LEEDS Council has refused to accept it must identify councillors who have been sent a court summons over unpaid council tax and is using public money to launch a legal challenge to keep their names secret.
The Information Commissioner has upheld an appeal from the Yorkshire Post and said the names of four Leeds councillors should be disclosed after the authority refused a freedom of information request.
But the council has said it won’t comply with the ruling – a manoeuvre denounced as “preposterous” and “showing a contempt towards public scrutiny and accountability” by campaign group, the TaxPayers’ Alliance.
Instead, the local authority is to challenge the Commissioner’s decision at a tribunal having paid £1,200 for external legal advice as well as using significant staff time fighting the case. A spokeswoman said a further estimated £3,500 has been earmarked to pay for legal costs at the tribunal.
Leeds’ stance flies in the face of every other council across the region disclosing information about councillors receiving summonses for failure to pay council tax and their arrears over the last two financial years.
The only other authority initially refusing to provide information - Sheffield - has now done so after another successful appeal to the Information Commissioner by the Yorkshire Post. That has revealed one Labour councillor - Nasima Akther - was legally barred from taking part in the key council meeting to set the annual budget because of her arrears and other, Lib Dem Steve Ayris, was subjected to a liability order.
Sheffield Council was also sharply criticised by the Commissioner for initially refusing to even check its records to see if any councillors were defaulting on their council tax on the grounds it would be breach of their privacy.
Leeds Council initially provided limited information on two councillors who had been made subject to liability orders for non-payment and declined to identify two others in the same situation.
The authority also refused to say if there were any other councillors who had been summonsed to court but paid up before a hearing. As a result of the FOI appeal and subsequent ruling by the Commissioner it has emerged there are a further four councillors in that position, who the council are refusing to identify.
The council was also required to disclose more details of those councillors who had received liability orders, bar one who had suffered a bereavement whose details the appeal acknowledged were likely to be withheld.
The council did agree to that disclosure and revealed Labour councillor Asghar Khan received a liability order, as well as other Labour members Ghulam Hussain and Jonathan Pryor it had previously publicly acknowledged.
A Leeds Council spokeswoman defended the authority’s refusal to comply with the Information Commissioner’s decision which places the authority in a unique position in comparison to councils across the region.
She said: “The fact the Information Commissioner upheld our decision in one case justifies that challenge. The decision to go to tribunal was based on the specifics of these cases and after taking proper, independent advice.
“We certainly do not encourage missing council tax payments but we felt there were mitigating circumstances. These were that in all cases one instalment had been accidentally missed, reasonable explanations were given as to why and all outstanding debts were immediately paid.”
But John O’Connell, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “This is preposterous. Local residents, who have seen their council tax rise 16 times over the last twenty years will be wondering how the Council can justify spending taxpayers’ money on expensive court cases, instead of agreeing to reveal the information as directed by the Information Commissioner.
“If someone is genuinely struggling to pay their council tax then they should get the support they need but this secrecy is extremely unhelpful and shows a contempt towards public scrutiny and accountability.”