BUMPER election pay-outs to returning officers have come under fire after it emerged they have pocketed more than £1million in just two years.

A number of Scotland's 32 council chiefs will collect tens of thousands on top of their salaries for overseeing May's Holyrood election and European Union referendum a few weeks later.

With three elections and two referenda being held between 2014 and 2016, returning officers will pick up an average of £34,000 on top of salaries ranging from £120,000 to £16,000.

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This means that just 18 months at the helm of the country's biggest council, Glasgow's Annmarie O'Donnell will bank £75,000 over and above her £160,000 wages by the conclusion of the Brexit poll.

Had she been in the post during 2014, during the European elections and independence referendum, this would have topped £110,000.

Across the same two-year period around £90,000 was paid to Edinburgh's returning officer, with payments of £50,000-plus made to the chief executives of councils including North and South Lanarkshire, Fife and the Highlands.


The financial windfalls for returning officers who supervise the ballots has prompted calls for an urgent reform of the system.

Navraj Singh Ghaleigh, a senior Lecturer at Edinburgh University specialising in electoral law, described the payments as “antiquated allowances” and a legacy of how elections were run in the past.

He said: “There is no obligation for a returning officer to take these payments, it is not salary, and some do not. Moreover, as elections have become more frequent, organising them has been professionalised and routinised. There are standardised practises and procedures in place that local governments follow, for elections of all types, and referendums.

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“If you were starting with a blank sheet of paper you would not have this ad-hocism and pretty old-fashioned way of rewarding people with a pretty old fashioned system of payments.”

The core duties for returning officers include nominations, polling stations, appointment of officers and clerks, managing the postal votes, verifying and counting votes and declaration of the result, with the payments made by the UK Government.

But with the increased frequency and standardisation of running elections, on top of the financial squeeze felt by almost every other local government employee, there have been calls for council chief executives' core duties to include those of returning officer.


The head of the organisation representing the 32 chief executives has also said the payments system "would probably benefit from review".

Willie Sullivan, director of the Electoral Reform Society Scotland, said while returning officers had a vital "and sometimes tricky job" the public would find the sums "quite remarkable".

He added: "The importance of these roles makes one wonder why they are not already part of the job description. Then perhaps some of this money could be spent on convincing Scots who don’t vote, the majority of whom are poor, that voting is worthwhile."

GMB Scotland Secretary, Gary Smith, said: "While the lowest paid in local authorities across Scotland are facing redundancies in their thousands or cuts to terms and conditions, people will be outraged that handsomely paid CEO's are enjoying significant top-ups to deliver democracy.

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"A sense of perspective is obviously missing in executive offices, given its the very workers facing massive cuts who are contributing towards these top-up's with their own taxes."

Malcolm Burr, chairman of the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, said elections were now subject to increased audit with returning officers having personal responsibility.

But he added: "It is right that those responsible are appropriately remunerated for their work and responsibility. However it is undeniable that the system of remuneration is an old fashioned one and would probably benefit from review."

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman said: "Returning officers have traditionally been paid an extra fee because their role is statutorily independent from their normal employment and delivering properly conducted elections is a considerable responsibility. Those fees have always been capped to ensure value for money for the taxpayer but we keep this under review."