Sunday, 14 August 2011

Did you pay your council tax on time?

The warmest congratulations to The Falmouth Packet for its scoop about how one in seven Cornwall councillors failed to pay their council tax on time. Over the past two years, no fewer than 17 elected members needed reminders before paying their bills. One had to be threatened with court action.

The Information Commission is now considering whether the council should identify those responsible for wasting officer-time to recover more than £5,000 in unpaid taxes. The council claims it has obligations under the Data Protection Act to keep the names secret.

There are several issues here. Should councillors be treated any differently to ordinary citizens, who would not normally be named if they were simply late with their payments? Fourteen of the councillors needed a second reminder letter. Again, ordinary citizens would not normally be named.

The identity of the councillor who had to be dragged to court in order to extract payment is already in the public domain, although it will be difficult to find that name without the resources to trawl through thousands of official records. I would be surprised if, in the case of this individual, the Information Commission does not rule against the council and in favour of disclosure.

The Packet's story naturally prompts further questions. Are any of the 17 late-payers members of the council's Cabinet? Was it fair of the council to release this partial information, potentially damaging the reputations of 106 members who diligently paid their tax bills on time?

The council employs more than 19,000 people and I'd be amazed if all of them paid their tax bills on time - but who should be named and who should be treated like "ordinary citizens?" Those earning more than £50,000 a year? £80,000?

Within County Hall, lists are circulating which contain the names of all 17 late-paying councillors. Who should see these lists and who should not? Why does the Data Protection Act allow some councillors to know which of their colleagues are behind with payments, while others are denied this information?

There is a long-held convention in political life that people who seek election to positions of power and influence are not "ordinary citizens." Once elected, they do have to answer to a higher God. Should they seek re-election, you can rest assured that their political opponents will find a way of publishing the information.

So here's an opportunity for all members of Cornwall Council to clarify the situation and put the record straight. If you are one of the 106 members of the council who paid your tax on time, you can declare it publicly on this blog.

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