chief executive is that they have a sense of informal managerial kudos within the organisation. If the chief executive says that something must be done, by and large, smaller units will feel that they need to do that. When it comes to elections that take place in a pressured time period, providing additional staff and resources can make a big difference, and that is added value.

Andy Wightman

Can I just—

The Convener

No. We have to move on, and Elaine Smith also wants to ask a question. I am sorry, Mr Wightman. It is an interesting line of questioning, but we have witnesses waiting. We will run the discussion for another 10 minutes or so and then conclude this part of the meeting.

Elaine Smith (Central Scotland) (Lab)

Before I come to my question, I want to pick up on the previous point. With such big, responsible jobs, which are remunerated accordingly, how on earth do chief executives have the time to attend counts? What else loses out when they do? Mr Ghaleigh raised that point, which is something that we need to think about.

Mr Ghaleigh, in your evidence you talk about the complications in England and Wales. You mention that

“the returning officer is a ... ceremonial ex-officio role”.

Does that mean that it is unremunerated?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

It is ex-officio but it is not ceremonial as such, and it continues to be remunerated on the basis of the charge order.

Elaine Smith

Sorry—I used the word ceremonial because that is what you say in your submission.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

It is ex-officio and, in certain circumstances, it is deputed down. There is a different regime in England and Wales.

Elaine Smith

However, it is still paid.

I return to the paid role and your point, Mr Ghaleigh, about the remuneration being about responsibility rather than labour. Are any members of the panel—sorry, I should have thanked you all for coming—aware of whether there have been any sanctions? We have seen problems over the years, such as boxes lost at sea, issues with postal votes and problems the first time that the electoral counting system was tried. Have there been any sanctions?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

I think that Dr James is the expert on that.

The Convener

There is no pressure, Dr James.

Dr James

I cannot give you the data on that off the top of my head, but it would be worth collating. It is certainly the case that returning officers have been subject to the courts. In the case of the Tower Hamlets electoral fraud inquiry, for example, the returning officer was initially put before the courts. I am not sure in how many cases the Electoral Commission has stopped the fee going to a returning officer, but I am sure that it will be able to tell you next week.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

This goes to the question of the evidence base. There is a real need for far more detailed knowledge of exactly what goes on, whether it relates to the specific point that Elaine Smith just made, to the sums that are paid out or to the level of superannuation that attaches to them—which is, I think, an issue that Mr Stewart raised. We just need to know more, and these are the right sort of questions.

Elaine Smith

I do not know how much you know about the Electoral Management Board, which covers only the administration of local government elections. Could that role be expanded? Mr Ghaleigh, you said that, if we were to set up independent systems, there might be a lot of work, more red tape and perhaps a need for more funding. Could that be looked at to see whether there are possibilities?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

It could certainly be looked at. It has already been looked at. After the electoral difficulties in 2007, which have been referred to, that was among the issues that were surveyed. It might be worth asking the people who are more intimately involved in that process what consideration they gave to the issue and why it would be appropriate to revisit the issue so soon.

The Convener

Before we draw this evidence session to an end, it is worth clarifying something. We will have chief executives before us to give their views on the issue, and their evidence will be crucial because they have done the job on the ground. Already today, we have heard concerns about transparency in relation to payments, concerns about the level and consistency of payments and concerns about the workload that may or may not be involved for returning officers. We have also heard about what returning officers may not do if they are working with an army of soldiers on the ground—which Alexander Stewart referred to—who may not be compensated for the additional work that they do.

We are saying that elections are run very well in Scotland, but is it also reasonable to say that the system of payments somehow has to change? Is there consensus on that? If there is not, exactly how should payments be made to returning officers or whoever else? Does the system have to change?

10:45  

Jonathon Shafi

Yes.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

The system needs to be better justified. If appropriate justifications are not forthcoming, it will have to change. Justification is the starting point.

The Convener

There needs to be more scrutiny and better understanding of what is going on, with potential change in the future, but we should wait and see what the evidence shows.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

Exactly.

The Convener

That is helpful.

Dr James

I probably agree. Transparency can be brought about very quickly and at low cost, and it would immediately provide us with the information to enable us to undertake a wider review.

It is worth stressing that there is a need to review not only how much money returning officers are receiving but some of the pressures that lie underneath that and the overall situation.

The Convener

Are you aware that the Scottish Government has said that an elections bill will be introduced within the current parliamentary session? Might that be an opportunity to scrutinise the matter further and see whether Scotland can provide more consistency and transparency?

Jonathon Shafi

Yes. You should also consider some engagement with members of the public on the issues. It is good to hear from folk who are involved professionally and from chief executives, but it would be interesting to get some evidence and find out what the attitude of the general public is. We might do some work on that.

The Convener

Does Mr Ghaleigh or Dr James want to add anything before I bring the evidence session to a close?

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

I could clarify Ms Smith’s point about the role being ceremonial, but I can do it off the record if that is preferable.

The Convener

I am happy for you to contact the clerks.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh

I have just found that point in my submission. In England and Wales, the returning officer is a country sheriff or the chair of a district council, but the acting returning officer, who is a council official, does the job and is remunerated.

Dr James

Building on that, it would be an excellent idea for there to be a further inquiry based around a potential elections bill, but there is also a need to develop systems that do not jar with the wider UK context so that we are not asking electoral officials to work to too many sets of electoral laws and practices.

The Convener

All that remains is for me to thank all three of you for coming along here today. I appeal to you to follow our evidence sessions in this short inquiry. If you want to make any additional points, please do not hesitate to get in contact with us, as it will help to inform the conclusions that we eventually come to.

10:48 Meeting suspended.  

10:52 On resuming—