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Local Government Elections and Referendums: Covid-19 Indemnity

Volume 691: debated on Thursday 25 March 2021

On 5 February, the Government confirmed that the council, mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections scheduled for 6 May 2021 will be going ahead as planned, and published a delivery plan outlining how these polls will be delivered in a covid-secure way. Since then, the Government have put in place a number of measures to support statutorily independent returning officers to deliver these elections successfully and with the right precautions in place. I have also today updated Parliament separately on the wider progress being made to support delivery of the local polls on 6 May 2021.

The Government have already, in line with usual practice, provided an indemnity in relation to police and crime commissioner elections. The delivery plan also included a commitment to provide a further indemnity for local elections and referendums1, in respect of covid-19 risks, in order to address any gaps in coverage of existing local authority insurance.

It is necessary to indemnify returning officers and counting officers in England against uninsured claims in this way because, for the purposes of local elections and referendums, returning officers and counting officers are statutorily independent officers and are separate from both central and local government. As such, they are personally liable for the conduct of the local elections and referendums. Existing insurance that covers returning officers and counting officers in discharging their statutory duties at local elections will not, in most cases, cover them against claims in relation to covid-19.

In light of this, I have today laid a minute setting out the Cabinet Office’s intention to indemnify returning officers and counting officers on this very limited basis at local elections and referendums in England taking place between 6 May 2021 and 4 May 2022 inclusively. The Treasury has approved the proposal in principle.

The purpose of the indemnity is to ensure that returning officers are financially supported if any covid-19 related claims are brought against them in relation to the local polls. Whilst the indemnity provides for reimbursement of costs incurred once a claim has been concluded, we want to support returning officers wherever possible to deal effectively with claims brought against them. We will look at any such claims on their merits and seek to provide returning officers with any relevant support we are able to give them to effectively and robustly defend such claims. It is right that returning officers can be held to account for the conduct of the polls but it is also right that we support these individuals financially in that process.

The indemnity covers (but is not limited to) a returning officer’s or counting officer’s liabilities to the public, as an employer, or otherwise incurred in his or her professional capacity:

in relation to any claim for personal injury or death where the cause of action relates to the contracting of covid-19 due to participation in the election or referendum process in the context of the returning officer’s or counting officer’s exercise of their functions, or

as a result of a challenge to the conduct of the election or referendum by an election or referendum petition arising from alleged poll irregularities caused by the covid-19 pandemic.

The indemnity only covers losses, liability, damages, costs, claims, proceedings or expenses incurred in relation to the conduct of the local government election or referendum arising from covid-19 related issues. There is no limit on the number of claims which a returning officer may make under this indemnity.

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.

1 This refers to council tax referendums, neighbourhood planning referendums and governance referendums held in England under the relevant legislation.