THE Information Commissioner’s Office said it was “at a loss to understand” why Sheffield Council had initially refused to even look for information on councillors’ non-payment of Council Tax.
The authority had claimed it would be a breach of members’ privacy to locate the information after receiving a Freedom of Information request from the Yorkshire Post.
Officials made the claim despite the council already monitoring whether it has any councillors legally barred, under section 106 of the Local Government Finance Act, from taking part in the annual budget meeting if they are more than two months in arrears in payments.
The decision notice upholding The Yorkshire Post’s appeal said: “The Commissioner is at a loss to understand why the council has not even confirmed that the requested information is held.
“There can be no… detriment in determining whether information is held.
“Indeed, it could be argued that the council has an obligation to ensure that its councillors are in compliance not only with section 106, but also the obligations they are under in respect of protecting council resources, acting in accordance with the law, and acting in accordance with the trust placed in them by the public.”
As a result of the decision, Sheffield Council disclosed Nether Edge and Sharrow Labour councillor Nasima Akther had been unable to take part in the March 2015 meeting to set the budget after running up arrears of £240.24.
Coun Akther’s inability to represent her constituents at the meeting was not publicly recorded.
Instead, the absence of the councillor, who received an allowance totalling £10,513.54 in 2014/15, was recorded under apologies for non-attendance.
She said: “When I finished my studies in 2013 I was looking for work for a year and fell into council tax arrears of £240.
“At the time I was a single mum of a teenage son and had to pay for private rented accommodation and was trying to avoid eviction.
“I experienced financial hardship like many people have over the past few years and know the situation that many of my constituents face when they are struggling to pay the bills each month.
“I am sorry I was unable to vote but I worked two jobs to clear the debt and voted in 2016.”
The council also said Graves Park Lib Dem councillor Steve Ayris had been summonsed for non-payment and given a liability order to pay a debt of £809.37 in June last year.
Coun Ayris, who received an allowance of £11,742 in 2014/15, said: “Sadly, even local councillors are not immune to financial pressures, particularly those on a basic allowance and with no other steady income.
“I would urge anyone in a similar situation to contact their local council tax office.
“More often than not, they will agree a repayment arrangement.
“In my case, fortunately, I was able to bring mine up to date 12 months ago, well before the end of the council tax year.”
What Leeds said about councillors who didn’t pay
LEEDS Council has disclosed some further information about councillors who were made subject to liability orders for non-payment of council tax while guarding the identity of others who received summonses but paid up before a court hearing.
The council had initially said Roundhay Labour councillor Ghulam Hussain and Labour colleague Jonathan Pryor, who represents Headingley, had been required to make payment by a court but declined to say the amounts involved or identify other councillors in the same position. It has now disclosed Asghar Khan, Labour councillor for Burmantofts and Richmond Hill, was required to pay £798 including court costs for non-payment during 2014/15.
The authority said Coun Khan, who received £25,087 in council allowances in 2014/15, had been issued with a summons in joint names with his business partner who it said had taken on responsibility for council tax on their properties and Coun Khan had been unaware of the non-payment.
“As soon as Coun Khan became aware of the non-payment, he immediately settled the outstanding amount in full. He also has changed the arrangement for notification so that he is personally made aware,” the council added.
Coun Khan said: “I am sincerely sorry for this totally unacceptable oversight.
“I will now take full responsibility to ensure all future council tax bills are paid on time and in full.”
The council also revealed Coun Hussain had received four separate liability orders on properties he owned, one in 2014/15 and three in 2015/16, after being summonsed for totals ranging from £150.86 to £1,219.34.
It said the summonses related to properties owned by the councillor but leased as part of his landlord business.
Coun Hussain, who received an allowance of £24,425.36 from the council in 2015/16, previously told The Yorkshire Post
he apologised for non-payment, for which he made no excuses, and said he had made arrangements to ensure it wouldn’t happen in future.
Coun Pryor, who received an allowance of £23,392.63 last year, was given a liability order after being summonsed to pay £247.23 in 2014/15 and another one after being billed for an outstanding amount of £983.86 in 2015/16.
He said: “I apologise for what was an unacceptable oversight which occurred as I moved house in 2015.
“I paid in full as soon as I was aware and have now set up a direct debit to ensure it doesn’t happen again.”
The authority has insisted it was right not to disclose details of four other councillors who received summonses but paid up before a court hearing because those cases remained a private matter between the councillor and the council.