Anger over election payments to council chiefs

A committee wants staff to be remunerated appropriately. Picture: PA
A committee wants staff to be remunerated appropriately. Picture: PA
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Public confidence in Scotland’s electoral system risks being undermined over a lack of “openness and transparency” in the payments made to town hall chiefs running the votes, MSPs have warned.

Holyrood’s local government communities has stepped up demands for change after new figures published through Freedom of Information confirmed widespread variation in the amounts which are shelled out.

More than £16,000 was paid out to the Returning Officer in Edinburgh for the 2015 Westminster election to then chief executive Sue Bruce, while just £2,500 was paid out in some areas, including Orkney and Falkirk.

During the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, More than £8,000 was paid to the counting officer in Aberdeen, while in South Ayrshire the same role met with a payment of just £1,250.

The hefty payouts to well-paid senior council executives have already prompted concerns among some MSPs, who say it should be part of the job.

Committee convenor Bob Doris MSP, said: “Our committee was very clear that the current payment system for returning officers should end and that substantial reform is urgently needed.

“The FOI responses we have published today further demonstrates that the current system is not open or transparent. We believe this could undermine the public’s confidence in how elections are run.

“That’s why we have written to the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Scottish Government once again to reiterate our calls for greater transparency on what returning officers are paid.”

In the letters to Scottish Secretary David Mundell and the Scottish Government’s Parliamentary Business manager Joe Fitzpatrick, the committee urges both governments to work together to publish full payments to returning officers in a comparable way, as the FOI responses only provide a partial picture.

“The range of approaches adopted by local authorities in providing this information further endorses the committee’s concerns regarding the perceived lack of transparency regarding these payments,” the letter stated. Returning officers have argued that the importance of the job means it should merit extra pay.

New powers over elections are being devolved under the Scotland Act and the Scottish Government is consulting on electoral reform.

The UK government is also planning a review of funding for national elections, including payments to returning officers, and the local government committee wants to know when this will get under way. 
A report published by the committee into the issue earlier this year called for a review of the system of appointing returning officers and warned that it was “not persuaded” that the current system of payments proportionate to the workload, nor the extent of the responsibilities, which are involved.

But they added that any review should ensure that staff are “remunerated appropriately”.