THANKS to the advent Freedom of Information laws, public sector bodies accept the need to be open, transparent and accountable to taxpayers over their probity. It’s why town halls don’t now quibble when asked to confirm the council tax status of elected councillors, the people who make spending decisions on behalf of voters.
When Bolton Council challenged the public’s ‘right to know’, a landmark tribunal set a legal precedent by ruling in favour of openness by saying there was a difference between late-paying residents, who would not normally be named and shamed, and councillors because “elected officials should have a greater expectation of scrutiny”.
A decision which forced a reluctant Sheffield Council to belatedly comply, Leeds Council still refuses to disclose the identities of four councillors who fell behind with their council tax payments and were issued with a court summons before they belatedly paid up. Who are they and why have they been treated like this?
Though the identities of three other late-paying Leeds councillors are now known, while another attributed their case to a bereavement, the prevailing culture of secrecy on these outstanding cases impinges upon the hard-earned reputations of those members whose financial affairs are beyond reproach.
Not only does this intransigence bring the council’s reputation into question at the end of a difficult year which has been dominated by fallout from the Trolleybus scandal, but Leeds is now the only authority in this region putting secrecy before the public interest. On whose orders?
To compound matters it has already amassed £1,200 in legal fees challenging reasonable requests – another misuse of taxpayers’ money when the Labour-led authority is making staff redundant and pleading poverty over the Government’s parsimonious spending settlement.
As such, Leeds Council chief executive Tom Riordan is duty-bound to order full disclosure. Even though his officials maintain that the cases concerned only involve one monthly instalment being accidentally missed, a summons is only issued as a last resort after at least one reminder has been posted. As this cover-up makes matters even worse than necessary, it is only right that the electorate should be the final arbiters.