Pay up, pay up and play the game!
Have your local councillors paid their council tax? And how keen were they to do so?
OUR interactive map below is the result of Freedom of Information Act (FoI) requests to the 377 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales that process council tax payments.
We asked for data relating to council tax payments due in the 2015-16 tax year. We asked how many councillors received reminder letters, how many were summonsed to court, how many of those cases went ahead and how many councillors were subsequently banned from voting on their council’s budget. We asked for the names of those summonsed and those banned from voting. Some councils were very helpful and gave us all the information we asked for, while others were much less forthcoming.
© Crown copyright Ordnance Survey
Of the councils that responded to our inquiries in full, 109 had a clean bill of health – no reminders needed to be sent. More than twice as many – 243 councils – had sent reminder letters to at least one councillor.
North Somerset, which has 50 councillors, was the worst for late payments – 10 reminders had to be sent. At least all paid up after receiving reminder letters. At Bradford city council, however, six councillors had to be summonsed to court – the highest number in the country. None of the six brought their accounts up to date before their court hearings, so the council had to get liability orders, allowing them to seize money or goods in lieu of payment. The council exercised those powers in all but one case, diverting members’ allowances to repay the outstanding amounts.
Across the three countries, 738 reminder letters had to be sent out and 157 councillors were then summonsed.
After being summonsed to court, only 67 councillors either paid their bill in full or did what one would assume they would advise their constituents to do – and sought help from the council, such as setting up a payment plan. The remaining 90 councillors seemingly did not take action to persuade their council from going ahead as their cases progressed to court (they were all in England and Wales as Scottish councils do not go down the judicial route).
In the vast majority of cases, the attention of the bench seemed to do the trick, as 74 councillors paid (or had their allowances taken). That left 16 councillors who did not – and were therefore unable to vote.
Of course, some councillors have good reason for failing to pay up: some have spoken of serious illness or bereavement, family crises and the collapse of businesses. During the information gathering process, some councils contacted the affected councillors and gave them a right of reply as part of the response to us. Some elected members were at pains to explain their unique predicaments.
People are not heartless – they would arguably forgive those affected by such trying circumstances, but very few councillors proactively “confess” to the electorate about financial faux pas until someone asks difficult questions.
To ward off hypocrisy, the Local Government Finance Act forbids councillors from voting on the council’s budget – and determining the council tax – if they themselves have missed payments for two consecutive months and have not taken action to remedy the problem. The act states that such councillors either have to stay away from the meetings or, if they want to show up, they must stand up before their peers and explain why they cannot vote. Failure to take those steps is a criminal offence and can result in a maximum fine of £1,000 at a magistrates’ court.
So, if you live in Blackpool, Durham, East Dorset, Erewash, Ealing, Maldon, Portsmouth, Rugby, South Staffordshire, Taunton, Uttlesford, Wakefield, West Norfolk or Wigan, at least one councillor who was supposed to be representing you could not vote at the most vital meeting of the year due to this law.
Indeed, it was the public’s right to know which councillors did not discharge their most important duty that was behind a crucial court ruling in March. Upper tier tribunal Judge Kate Markus QC, in an action brought by the Bolton News, ruled that the late-paying councillors should not have their identities protected by town hall chiefs.
Previously, politicians could skip council tax payments and therefore be banned from voting on the budget – yet stay anonymous under a questionable application of data protection laws. Despite the court ruling, 25 councils withheld the data, even after we got them to carry out internal reviews into their decisions. It is likely that the figures for non-payment will fall this year as councillors seek to avoid embarrassing exposure in light of Judge Markus’s ruling and our investigation.
Despite that ruling, as our investigation shows, councils’ responses were very varied – from full disclosure to claiming that retrieving any data would be “too costly”. Councils in general are getting more transparent, but many have yet to see the light.Only In The Magazine
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