'˜Transparency' vow after u-turn on Leeds councillors' tax arrears

Leeds City Council has pledged to publish annual details of serving councillors who are in arrears with their council tax payments - just weeks after it was forced into an embarrassing climbdown over the issue.

Leeds Civic Hall

As previously reported, the local authority had refused to accept it must identify councillors who have been sent a court summons over unpaid council tax, and was all set on using public money to launch a legal challenge to keep their names secret.

This was after the Information Commissioner upheld an appeal from the Yorkshire Evening Post, and said the names of four Leeds councillors should be disclosed after the authority refused a freedom of information request.

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However the council eventually backed down from the legal bid, and disclosed the names of the four Labour councillors who had received a summons during the last two financial years. They were Arif Hussain, Pauleen and Ron Grahame and Kim Groves.

Now, the council’s deputy leader James Lewis has revealed that in the future, details of councillors in arrears will be published annually.

Addressing today’s (Wednesday) monthly full council meeting at Leeds Civic Hall, he said: “We have as a council apologised for not releasing this information earlier and will also be recommending that the authority publishes annual information in the future. More information on this will be provided once it is finalised.”

Coun Lewis was speaking in response to a question from Lib Dem opposition councillor Jonathan Bentley, who wanted to know which cabinet member had authorised the decision to appeal the initial ruling.

Coun Lewis said: “The decision to appeal the ruling of the Information Commissioner in relation to members and their council tax was made by officers of the council and did not require authorisation from an executive member.

“In all four cases, the sums related to a single missed payment and all four summonses were subsequently withdrawn without going to court.

“The appeal was subsequently withdrawn as, on reflection, it was decided that it would be better for the council to be fully transparent about the matter.”

He stressed that the council had been given “clear legal advice” based on case law when it took its earlier decision.

Councillor Bentley responded that it was “interesting that when it’s not a good news story, it’s officers who take the flak for it”, adding: “I am grateful for the answer and the sensible climbdown on the original decision.”

However he also suggested that “failure by members to make adequate arrangements to pay their council tax risks bringing them into disrepute - and attempts to withhold the information from the public brings the whole council into disrepute”.

Asked by his Lib Dem colleague to “ensure absolute transparency on this information in the future”, Coun Lewis stressed again that ”we have apologised in terms of this decision, and we have made it clear that the information will be published on an annual basis”.

The council’s earlier stance had prompted an outcry, including an online petition and criticism from campaign group the TaxPayers’ Alliance who said it showed “a contempt towards public scrutiny”.

Announcing last month’s u-turn, chief executive Tom Riordan said: “Sometimes we don’t get things right and we need to acknowledge that.”