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Archives for January 2012

Revealed - the councillors who had to be forced to pay their council tax

Graham Smith | 14:33 UK time, Sunday, 29 January 2012

The four Cornwall councillors who were so behind with their council tax that they had to be chased through the courts have been identified. They are Chris Pascoe, Jan Powell, Alex Folkes and Sasha Gillard-Loft.

All four councillors are Liberal Democrats, although at the time of her liability order Mrs Powell was a Conservative.

Chris Pascoe was the subject of a liability order at Truro magistrates in July 2011 for more than £1,800. Chris said the debt relates to a property owned by his recently deceased father, which was the subject of probate at the time.

Sasha Gillard-Loft's £210 liability order was issued by Bodmin magistrates on 23rd March 2010. She claims financial hardship.

Only a few weeks earlier, on 16th February, Sasha was one of 35 named councillors to vote against the proposed council budget. As liability orders usually follow three months of demand, reminder and final warning, the council this week had to check if there had been any breach of the 1992 Local Government Finance Act, which disqualifies councillors from voting on a budget if they are more than two months in arrears. Sasha was in arrears on the day of the budget vote, but by only one month and 16 days. She therefore escapes the risk of a fine of up to £1,000.

Alex Folkes, who two weeks ago admitted two liability orders, is now identified as having been the subject of a third. Alex said the third council tax summons "slipped his mind" and he apologised if in an interview on 17th January he had inadvertantly given a false impression. The council had to take him to court on 22nd April 2010, 23rd September 2010 and 12th July 2011.

Jan Powell's husband, Tony, says he was responsible for the liability order issued jointly against them on 25th August 2010. Tony, who last year was Mayor of Liskeard, says Jan had no knowledge of their £833.85 summons. He claims he offered a repayment-by-installments scheme to the council which, he says, should have prevented the liability order.

The disclosures, which come as a result of a joint investigation by BBC Radio Cornwall and the Falmouth Packet newspaper, mean that 10% of Cornwall Council's Liberal Democrat group had to be taken to court before paying their council tax between 2009 and 2011.

The revelations were made possible by trawling through public documents in magistrates' court records This increases pressure on the Information Commission to rule against Cornwall Council - which has stubbornly refused to identify the councillors, claiming that to do so would breach data protection laws.

The disclosures also make it clear that Porthleven councillor Andrew Wallis, who "outed" himself last year as having been the subject of a council tax liability order, was actually confessing to a non-payment which pre-dated the 2009-11 financial year accounting period.

There will be more on this - much more - on BBC Radio Cornwall's Breakfast programme on Wednesday morning.

Nearly there...

Graham Smith | 12:29 UK time, Sunday, 29 January 2012

As the Information Commission continues to ponder (more than five months now) whether Cornwall Council should name those of its members who failed to pay their council tax on time, I detect signs of rising excitement at County Hall. Resigned to their fate, some councillors are now demanding to know who are StAustellAdam and Zella?

Nailing jelly to the wall

Graham Smith | 08:13 UK time, Friday, 27 January 2012

Mudhook has an interesting analysis of how Cornwall's Lords voted on the government's Welfare Reform Bill. The position of Cornwall's Liberal Democrat peers is fascinating - sometimes for, sometimes against, sometimes against each other. Good luck to anyone trying to spot a party policy.

The parkers' lot

Graham Smith | 07:40 UK time, Friday, 27 January 2012

Full marks for enthusiasm to the traffic warden(s) who patrol Lemon Street in Truro....a Freedom of Information answer reveals the issue of 861 tickets there during 2011. The vast majority were issued to motorists parking in places reserved for local residents.

George Orwell would love this

Graham Smith | 15:52 UK time, Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Here is Cornwall Council's statement about today's ban on using Twitter in council meetings:

Cornwall Council has not banned the use of social media such as Twitter from its meetings. The Council is fully committed to openness, transparency and engagement including via social media platforms such as Twitter. In the case of today's meeting, the Leader was very concerned about the inappropriate nature of some of the tweets posted by Members and their potential impact on the reputation of the Council. He expressed these views during the meeting and instructed Members to refrain from making these inappropriate comments. Today's meeting of the Cabinet, as with all meetings of the full council, the Cabinet and strategic planning was webcast, not only on the Council's website, but also via local broadcast media. This demonstrates our ongoing commitment to making our meetings more open and transparent.

So a ban is not a ban, except when the council leader says it is. I think I've got it....

Don't worry, Ma'am, it'll be all right on the day...

Graham Smith | 15:06 UK time, Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Inquiries suggest that the total number of applications so far for street parties in Cornwall to celebrate the Queen's Diamond Jubilee

How many twits does it take to ban Twitter?

Graham Smith | 12:39 UK time, Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The new "protocols" designed to make Cornwall Council meetings more open and transparent appear to have resulted in a ban on elected councillors sending Tweets from today's Cabinet. You can Tweet from court, you can Tweet from the chamber of the House of Commons, but you can't Tweet from a council meeting? There are serious problems with the new rules, which I think broadcasting organisations will probably seek to raise formally with the council. The fact that they can be interpreted in such an illiberal manner, turning the clock back more than a year, serves to make the point.

Blessed are the engineers

Graham Smith | 08:27 UK time, Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Credit for the revival of this blog should go to BBC Radio Cornwall's engineer, Jamie Blake, who figured out a way of restoring my access to the site. I was once on track for an engineering career (A levels in pure maths, applied maths and physics) but somehow stumbled into journalism. I've survived nearly 40 years but I do sometimes wonder if I made a big mistake. What's the point of scribbling thousands of words if no-one can read them?

Morris dancing, on the rates

Graham Smith | 08:39 UK time, Tuesday, 24 January 2012

My thanks to whoever asked asked the FoI question about how Cornwall Councillors spend their Community Chest local funds. Conservative councillor Sally Bain spent £75 on new kit for the Tywardreath Morris Dancers. It's a small grant, to be sure, but they all add up. Schemes like this have cost taxpayers £500,000 over the past three years. I'm currently studying the detail of the council's answer and will post other snippets as they catch my eye.

A Socrates in every classroom?

Graham Smith | 13:40 UK time, Monday, 23 January 2012

Nine of Cornwall's secondary schoolteachers needed hospital treatment following assaults by pupils over the past five years. That's out of 89 reported cases of physical or verbal abuse. And those are just the official figures. Teaching unions suspect the real number is higher. Yet Ofsted says Cornwall's schools are a model of good behaviour. Who's right? Listen to BBC Radio Cornwall tomorrow morning.

Guns N' Roses

Graham Smith | 10:42 UK time, Monday, 23 January 2012

An interesting blog post from Launceston councillor Alex Folkes, about how he spends the £2,000+ "Community Chest" given to all council members to improve facilities locally. The £395 for his local gun club might raise a few eyebrows, not least from doctors and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The manufacturers of this particular air rifle describe it as "a very capable weapon." I don't suppose Alex's local gun club has anything like the political muscle of the US National Rifle Association but it is nevertheless a curious indication of priorities. I'd be grateful to hear reports of any similar awards made by other councillors.

All in it together

Graham Smith | 08:31 UK time, Monday, 23 January 2012

In October 2010 Cornwall Council's chief exec Kevin Lavery came on BBC Radio Cornwall to explain why he was offering to take a voluntary 5% pay cut for 2011, starting on 1st January. It looks as if the pay cut is staying in place for 2012. There has been no announcement, but no-one at County Hall seems to know when, if ever, it will return to it's full £200,000 plus benefits.

Why some turkeys might vote for Christmas

Graham Smith | 20:19 UK time, Sunday, 22 January 2012

The recent excitement over councillors who struggle to pay their council tax because, allegedly, they try to serve their constituents on a full-time basis for only £12,000 a year has come at the same time as the launch of yet another review to decide on an appropriate allowance, post next year's elections.

So for the next 12 months we can expect more tedious grand-standing and juvenile parading of hair-shirts, as councillors effectively offer themselves for the lowest tender (knowing that the review will recommend an increase anyway.) Sometimes politics is predictable and boring.

So how do you think the public would respond if Cornwall's political classes began campaigning to reduce the number of Cornwall councillors? The present number, 123, was arrived at in 2008 following an Electoral Commission study which the Commission itself felt was less than satisfactory.

The then chairman of the Implementation Executive, former county council leader David Whalley, had proposed a maximum number of 90 members and suggested a basic annual allowance of £18,000 for each. His ideas were thwarted by former district councillors who were, naturally, strongly opposed to their own abolition.

But does anyone think it would now be politically unpopular to advocate a reduction in the number of councillors, while maintaining the total remuneration pot at its present size - so, for example, a halving in the number of councillors could lead to a doubling of allowances paid to the rest?

This is of course a political question, as it would almost certainly redefine the sort of person seeking election to the council: over time, reducing the number of elderly and comfortably-off part-timers and encouraging a younger, more politically-motivated class of full-time local politician.

I have no idea whether this would lead to better or worse local services. But it would make it more difficult for the County Hall bureaucracy to routinely get its own way, and to that extent, would be more democratic.

And those who seek to spend our money could have no possible excuse for not paying their own taxes.

HR puff and stuff

Graham Smith | 10:23 UK time, Saturday, 21 January 2012

One of the less glamorous backwaters in which the unsung heroes of County Hall sometimes paddle unnoticed is the Human Resources Committee. Their lives are about to get much more interesting - so interesting that I fear for their future.

Starting next week, the members of this Cornwall Council committee have to start thinking of a form of words which will justify the £100,000+/year salaries paid to senior officers - or in the case of chief executive Kevin Lavery, £200,000+/year.

This is because the Localism Act requires

"a pay policy statement that is sufficiently clear and accessible that local taxpayers can take an informed view about whether the Council's policies are fair and make best use of public funds."
The need to spin this the right way is obvious, as a report to next week's HR committee makes plain:
"Pay, particularly senior pay, is a constant topic of interest for the press and the public. Although the preparation of the Council's pay policy statement will amount to a summary of existing policies it is likely to generate a lot of interest. It will be essential that an appropriate context and tone for the statement is set and that the statement itself uses plain language and is readily accessible."
I'm particularly looking forward to the "plain language." The committee has until the full council meeting on 27th March to come up with the right form of words.

At the same time, next week's HR committee agenda includes an item headed "The Future Of The Human Resources Committee," with the suggestion that an informal working group might help progress "specific issues."

I am confident that these two items are completely unrelated and that their timing and juxtaposition on next week's agenda is a total coincidence.

Missing the bus?

Graham Smith | 22:18 UK time, Friday, 20 January 2012

I've been waiting in vain for Cornwall Council to post on-line the recommendations which will go to Cabinet on Wednesday about supporting rural bus routes. These documents are supposed to go public at least seven days before the meeting, but it's now 10.20pm on Friday and there's still no sign of them. So I'll have to make do with the press release, which seems to save the interesting bit until the final two paragraphs:

"Our concessionary fare reimbursement of 73.5% of the average adult fare was far higher than most local authorities. We have taken the decision to reduce this figure to 50% - which is still higher than the level recommended by the Department for Transport. The tender process revealed that our 2012/13 budget for the supported bus network of £3.2m would require a significant reduction in the bus network....."
The devil, as usual, will be in the detail.

Will the last one to leave turn out the lights?

Graham Smith | 19:25 UK time, Thursday, 19 January 2012

It's nearly two years since I first crossed swords with the bosses at County Hall over precisely how many people who relied on Cornwall Council for earning a living would soon lose their jobs. The number has been something of a running argument ever since. Today I got the latest headcount statistics, which I think tell their own story.

  • 31 Dec 2009 20,994
  • 31 Dec 2010 19,479
  • 30 Sept 2011 16,367
That's more than 4,600 jobs in less than two years - relatively few of them compulsory redundancies, but household incomes nonetheless - with 3,100 in the first nine months of last year alone. I've asked if there is a target.

A councillor writes...

Graham Smith | 13:39 UK time, Wednesday, 18 January 2012

From my inbox:

May I be allowed to explain again why I fell behind with council tax payments.

We elected to pay council tax monthly at the post office along with some other bills and I agreed to make the payments. I was campaigning to retain post offices when they were being closed and felt this was a small positive action to support them. Similarly to support public transport I ususally go to County Hall by train and bus. In a period of years I missed one monthly payment last year because it slipped my mind for which I apologise, received a reminder and paid up immediately afterwards. When Radio Cornwall ran the story about 17 councillors being in council tax arrears I e-mailed their reporter Graham Smith that it was likely that I was one of them and was then interviewed on Laurence Reed's show.

The circumstamces of Alex Folkes and Andrew Wallis are different. They are both talented, hard-working, full time councillors who rely solely on their £12,000 per year allowance to support themselves. Both have given up better paid employment to serve on the council. From my long experience with the Citizen's Advice Bureau I know of the struggles many face paying their bills on very low incomes and it should be no surprise if councillors in the same situation face the same problems. So whilst in no way advocating non-payment of council tax I think Alex and Andrew deserve a little more sympathy than they are getting. Otherwise membership of Cornwall Council will become a reserve for the retired and wealthy out of touch with what it's really like to survive on low pay as many people in Cornwall have to do.

Ann Kerridge

Old County Hall to be a hotel

Graham Smith | 20:01 UK time, Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Extract from a report to next week's Cornwall Council Cabinet:
"The detailed enquiry to the Council regarding the availability of Old County Hall has been made by an experienced hotelier.The proposal is to sensitively convert Old County Hall into a 21st Century 4 star deluxe hotel. The building's original features and architectural features would be conserved and enhanced as a result of the conversion."

Nothing is certain but death and taxes (and internet rumours)

Graham Smith | 12:59 UK time, Monday, 16 January 2012

Launceston councillor Alex Folkes, deputy leader of Cornwall Council's Liberal Democrats, had to be made the subject of a liability order before paying his council tax in 2010. The total owed, including costs, was £793.62.

Alex got his first council tax bill on 8th March 2010 and did not pay it. In April he got a reminder - and did not pay that either. In May he got a final reminder, warning him that if he did not pay within seven days the council would seek a summons at the magistrates' court. And Alex still did not pay. On 23rd September Bodmin magistrates issued the liability order which eventually forced payment. It was the second year running that he had to be taken to court to extract his council tax.

The political fall-out from this could be substantial. Can a front-bench councillor, who aspires to the quasi-executive role of Cabinet office, really be taken seriously if he is not much more careful about paying his taxes?

Did the leader of the Liberal Democrats, councillor Jeremy Rowe, know about this? If he did, why did he allow Alex to remain on the front-bench? If he did not know, what does that tell us about the relationship between the leader and his deputy?

Back in October the Falmouth Packet did a good job of following-up its own August exclusive about 17 Cornwall councillors who were late paying their council tax bills. Some members had to be dragged to court to extract payment.

The Packet's list of nearly 50 councillors who have so far voluntarily declared that they HAD paid their tax on time leaves a cloud of suspicion over the remaining 70. We are still waiting for the Information Commission to rule on whether the council can hide behind Data Protection rules to keep the truth secret.

But the Packet's October story triggered a thread of comments which the newspaper bravely allowed to remain on its website. The nudge-nudge-wink-wink "look at Launceston" nature of these comments, with some cheekily suggesting "surely not Alex Folkes?" is becoming a standard way of spreading information in our modern media age.

So late last year I asked Alex about it. He was initially, and most unusually, lost for words. He then said he would neither confirm nor deny the rumours. Taking this as confirmation - but not good enough to satisfy the BBC's lawyers - I resolved to find the evidence.

Thus began a correspondence with officials at the Bodmin magistrates' court, leading on 6th January to my first-ever court appearance to make a formal application for permission to inspect their archives. A week later I found myself alone in a tiny consulting room, surrounded by large box files. There is much more information still to be dug out.

Nevertheless, details of Alex's late payment were there in the public record. Those details had been there for 16 months. And that is one of the reasons why I'm challenging the Information Commission to rule that Cornwall Council's attempt to keep secret the identities of late-paying councillors is nonsense.

For a start, the council's initial announcement put all 123 of its members under suspicion. Pretty unfair, I would have thought.

The council's position is illogical - the information about court summonses is already in the public domain. It is also unfair and discriminatory, because the information is more readily available to individuals and organisations with more time, money and resources than is traditionally associated with small, local media.

The council also claims that as its members pay their taxes (or not) as individuals, they should be afforded the same privacy as the thousands of other late or non-payers. I dispute this. Councillors are not "ordinary" individuals: they make tax-and-spend decisions denied to most of us. If they are in arrears with their taxes, and vote in a budget, they are committing a criminal offence. They ask us to make character judgements at election time. These are all factors which make councillors different - not superhuman, but different - to ordinary individual citizens.

No-one expects councillors, or any other politicians, to be immune from human failings. But if someone seeks election to office in public life they must expect to keep very few secrets.

So far only two councillors, Ann Kerridge and Andrew Wallis, have volunteered the information that they might be among the 17 late-payers declared by the council. Ann missed a payment and was sent a one-month reminder; Andrew was summonsed. Both came on BBC Radio Cornwall to talk about the circumstances and it seems both can face the electorate next year with a clear conscience.

I think it is inevitable that, eventually, the names of all 17 late-paying councillors will be made public. If the council does not publish voluntarily, the Information Commission might rule that it has to. And even if the Commission decides in favour of the council, the political reality is that we live in an age where "nudge-nudge-wink-wink" comments on Twitter, blogs and local newspaper websites will make sure The Truth Is Out There.

More on this on BBC Radio Cornwall later this morning, when you can hear my interview with Alex. With a full council meeting to follow, it could be quite an interesting day.

Does it take a thief to catch a thief?

Graham Smith | 14:32 UK time, Tuesday, 3 January 2012

More details on Laurence Reed's programme tomorrow:

Under the Freedom of Information Act, please could you tell me how many of your officers have criminal convictions and what offences they were convicted of.

In your response, please could you indicate in each case whether the conviction occurred before the officer joined your force or while they have been serving.

In addition, if since 1st January 2008, any officers have resigned or been dismissed from their jobs following a criminal conviction, please could provide the number of officers and their offences.

The Professional Standards Department have provided the following information:

Under the Freedom of Information Act, please could you tell me how many of your officers have criminal convictions and what offences they were convicted of.

Officers (before joing) 90; (while serving) 11

• Considerable historic detail is known due to compulsory questionnaire sent to all officers in 2010
• Convictions "Before joining" date back as far as 1970 and include numerous as juveniles
• Convictions "While Serving" include Driving offences, Drink Driving, Data Protection and Common Assault

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