The government has approved plans for European elections as a contingency measure, and has confirmed that returning officers will be reimbursed for any costs incurred as a result of preparations.
Following the failure of Friday’s vote to break the Brexit deadlock, the government announced yesterday evening that it is no longer able to guarantee that the UK would not participate in EU elections on May 23.
As LGC reported yesterday, returning officers had expressed concerns at having to stump up election planning costs for which they did not expect to be reimbursed for, in the event that the European elections did not take place in the UK.
But the Cabinet Office has now confirmed that returning officers will be reimbursed in the usual way for any expenditure on activity that is necessarily undertaken, at this stage and in the coming weeks, to prepare for the possibility of European Parliamentary elections.
In a letter sent to the chief executive of The Electoral Commission Bob Posner, David Lidington, the cabinet office minister and de facto deputy prime minister, said he appreciated that speculation over recent weeks has contributed to “unusual circumstances” for returning officers and electoral administrators.
But he also sounded a warning note that returning officers will want to be “particularly mindful” of the need to use public money appropriately. “This is particularly the case in the current circumstances,” he added. “For example, thought should be given to what actions are strictly necessary ahead of the start of an election timetable and what can be undertaken on a contingency basis given that circumstances may continue to change.”
The news was welcomed by Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators. “Our members have been conscientiously putting plans into place should the elections be held on 23 May, and are working with printers and other suppliers to ensure that any costs are kept to a minimum,” he explained.
Andrew Muter, who acted as a returning officer for 11 years and was Newark and Sherwood DC chief executive until last year, said it was a “sensible decision” but had come “a bit late in the day”. “It takes a bit of pressure off returning officers because it helps with budget planning – but we are still in a pickle as to whether we are having EU elections or not, so significant pressures remain” he said. “This is all taking a considerable amount of staff time and it will be interesting to see whether they will let us claim for that too, or just the cash outlay – some of my colleagues may be pushing the argument for that,” he said.
“It would be interesting to see some guidance published by the government for returning officers about what this situation means.”
Mr Stanyon said that if the UK opts for an extension to its EU membership after 12 April, returning officers will have their “feet on the accelerators” as they prepare for the “headache” of the EU election process as the “starting flag” for the elections is the publishing of the notices, which has to be done on April 15 – three days after the current Brexit deadline.
He warns that overlaying a general election on top of all this, as some commentators are speculating is a possibility, will mean returning officers and their teams would go into “meltdown”.
An Electoral Commission spokesperson said that the electoral community is experienced in delivering well-run elections, but added that “as with any electoral event, the shorter the lead in time, the more difficult it would be to deliver a well-run poll.”