The councillors learning that withholding information has unintended consequences

Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with a Freedom of Information request which asks councils to reveal how many councillors have been chased to pay their council tax – either by letter or, in extreme cases, with court action.

Most councils release the information, but won’t name who the councillors as, citing data protection. Fair enough, the rules allow it.

But in Birmingham, it’s led to a peculiar situation.

The story in the Birmingham Mail revealed that:

16 current or past city councillors have been pursued for non-payment in the last two years – with two elected officials even receiving court summonses after falling into arrears.

Elected members – who cannot be named due to data protection – were sent reminder letters chasing arrears totalling nearly £4,400 during the 2011/12 and current financial year.

Figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show six Labour councillors, six Conservative councillors and four Lib Dems were contacted after failing to cough up on time.

Local government correspondent Neil Elkes, in his blog, reveals that the result of the council withholding the names of those involved has been something of a gossip frenzy within the town hill in Brum:

Within a few hours of the story breaking about five or six names had been put forward, within a day or two it was ten to 15.

There is now a list of about 25 councillors who are suspected of late payment.

One poor councillor even admitted they had double checked their receipts over the last two years to ensure it wasn’t them.

Some of the sources are more reliable than others – but even so there has been no paperwork, nothing in black and white.

Putting aside the amusing fact that many councillors in Birmingham clearly have quite a low opinion of each other, what does this story tell us?

Hopefully, it’s that withholding information can have unintended consequences – and in this case, it’s that ‘innocent’ councillors who did pay on time are now suspected of having not paid.

Of course, the council will argue it has acted properly within the rules governing FOI and data protection, and I’m not suggesting it hasn’t. What I am suggesting is that a system which permits partial release of data will always lead to people filling in the blanks.

And where councillors are concerned, I’m pretty convinced there’s a strong argument for revealing all. After all, they chose to be elected to help spend council tax. We now just need the law to reflect that.

 

5 comments

  1. Interesting stuff. Can’t say I agree that privacy should be withdrawn for councillors like that – that would only serve to offer another barrier to average Joe/Jane standing for election.

    Also, I have been sent a court summons for non payment of council tax and can tell you it’s not hard to get to that point. Councils are notoriously harsh when it comes to collecting payments and there are plenty of examples of them neglecting to send out the reminder letters they are legally obliged to, as happened in my case.

    Also note that the court summons is not what it sounds like (a summons from the court) – it is a summons from the council to appear in a room they’ve hired from the court, staffed by a council employee who you can argue your case with (wonder how that goes most of the time).

  2. Oh absolutely. Standing for election as a representative of local people MUST mean that all your private affairs are available to the public. We should know when they pay their milk bill late too. And any debts they owe to their Mum. Oh, and every household argument. Let’s get it all out there. Privacy? Pah. Too good for the lot of ’em…

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