Revealed: How Norfolk councils took action against dozens of politicians for unpaid council tax

PUBLISHED: 11:24 11 October 2016 | UPDATED: 12:16 11 October 2016

Councillors Paul Darby, Mick Peake, Baron Chenery of Horsbrugh and Graham Peake all had liability orders granted by councils to collect unpaid council tax.

Councillors Paul Darby, Mick Peake, Baron Chenery of Horsbrugh and Graham Peake all had liability orders granted by councils to collect unpaid council tax.

Archant

Their decisions determine how millions of pounds of our money is spent.

But when it comes to paying their own council tax some councillors are less forthcoming.

Today we reveal how councils have pursued dozens of their own politicians for not paying the tax – and name those where the councils have taken the cases to court.

In Norfolk, Waveney and Fenland local authorities have taken action in 44 cases in the last three years because of councillors falling into arrears.

Most cases end with the council sending a reminder letter to the councillor and the tax is then paid.

Left: Michael Chenery of Horsbrugh, Norfolk County councillor. Right: Councillor Mick Peake from King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council. Photo: King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council. Left: Michael Chenery of Horsbrugh, Norfolk County councillor. Right: Councillor Mick Peake from King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council. Photo: King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council.

But in some cases local authorities have gone to court to obtain liability orders to collect the tax owed.

John O’Connell, chief executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, said: “Council tax has risen in England by over 60pc in the last two decades so taxpayers have every right to be angry that their money is being spent pursuing elected representatives who haven’t paid on time.

“Some may be in financial difficulty, in which case they should have the help and support afforded to others. But the rest should be leading by example and anyone who has failed to pay what’s due ought to have the guts to own up.”

Left: Swaffham mayor Paul Darby. Right: Councillor Graham Middleton of King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council. Photo: Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council. Left: Swaffham mayor Paul Darby. Right: Councillor Graham Middleton of King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council. Photo: Kings Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council.

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk

In King’s Lynn and West Norfolk, the borough council went to court to get liability orders against three councillors for not paying council tax.

A liability order is a legal demand for payment which is granted to councils by magistrates so they can collect the debt owed.

Those councillors were Baron Chenery of Horsbrugh, Michael Peake and Graham Middleton.

Baron Chenery, who represents Rudham Ward for the Conservatives and is also a Norfolk County councillor, was summonsed in May 2014 for £1,432 in unpaid tax. A liability order was granted and the money was paid.

The councillor, who sits on six council committees, was also issued a second court summons in August 2015 for a further £2,035 of unpaid tax which was paid after a court granted a liability order.

He was summoned for a third time in three years in May for £1,130 of unpaid tax. As of July this year he still owed £918.

Councillor Chenery admitted he was sometimes late paying the tax but said: “I always pay my council tax, but the issue here was I owned my property but I rented the one next door.”

He said he had two cottages and lived in one, but he was charged council tax for the second property too.

Empty properties can be exempted from council tax if the council agrees they are empty, but if they are used for storage or rented, the tax must still be paid. He said he had reached an agreement with the council over paying the tax owed.

King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council also went to court in September 2014 to get a liability order for £820 of unpaid tax from Michael Peake, who represents Denton Ward for the Conservatives.

Mr Peake said the unpaid bill came about through a “mistake”.

He said the money had since been paid and he had set up a direct debit so he would not be late with payments again.

Councillor Graham Middleton, who represents Old Gaywood Ward for the Conservatives, was also summonsed in February this year for £424 of unpaid tax which has been paid.

He was also given a court summons in May 2016 for £1,109 of tax owed. More than £900 of that sum remained outstanding in July 2016. Mr Middleton said he had fallen into arrears because he thought he had a direct debit set up with the council to pay the tax but hadn’t. He said it was a case of “miscommunication” and had now set up the direct debit.

Breckland

In Breckland, action has been taken against five councillors over unpaid tax since 2014.

In four of those cases, councillors were sent reminder letters and paid up.

But one councillor, Paul Darby, who represents Swaffham for the Conservatives, has been written to by the council in each of the last three financial years over unpaid council tax.

Mr Darby, who was appointed mayor of Swaffham in May, was sent a final notice in 2014/15 and that was followed by a court summons for £669 of unpaid tax. At court, a liability order was given.

More than £100 of the debt was still outstanding this summer, but Mr Darby said it was now almost paid in full.

In 2015/16 a court summons was also sent to Mr Darby followed by a liability order for £180 for unpaid council tax. That figure was then paid.

Mr Darby said: “As a councillor, I take my responsibility to set a good example to the community I represent really seriously.

“Without council tax we cannot provide the services and support needed by residents in our district.

“As a resident, however, I face the same kinds of financial challenges and issues that are experienced by many of the people I represent.

“At the time I went into arrears, I was facing some significant difficulties, due to redundancy.”

Broadland

Broadland District Council sent more reminder letters to councillors over unpaid tax than any other local authority in Norfolk and Suffolk.

It has sent 31 reminder notices to 17 councillors since 2014.

All amounts owed, totalling £4,370, have been paid.

That included nine reminder notices in 2014/15, 16 last year and another six so far this year.

Norwich

In Norwich there were eight councillors who action was taken against – two in 2014/15, four in 2015/16 and another two so far this year.

In all cases the amounts owed – totalling almost £1,394 – were paid in full after the reminders were sent.

South Norfolk

South Norfolk Council took action against four councillors over unpaid tax, but have refused to name them, claiming all four were “exceptional circumstances”. They said one case was the result of “simple error”.

A second councillor was sent a reminder about missed payments but was “extremely busy” because it was the time of 2015 district council election.

A third councillor fell into arrears because of “an administrative misunderstanding” and was sent a reminder. And in the fourth case there were “very personal circumstances”.

North Norfolk

In July, North Norfolk District Council revealed it had obtained liability orders against four councillors over unpaid tax.

They included Conservative councillors Annie Claussen-Reynolds and her husband Roy Reynolds, who represent Fakenham’s Lancaster North ward, totalling more than £3,000. Liability orders were also obtained against councillors Steven Ward and Andreas Yiasimi in 2014/15 and 2015/16. Both apologised for the late payment and said they had made a mistake. Steven Ward is no longer a councillor.

The chief executive of the council said in July she was making councillors’ arrears public in the interests of transparency and democracy.

Fenland

David Oliver, leader of Wisbech Town Council and a cabinet member of Fenland District Council, has been sent reminder letters for council tax in each of the last three years.

On all those occasions he made an arrangement with the council to pay off the arrears. Mr Oliver, who is also on the Cambridgeshire police and crime panel and on Wisbech Town Council’s planning committee, said “changing business circumstances” meant some of his council tax payments had been “delayed” but said he had always paid in full.

Meanwhile, councillor David Connor has been issued a court summons three times for unpaid council tax at two of his properties.

Mr Connor was first sent a reminder in June 2014 to pay a bill of £1,500. He was then summonsed to court in July 2014 and given a liability order for £1,278. Mr Connor has not responded to requests for comment.

Great Yarmouth Council, meanwhile, said they had not taken action against any councillors in arrears.

All paid up in Suffolk

In Waveney one councillor has fallen into arrears since 2014 and had action taken against them.

Jose Bamonde, who is no longer a councillor, received a summons in 2014/15 when he was representing Carlton Colville at Waveney District

Council. He later paid in full. He could not be contacted for comment.

No other local authorities in Suffolk took action against their councillors.

How we got the information

We put in requests under the Freedom of Information Act to all local authorities asking for details, including names, of any councillors who action had been taken against for not paying council tax.

Council tax is collected at district or city level, meaning our figures do not include Norfolk County councillors.

Many of our requests were refused or only answered in part.

Broadland District Council initially refused to provide any information, claiming it was exempt under the Data Protection Act.

We appealed this decision successfully.

We also successfully appealed Breckland’s decision to not name a councillor who had twice received court summons for not paying council tax.

The EDP also appealed Waveney’s decision to not name a councillor summonsed to court.

Other councils did not name their councillors because the cases did not get as far as a court summons, with the councillors paying when they were first told they were in arrears. Councillors have previously not been named for non-payment of council tax, but a judge ruled in March that should change.

The ruling said: “The identification of a defaulting councillor involves an intrusion into his private life but it is an intrusion that a councillor must be taken to have accepted when taking office.”

•Do you have a story that needs investigating? Email tom.bristow@archant.co.uk

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