§ Dr. Marek
I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 13, at end add'but subject to the condition that any fees paid to any Returning Officer or Acting Returning Officer for conducting a combined poll will be no higher than what would have been the higher of the individual fees paid had the elections not been combined'.The amendment seeks to achieve greater fairness. Hon. Members will know that acting returning officers and returning officers receive a specified fee for conducting parliamentary and general elections. The fee for conducting parliamentary elections is about £1,000 and the acting returning officer in an average constituency receives about £1,100. For European elections the fee is much higher. Statutory instrument 995 on the representation of the people, which came into force on 13 June 1989, shows that for conducting a European parliamentary constituency election a returning officer receives at least £6,760, to which various emoluments are added. Returning officers at European elections would perhaps receive about £7,500.
535 Returning officers have a fully inclusive salary from their local authorities, and I do not think that they forgo any of that at any stage. On 23 January I asked the Home Secretarywhether for the 1987 general election any chief executive of a local authority (a) refused appointment as an acting returning officer or (b) took unpaid leave from their authority in order to carry out the function of an acting returning officer.The Minister of State, Home Office, replied:Chief executives of local authorities in England and Wales who are acting returning officers are not directly appointed to that office: they have a statutory responsibility to carry out the duties of acting returning officers by virtue of the fact that they are electoral registration officers appointed by a district or London borough council.Because they are appointed electoral registration officers, they automatically become acting returning officers. The Minister went on to say:We are not aware of any chief executive who took unpaid leave in order to carry out the duties of acting returning officer at the last general election."—[Official Report, 23 January 1991; Vol. 184, c. 185.]However, it is clear that there are constituencies where, if one is not an acting returning officer or returning officer but a presiding officer or poll clerk, one's pay is docked for the day because a poll clerk receives the princely sum of £50 or so and a presiding officer receives, I think, £84.
That does not seem to be fair. If people are paid an extra fee, so be it, although I am not sure that I am convinced of the rightness of that, but I do not see why, if there is a combined poll, that fee should be further increased. Schedule 2 of the statutory instrument relates to the scale of maximum charges in respect of services rendered and expenses incurred by returning officers for specified functions at combined polls. Where the returning officer conducts a parliamentary election on the same day as a European parliamentary election, the fee is £217. That is just the fee, but there are disbursements in addition. I do not think that there can be an argument for paying that sum, although it is small.
I am glad that the Minister agreed in Committee to consider again combined polls and fees paid. I hope that he has done so. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.
§ Mr. Maples
The hon. Gentleman said in Committee that he would return to the question. What he suggests is that, when two polls are conducted on the same day, the returning officer should receive only the higher of the two fees. We believe that the returning officer should receive more than the higher fee but less than the total of the two combined. There is more work involved in running a combined poll, but obviously less than in running two separate polls. The returning officer has more complicated arrangements to make for polling stations, counting ballots and the co-ordination and liaison of two polls being conducted at the same time on the same day in the same polling stations.
There are considerable complications in deciding exactly how the fees should be arranged in the circumstances of a combined poll. For instance, a returning officer might be the returning officer in both elections or he might be the returning officer in only one election.
The fees paid to returning officers in local government elections are set and paid not by the Government, but by local authorities. In some cases they may be incorporated in the returning officer's salary. The duties may be part of 536 his contract. They are more usually reimbursed with an additional and separate fee. The fees are agreed informally by local authorities. Most local authorities pay according to the scale that they have agreed.
There is the inter-action of three sets of fees—parliamentary, European and local elections fees—together with the different combinations of returning officers' duties. The same person could be returning officer in the parliamentary and the European elections, or the returning officer in only one. In the case of the parliamentary election, the returning officer could be returning officer for more than one parliamentary election within the same Euro-constituency or the same local authority.
We recognise the concern over the matter. Large fees are involved. It is clear that people should not get two fees. The hon. Gentleman's probing has thrown up anomalies in the regulations. There are no regulations which deal with parliamentary elections being combined with local elections. When the new regulations are introduced, we will deal with the problem. I cannot say exactly how we will do so, but we will make sure that a returning officer receives an appropriate amount more than the higher fee, but considerably less than both fees together.
In the case of a Euro-election, I am afraid that the regulations to which the hon. Gentleman referred do not make the provision which I have described as being the Government's policy. They allow for both fees to be paid, with the £217 in addition. That is a mistake. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for illuminating the mistake which we will put right. Those regulations will also be amended to make sure that practice is in line with policy, which would be that a sum appropriately in excess of the higher fee would be paid, but on no account would both fees combined be paid. On absolutely no account would a supplement in excess of both fees be paid.
I hope that that satisfies the hon. Gentleman.
§ Dr. Marek
I am glad to have been of some service to the Treasury. What the Minister said has been illuminating. There are, indeed, no regulations about parliamentary elections combined with local elections. What the Minister has said cheers me up. I think that we will get our financial business right as a result. It shows that the debate has been worthwhile.
In the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave withdrawn.
§ Dr. Marek
I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 2, line 10, at end insert`(3A) For subsection (6) there shall be substituted—(6) No superannuation contributions will be required to be paid by a local authority in respect of any person under this section as part of a returning officer's charges at a parliamentary election and no amount shall be charged on and paid out of the Consolidated Fund to any local authority for this purpose.".'.
Mr. Deputy Speaker
With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 10, at end insert`(3A) For subsection (6) there shall be substituted—(6) No superannuation contributions shall be paid by a local authority in respect of any person under this section as part of a returning officer's charges at a parliamentary election and no amount shall be charged on and paid out of the Consolidated Fund to any local authority for this purpose.".'.
§ Dr. Marek
These amendments deal with superannuation. The House will know that payments made to acting returning officers and to returning officers are superannuable. I shall not repeat our arguments in Committee, but general concern was expressed there about this practice for fees for elections. Conservative Members pointed out that the pensions of returning officers who retired after a spate of elections would be increased, while the pensions of returning officers who retired perhaps after four or five years without an election, or with only one election, would not be increased. It was felt that that was inherently unfair, and that there was an element of chance when an acting returning officer retired.
I would go further, as I do not think that such payments should be superannuable. The claim would again be against the Consolidated Fund. Returning officers have a good salary—as they should—and are well paid for the job that they do. Clearly, as they are appointed electoral registration officers and necessarily become acting returning officers, it could be said that the latter duties should be part of their duties on behalf of the local authority and that they should carry them out for nothing.
That is not the position and the history is somewhat different. However, it is unnecessary for any fees to be superannuable. It causes a lot of administration and introduces an element of chance. We could well do without it and I recommend to the Economic Secretary that the Treasury should save its money and keep the Consolidated Fund in a healthy surplus.
The two amendments differ slightly. The first states that:No superannuation contributions will be required to be paid by a local authority in respect of any person",giving the option to the local authority, if it so wished, to pay a superannuable contribution to the fee. Nevertheless, the amendment also states thatno amount shall be charged on and paid out of the Consolidated Fund to any local authority for this purpose.It is a permissive amendment, but it protects the Consolidated Fund from any depredations by way of superannuation contributions.
Amendment No. 2 is a little more strict and states that:No superannuation contributions shall be paid by a local authority in respect of any person under this section … and no amount shall be charged on and paid out of the Consolidated Fund to any local authority for this purpose.As I am a generous person, I have given the Economic Secretary a choice this time. He can accept either amendment, and I shall be delighted to hear which it is.
§ Mr. Maples
This is another matter that was raised in Committee and to which we said that we would return on Report. I am gratified by the interest of the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) in the health of the Consolidated Fund. I wish that his interest were shared by some of his colleagues, and sometimes by some of mine.
The question of superannuation is difficult. We discussed it in Committee, and hon. Members on both sides of the Committee expressed the view that payments should not be superannuable. I said in Committee that I would do two things. First, I would let the House know what procedure was necessary to change the arrangement and whether it was necessary to amend the Superannuation Act 1972, or whether this could be achieved by amending the 1986 regulations. It can be done by changing the regulations.
538 I said also that I would look into the matter and take it further within the Government. This subject really concerns the Department of the Environment and the Home Office. I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, telling him of the anxiety expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the Committee on this issue and suggesting that it is appropriate to look into the matter. I am sure that the hon. Member for Wrexham will understand that it is more complex than it appears on the surface. Therefore, I am not in a position to give him the Government's considered view at present, but I shall do so when a decision has been reached.
The amendments would simply stop the contributions. The fees would remain superannuable, under the 1986 regulations: the employee—in this case the returning officer—would have to make his contribution, but one of the amendments would stop the local authority from making its contribution while the other would give it the right not to do so if it so wished. In neither case would the authority be reimbursed from the Consolidated Fund.
The pension rights of the returning officer would remain in place, but part of the funding would be removed. We do not consider that that is the right way to deal with the matter. If the House decided that it wanted to deal with it by ensuring that such payments would not be superannuable in the future, the right way to do so would be to amend the 1986 regulations.
That would be a complex process, and would involve questions of fairness. Some people who have acted as returning officers for some time will have been paying money into their local authorities' pension funds for several years, and that arrangement could not suddenly change: transitional arrangements would be needed. We all take a great interest in our own pension arrangements, and I suspect that local authority chief executives and others who act as returning officers take an equal interest.
The views expressed in Committee by hon. Members on both sides of the House have been communicated to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. The Government are considering the matter, and I will inform the hon. Member for Wrexham as soon as we form a view.
§ Dr. Marek
I thank the Minister for that helpful reply. I assure him that the Opposition did not intend to deprive anyone of benefits that have already been agreed to, and which people expect to gain when they retire. The Minister is quite right: it is not a simple matter to table an amendment in the way in which we have sought to do. I readily accept that ours are defective.
I shall wait with interest to see what happens. Meanwhile, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Order for Third Reading read.
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Maples.]10.47 pm
§ Dr. Marek
The Bill has not taken too much of the House's time. In Committee, it took us a single sitting to go through a number of amendments, as a result of which certain things will happen that would not have happened 539 without our debate. This is, I think, an example of parliamentary deliberations improving a Bill. I hope that the Bill is now in a fit state to be added to the statute book.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.