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Returning Officers

Volume 927: debated on Wednesday 2 March 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

For subsection (2) of section 17 of the Representation of the People Act 1949 (returning officers in Scotland) there shall be substituted the following subsection—
"(2) In Scotland, the returning officer for a parliamentary election shall be—

  • (a) in the case of a constituency wholly situated in one region or islands area, the person who, under section 6 of the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973 is, or may discharge the functions of, the returning officer at elections of councillors for the regional or islands council; and
  • (b) in the case of a constituency situated in more than one region or islands area. such person as aforesaid as the Secretary of State may by order direct.".'—[Mr. Harry Ewing.]
  • Brought up, and read the First time.

    1.15 a.m.

    I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

    While Scottish Members are familiar with the existing electoral machinery in Scotland, it may be helpful to the House if I briefly outline these arrangements and the reasons for the changes now proposed, including that provided for in this clause. In Scotland the duties of returning officer have for long been vested by statute in the sheriff. In setting up the administrative machinery for organising and running parliamentary elections the sheriff has traditionally looked to the sheriff court staff—essentially the sheriff clerk and his deputies—to assume the practical administrative responsibility. This they have readily and loyally done over many years—though latterly under increasing difficulty—on a voluntary basis. Election work has never formed part of their statutory duties, which relate essentially to the organisation and running of court business, which is necessarily geared to predetermined timetables.

    It is right that I should pay tribute to the efficiency with which the sheriff clerk service has carried out election duties over the years, latterly under steadily increasing strain—strain not merely on individuals, but strain setting the sheriff court machinery at risk.

    The sheriff clerk service is still numerically a relatively small service. The practical problem is not one of recruitment of volunteers to man the polling stations and to assist in the count. It is a question of where the key administrative responsibility for organising, setting up and supervising the machinery lies. Hitherto, this has necessarily rested in the quite small number of key officers—the sheriff clerks and their deputies. With a small service of this nature, the normal exigencies of the service—illness, retirements, staff transfers and promotions—have led to serious difficulties in certain constituencies during parliamentary elections in recent years.

    The factors mentioned have led to temporary postings having to be made at short notice in order to ensure that officers with the requisite experience were available to assume the electoral responsibilities—thus denuding other areas of senior court staff and adding substantially to the burden of maintaining the smooth running of court business. As a result, the service has been stretched to well-nigh intolerable limits, and in one or two constituencies very real difficulty in providing suitable manning at senior level has been experienced. Plainly, it has to be recognised that the heavy responsibilities involved in running parliamentary elections—necessarily at short notice are in modern circumstances incompatible with the basic duties of the sheriff clerk service, which—small in number—is necessarily geared to the expeditious functioning of the sheriff courts to fixed time-tables.

    For these reasons, the Bill provides for the vesting of the administrative responsibility for the conduct of parliamentary elections in Scotland in local authority staffs, which have the requisite experience derived from their conduct of local government elections. Indeed, for the reason I have already indicated, in 1974, local government staffs were made statutorily responsible for the conduct of the EEC referendum in Scotland. The decision to transfer the responsibility in relation to parliamentary elections was reached after consultation with the sheriffs, the sheriff clerk service, and the Convention of Scot- tish Local Authorities—all of whom endorse the proposed change.

    The clause, which formed part of the Bill as introduced, goes beyond that by transferring the statutory duties of returning officers from the sheriff to a senior local government officer, who will in practice be the chief executive of the regional council, or the director of administration. Just as hitherto the sheriffs principal as returning officers have appointed a number of deputies, so will it be open to the new returning officers to appoint deputies from their own senior staff, or the senior officers of district councils.

    The proposed transfer of the returning officer responsibility reflects the views of the various parties directly affected, as expressed in the earlier consultations, and since the Committee stage reiterated in particular by the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, which regards the present provision as essential to the smooth working of the overall change. Both the convention and the sheriffs have indicated that they would regard an arrangement, under which the sheriff continued to be returning officer, but looked to local authority staffs for the necessary support and assistance, as quite unsatisfactory and unworkable in practice.

    While at present, the sheriffs look to the sheriff clerk service for support in election work, they do so in relation to a body of staff that is responsible to them in all their normal duties and with which they are in day-to-day contact, usually within the same building. Clearly, this close working relationship could not readily be established in relation to local government staffs, who are responsible over the range of their normal duties to their chief executives, and in turn to the local authorities that employ them.

    The chief executives, who carry at the highest level a very wide range of very important responsibilities, have already been entrusted with the returning officer responsibility for local government elections—a responsibility that they have for some time discharged very efficiently and to the general satisfaction of all concerned. We have every confidence in their ability to conduct parliamentary elections with the same expertise and ability as has been shown in the past by the sheriffs and I hope that the House will, therefore, agree to the new clause.

    At this late hour I shall be brief. Like many other hon. Members, I do not really like the change from the sheriff clerk service to the officials of the local authority but the inevitable must be accepted in view of the evidence that the sheriff clerk service is unable to carry out the job that it has done so well for so long.

    I know from my own experience—which is now beginning to fade into the recesses of time—that three years ago the sheriff courts were extremely busy bodies. The growth in civil litigation, not to mention the explosion in criminal work, has led to great pressure on the courts and on the staff, particularly on the senior members of staff, for whom there has been the problem of training a lot of newer people coming into the service.

    If the sheriff clerk service will not accept the duties placed upon it, we have to accept that. I agree with the Minister that the expertise that has been acquired is considerable. It is not just a matter of taking junior members of the sheriff court service and putting them into positions of responsibility where they may have to exercise judgment, at times in delicate circumstances. We must look for officers with the necessary judgment, for, particularly when elections take place every three to three and a half years, some difficulties arise. In these circumstances I support the new clause.

    I used to have a great deal of sympathy for those who preferred the returning officer to be the sheriff rather than the chief executive of any local authority because of the so-called lack of bias of the justiciary. But I noticed two articles last week that helped to dissuade me from that view. One was in the Stirling Observer, which said that one of my constituents had been fined £150 at Stirling Sheriff Court for shoving his son's headmaster after being provoked. The other was an article in the Falkirk Herald stating that a farmer had been fined £10 for failing to put a safety guard on a piece of farm machinery whereby someone had been killed. That dissuaded me from any previous thoughts about lack of bias among sheriffs.

    Paragraph (b) of the new clause says:
    "in the case of a constituency situated in more than one region or islands area, such person as aforesaid as the Secretary of State may by order direct."
    How many such parliamentary constituencies are there in Scotland? I know that both my constituency and the Argyll constituency straddle two regional authorities. Who is likely to be my returning officer and have the honour of returning me as the hon. Member for West Stirlingshire at the next General Election? Will it be Dr. Boyle, the chief executive of the Strathclyde Regional Council, or that good friend of the Under-Secretary and myself, Mr. Geddes, the chief executive of the Central Region?

    The current feeling of the House, as I comprehend it, is very different from that in Committee. It was suggested then that the officers of district and regional councils could do the work and that the sheriffs could be brought in to take responsibility for the election.

    That was rather silly and so, too, was the suggestion that we should use the sheriffs because they are non-political. I have probably known more sheriffs at more elections than any other hon. Member, and I have never found them non-political. They may have been able to transcend their political feelings at the time of an election, but I always felt that the argument of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger), that chief executives could not subordinate their personal politics to the job in hand was unworthy of him. If we are to have council officers doing these jobs, the person who is in contact with them all the time and who is usually the head of staff is clearly the person to conduct the election.

    Practical difficulties have arisen from the inability or unwillingness of the sheriffs clerk service to work on elections. That was discovered in elections as long ago as 1963. The Tory Government of the time were concerned and steps were to be taken. On other occasions we have had to shift civil servants from Edinburgh to run elections elsewhere. There was no trouble in the last municipal elections and the local authorities carried out the EEC referendum quite well.

    As I understand the Bill, the question of European elections does not arise, because the Bill deals only with parliamentary elections. We may have prolonged and animated discussions if we ever get the Bill to provide for direct elections to the European Parliament, and I hope that those who resisted the recent guillotine will also join me in resisting any attempt to guillotine that Bill—we shall be looking for consistency. I am amazed at how few English Members are here and how few of those hon. Members who voted to keep Scottish business at Westminster are here.

    However, I leave that for the moment and commend the Minister on his insistence on having good sense in the Bill.

    If we are to use the district and regional council staffs, we should have the chief executives, who are in contact with the staff and who are their responsible heads, in charge of elections.

    1.30 a.m.

    This is an unsatisfactory hour at which to discuss this matter. I am disappointed that the Under-Secretary of State has brought back Clause 1, as it was when we went into Committee. The situation arises because the Scottish Grand Committee decided that the Government were wrong in their original drafting of the Bill. The Government were defeated in Committee on the issue. The Under-Secretary of State should have thought more logically and deeply about the matter before coming back and asking the House to reverse a decision taken in Committee. He has not thought about this logically, nor has his right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), who knows more about this issue than any other hon. Member.

    We are all agreed that it has been a welcome duty of the sheriff to conduct our elections. Everyone has expressed sadness that difficulties over staff, for instance, have made it necessary for the Government to make a change. We are all more or less agreed that it is good for the sheriff to be in charge of elections. We are also agreed that we cannot expect the sheriff clerk service to carry on with the entire burden of administration for parliamentary elections. We accept that there have been difficulties about this in the last two or three years. The Government are right to make new provisions for the staff who undertake the administration of elections.

    However, that is not incompatible with still having the sheriff as the senior returning officer. The logic of that is shown by the way in which elections have been run up to now. The sheriff does not do the administration himself. He does not have a direct day-to-day administrative task. He is generally attending to duties elsewhere and appoints some of his sheriff substitutes as deputy returning officers. It is they who bear the brunt of giving instructions to the sheriff's clerk and he and his staff do the administrative work.

    By removing Clause 1 all that has been done is to change the provision for appointing the principal returning officer. There is no great difference because the sheriff, as principal returning officer, is able to appoint not sheriff substitutes but officials from the local authority as deputy returning officers. In practice we know that such officials have done the administration and given instructions to their staffs.

    It seems to me, therefore, that the arrangement that the Standing Committee made was a very good one. It would maintain the position of the sheriff, with all the prestige that that office holds. All of us feel confidence in the impartiality of the sheriffs, and I think that the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock may feel a little regretful about his suggestion that there was some question of the sheriffs being non-political. I think that it was an unfortunate remark.

    The hon. Gentleman will remember that the remark arose out of his own remark in Committee, when he preferred sheriffs to chief executives because he felt that the sheriffs were more non-political than chief executives. That was unworthy of him.

    I do not want to pick an argument about this. But the right hon. Gentleman misrepresents what I said about chief executives. I have never said and would never say that chief executives would be liable to express political opinions. I do not know the political opinions of any chief executive, and do not want to. I said that chief executives are that much closer to the political process. They work for and with politicians daily. I made the point on Second Reading, which the right hon. Gentleman may accept even if he does not agree, that it is difficult to ask a chief executive to make a decision which may be unpalatable to a local politician with whom he may have to work for the next 25 years. I want it understood that I have never suggested, nor do I suggest, that any local authority officers would express their own political views. I am sure that they would not, and it would be quite wrong if they did.

    It is sad that the Government have not taken the opportunity of an admirable arrangement for keeping the sheriff as the chief returning officer and giving him power to appoint senior local authority officials as deputy returning officers with the benefit of local authority staff to do the work and thus getting the best of both worlds. This is not a major issue, but I regret the passing of the sheriffs as chief returning officers. It will not be the same without them. They have done a splendid job, as the Minister has said, for a long time.

    I have not been able to canvass all the sheriffs, and it would not have been correct to do so, but I have asked a lot of people who have been involved in running elections at various levels. None has any doubt that it would work smoothly if local authority officials were deputy returning officers.

    I am sad that the Government are asking the House to reverse a decision taken in good faith in the Standing Committee. I think that that Committee showed considerably more common sense that we have had from the Government. I regret that the Government are insisting on this change back, and I wish that I could see some way of persuading them to change their minds. Perhaps we can do so in another place.

    I hope that even now the hon. Gentleman will think again about it, for he is making an unfortunate mistake. We have put our case constructively and without political content. I hope that the Government will reconsider.

    I assure the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger) that I think that the debate has been entirely constructive, but the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) hit the nail on the head when he said that the inevitable must be accepted. With his legal background he knows the problems of the increasing work load on sheriff courts and their staffs. That is one of the reasons why we have to make this change.

    My own Member, the hon. Member for Fife, East (Sir J. Gilmour), said in Committee that he would be grateful if I could tell him anything about the European Parliament elections. I am grateful that I cannot tell him anything about them. The hon. Gentleman also asked who does the work when the elections with which we are concerned are being held. We have had consultations with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, and its members have discussed the matter with their own chief executives. We are assured that there will be no difficulties at election time in as much as the administrative work of the regions would continue as smoothly as usual. The House can have that assurance.

    My hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) asked how many constituencies straddled more than one region. There are eight parliamentary constituencies in Scotland whose boundaries straddle more than one region. They are Berwick and East Lothian, Midlothian, West Stirlingshire, Kinross and West Perthshire, West Lothian, Moray and Nairn, North Angus and Mearns and Argyll.

    My hon. Friend also asked who would return him at the next election. I can picture the scene now of Dr. Boyle of Strathclyde and Mr. Geddes putting their names in a hat. I am not sure which one my hon. Friend hopes will come out, but I am sure that one of them will have the great pleasure of returning him with a much larger majority at the next election.

    My right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) brought his long experience to the debate. I was certainly reassured, because he said that he saw the new system working well. My right hon. Friend's experience of elections amounts to more than the collective experience of many of us here. I should have thought that that in itself would reassure the House.

    Finally, I turn to the remarks of the hon. Member for Ayr. I always find that those who seek to bring logic to an argument miss the simple point. The reality is that the sheriffs no longer want to do the job that they have been doing wonderfully well for many years. They are under a terrible strain and have asked us to relieve them of this work as soon as possible. That is central to the argument.

    Is the hon. Gentleman certain that the sheriffs were not referring to the burden of administrative work, which I agree they do not want? However, I doubt whether all the sheriffs—to whom he has access and I have not—want to get rid of the actual job of being the senior returning officers and the limited and small amount of work that that involves.

    I should make it clear, in case there is any misunderstanding about the hon. Gentleman's remarks, that the only time that I appear before a sheriff is when I am paying my deposit as a candidate at a parliamentary election. I have not appeared before a sheriff in other circumstances.

    There are difficulties about liaison between the sheriffs and local authority staffs. They are under separate organisations and roofs. All the difficulties are apparent. However logical the hon. Gentleman's conclusions, the simple point is that the sheriffs want to be relieved of the work. We are respecting their wishes, and we are confident that the new arrangements will work well.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Clause read a Second time and added to the Bill.

    1.42 a.m.

    I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

    The Bill has been debated extensively in Committee and we have debated the main part of it on the new clause.

    1.43 a.m.

    I have only one question to ask in this brief Third Reading debate. What will happen in the three months before the legislation comes into effect? The Bill still has to go through another place. That could take about a month or two months. Therefore, it may be four, five or even six months before the Bill becomes effective.

    Bearing in mind the events of recent weeks, it seems likely that at any moment there will be a General Election. What chances are there of the existing administration being able to cope with a General Election, which we confidently expect to take place in the next few months? The Under-Secretary will find that the changeover will not be effected before the Government are put out of office? Will he tell us what arrangements have been made?

    The most worried person is the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger). I can reassure him. There will not be a General Election before November 1979. That is the latest that the Prime Minister could call an election. We shall have ample time to implement the Bill. On that score the House may may be completely reassured.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.