Amendments 265 and 266 to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill may not have grabbed any headlines but they mark a very welcome change in policy – for under them the fees paid to referendum counting officers will only be paid in full if they meet an adequate standard of performance. Poor performance will now mean less pay.
At the general election, the returning officers in Sheffield and Hackney voluntarily decided to forgo their fees following the major organisational failures in the elections there. However, this was purely a voluntary act as there was no system for judging performance before deciding whether or not, or how much, to pay.
Although these amendments are only relevant to the referendum, they set a welcome precedent for elections of other sorts when the legislation for them is next reviewed.
There is a more radical question of whether such fees are now a nineteenth century anachronism given that those receiving the fees are almost always post holders such as local authority Chief Executives, who are anyway in receipt of a full-time salary from their local council for a job that already expects out of normal office hours work and where workloads are based on the assumption that elections will need administering. In addition, as election fees boost pension entitlements, the long term costs of them is significantly more than the simple lump sum.
In another small but welcome change, the boundaries along which the referendum will be organised in Scotland and Wales will now be the same as for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections. I had raised this issue with the government on behalf of colleagues in Wales who were rightly concerned about the possibility of having Assembly elections and the referendum on the same day but having one organised along local council lines and one along Welsh Assembly constituencies lines as the two often cut across each other. That risk has now been removed.