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Indemnity for Returning Officers and Acting Returning Officers: UK Parliamentary Elections

Volume 687: debated on Thursday 14 January 2021

It is necessary for the Cabinet Office to indemnify returning officers in England, Scotland and Wales against uninsured claims that arise out of the conduct of their duties in the course of a UK parliamentary election or by-election. This is because for purposes of UK parliamentary elections, returning officers and acting returning officers throughout Great Britain (referred to below as “ROs” and “AROs”) are statutorily independent officers. They are separate from both central and local government. As a result, they are exposed to a variety of legal risks varying from minor claims for injury, to significant election petitions and associated legal costs.

ROs and AROs make their own arrangements to insure themselves against any risks they face in taking forward their statutory duties at local and UK parliamentary elections. The cover obtained usually forms part of the local authority’s own insurance arrangements. While this insurance will cover certain risks to which ROs and AROs may be exposed at UK parliamentary elections, they could ultimately be liable for claims of a type not covered by insurance policies. They could also be liable for claims that exceed the insurance limits in existing cover.

In the light of this, the Cabinet Office proposes to continue to provide ROs and AROs with a specific indemnity for UK parliamentary elections to supplement the insurance policies that have been arranged locally. On this basis, I have today laid a minute setting out the Cabinet Office’s intention to extend the current arrangements which indemnify ROs and AROs against claims that arise out of the conduct of their duties in relation to UK parliamentary elections.

The indemnity will cover ROs’ and AROs’ costs (including reasonable legal costs and reasonable expenses) incurred in connection with a UK parliamentary election, which arise in relation to their discharge of responsibilities as RO or ARO but fall outside of the scope of the insurance cover which they have arranged locally, and where all other forms of recourse have been exhausted. The indemnity will be limited to the extent set out in the departmental minute.

The indemnity will cover costs arising in relation to UK parliamentary elections, including byelections, where the date of the poll is on or before 1 May 2024. The indemnity is subject to exceptions identified in the minute, but is unlimited in terms of the maximum amount it covers per claim. If the liability is called, provision for any payment is to be met from the Consolidated Fund.

It is normal practice, when a Government Department proposes to undertake a contingent liability in excess of £300,000 for which there is no specific statutory authority, for the Minister concerned to present a departmental minute to Parliament giving particulars of the liability created and explaining the circumstances; and to refrain from incurring the liability until 14 parliamentary sitting days after the issue of the minute, except in cases of special urgency. The Treasury has approved the proposal in principle.