Returning Officer pay was increased without any idea what it would cost

A significant increase in the pay of some Returning Officers was quietly introduced by the then Labour government ahead of this year’s general election but no estimate was made as to what the costs would be of rule changes that made the pay more generous.

In March, the Ministry of Justice issued its Returning Officers’ Expenses Guidance Notes Parliamentary Elections (Great Britain) which included, in Section 7.7, an increase in the payments made to Returning Officers for supervising more than one constituency. Previously the payments (worked out on a sum per entry on the electoral register) were tapered if a Returning Officer covered more than one contest on the logic that, for example, arranging for two seats to be counted in the same venue is not twice the work for a Returning Officer as organising one seat and one venue. However, for 2010 that was rejected, with the Ministry of Justice claiming that there are no economies of time or effort for Returning Officers doing multiple seats.

This change in rules had two financial impacts – first a direct cost in higher payments made out and second, because the payments are pensionable and also boost salaries for the purpose of final salary schemes, an increase in the cost of funding these staff pension schemes. In the most remunerative of cases, a Returning Officer retiring shortly after running a general election (and so seeing their final salary scheme pension payout boosted by the election fee) could gain an extra several thousand pounds in pension payments every year from retirement until death.

However, despite these long term potential financial costs, and that some of the costs would fall on pension funds rather than on election budgets, the government has admitted in response to a series of freedom of information requests that no trace can be found of any calculations being made as to what the change in rules would cost. Instead, the rule change was introduced without consideration of the cost.

Despite the many strictures about saving money in other areas of the public sector, the payments made to Returning Officers have so far escaped close scrutiny – even though there is a good case for abolishing them. As I wrote previously:

From one perspective, the payments made to Returning Officers are not bonuses but rather the standard fee payable for running an election. However, the role of being Returning Officer goes with having a job – typically council chief executive –  that is usually well paid to begin with (often six figure salaries) and where anyone taking on the job knows that it will involve them being Returning Officer. So from the other perspective they are doing what they expected to have to do – but do indeed get a bonus payment on top of their usual pay packet.

The idea that there is a special extra payment for running an election stretches back to a time when contested elections were far less frequent (fewer elected bodies and uncontested seats more common). When having to run an election was an unusual requirement, an extra payment made sense. Now that regularly running elections is the norm it looks a rather unsatisfactory arrangement.

Moreover, payments have been made in full regardless of performance (even losing parts of the marked register from two different constituencies and failing to count the votes properly does not stop payment in full).

The government has started to move on this final point, with the rules for next spring’s referendum permitting payments to be cut in the case of sub-standard performance. That should be only the first step in a more radical set of reforms.

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