HL Deb 14 March 1977 vol 380 cc1405-8

9.45 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill transfers responsibility for the conduct of Parliamentary Elections in Scotland to the local government service. It replaces provisions in the Representation of the People Act 1949 under which the returning officer in a Parliamentary Election is the sheriff principal, who is a member of the Judiciary. The Bill provides that the returning officer's responsibility will be vested in the local government officer who acts as returning officer at elections to region and island councils and provides that the supporting administrative machinery for returning officers will come from the local authorities instead of the sheriff clerk service, which has carried out this duty on a voluntary and non-statutory basis.

It may be helpful if I trace briefly the background to the changes now proposed. Serious difficulties in operating the present electoral machinery have arisen mainly because the sheriff, in discharging his statutory duty as returning officer, has by tradition naturally looked to his own sheriff clerk and his staff to assume the practical administrative responsibility for organising and running Elections. Given that this work has never formed part of the official duties of sheriff clerks and their staff, it is a tribute to their loyalty and sense of duty that they have efficiently performed the task over many years, though latterly under increasingly severe strain. These strains have become the more evident with the steadily increasing workload of normal sheriff court business to the stage at which, during the two most recent General Elections, very real difficulties were experienced in a number of areas in providing key senior staff.

The pressure for change has come primarily from the sheriff clerk service and it has had to be recognised that the additional workload which Elections engender over a short and intense period is, in modern times, incompatible with the service's basic duties, which relate essentially to the organisation and running of court business necessarily geared to pre determined timetables. In the light of these very real practical problems, consultations were initiated with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, the sheriffs principal, the sheriff clerk service and the political Parties in Scotland with a view to determining the most appropriate arrangements for the future.

An obvious possibility was to transfer responsibility for the organisation of Parliamentary electoral machinery to local government staffs who have, of course, considerable practical experience of running local government elections on a continuuous basis. They were in fact made responsible for polling machinery in Scotland in the circumstances of the EEC referendum in 1974. On that occasion the machinery operated most satisfactorily, in spite of occurring at a time when the local authorities were in the throes of their own reorganisation.

The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities indicated that the local authorities would be agreeable to taking on the duties of organising Parliamentary Elections and the general balance of opinion among other interested parties also favoured this solution. The local authorities were very definite that, in the event of such change, the returning officer should be the returning officer for region and island council elections, with an entitlement to call on the support of local government staff in the districts. The possibility of the sheriff principal continuing to be the returning officer with local government staff organising elections on his behalf was also canvassed.

As was perhaps to be expected, however, neither the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities nor the sheriffs principal themselves considered that an arrangement of that kind would be at all workable in practice. They took the view that it would be most unsatisfactory from the point of view of both the local authorities and the returning officer if the latter was obliged to discharge his responsibilities through key staff who were not responsible to him in the course of their normal duties and working in an entirely different organisation. The most practical solution, therefore, was to adopt the proposal to appoint as returning officers those local authority officers or returning officers at regional and island council elections and to place a duty on all local authorities to make officers available and to assist them in discharging their responsibilities.

Put simply, that is the background to the Bill. I do not think that, at this stage, I need describe each clause on an individual basis, but I would emphasise that the Bill gives effect to the views of those most concerned with providing the electoral machinery; namely, the sheriffs, the sheriff clerk service and the local authorities as expressed through the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Kirkhill.)

9.52 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, for explaining concisely the aims of the Bill. As he probably knows, I was aware towards the end of 1973, when I was Secretary of State for Scotland, that the sheriff clerk service and their staffs were finding it more difficult to carry out the duties that they had been performing in relation to elections because of the many other functions and the increase in their work that took their time. They expressed their doubts towards the end of 1973 as to whether they would be able to continue to do this work. The equivalent service South of the Border has not done this in recent years.

In the event, during the 1974 Elections, help was drafted in in certain areas from the Scottish Office because of the inability to carry out all the work by the traditional methods. However, I should remind the House that many extra staff had been employed on a temporary basis in order to man polling booths and carry out the counts and that many of these were local government officials as well as bank clerks and others. The responsibility for being returning officers and supervising elections in Scotland none the less lay with the sheriffs and the sheriff clerk service. The object of the Bill is to transfer that responsibility to local government.

The sheriffs principal, the sheriffs and the sheriff clerk service have carried out the duties extremely well in the past. I am sure that all who have been connected with elections would agree with that. I know that there are a great many people in Scotland who are sorry, or who will be sorry when they hear that this change is taking place, that the sheriffs will no longer be the responsible persons. In another place a change was made at the Committee stage which would have left the responsibility with the sheriffs. They would still have been the returning officers, though the work would have been carried out under their supervision by the local government staff. I myself think that this would have been the best solution. It would have been the one preferred by most people in Scotland who were used to the sheriff being the returning officer and who understood this traditional system. In the event, that was reversed at the Report stage in another place and the Bill was restored to its original form.

I do not intend to return to that or to pursue it again for it was discussed at some length in another place, but I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, one question at this stage. Can he tell us what would happen if there were to be an Election before the Bill is enacted and before the arrangements for which it provides can be made? For example, if there were to be a General Election in May, it seems unlikely that the Bill would have completed its passage or that the new arrangements could have been made. I know that the Prime Minister has dismissed the idea of an early Election and I am sure that I am only speaking theoretically. None the less, one ought to know whether the arrangements are adequate should there be an Election in the near future. After all, two months must be a long time in politics. So I hope that the noble Lord can assure us that provision has in the meantime been made to cover the situation satisfactorily before the Bill, with the new arrangements, enters into force.


My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord's brief response to my earlier comments. I wish to emphasise again that the proposal which was made in the other place and subsequently defeated did not of course carry the assent of the sheriffs principal themselves, and that was always a difficulty. With regard to the very unlikely possibility of a General Election occurring in the next two months, I can give your Lordships the assurance that an adequate electoral service at this level will be forthcoming.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.