Council blocks request to identify councillors who received summons over non-payment of Council Tax
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Liverpool City Council has referred itself to a regulatory body after failing to release the identity of councillors who received a court summons. A Freedom of Information request (FOI) revealed that over the last five financial years, two Liverpool councillors received a court summons regarding the non-payment or late payment of Council Tax.
Further requests have since been sent to the local authority, asking for the identities of the councillors to be revealed, however, the council has chosen not to disclose. Despite blocking the request, the council now says it has referred itself to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) over the decision.
The independent body deals with issues raised over the release of information, with key responsibilities under the Data Protection Act 2018 and Freedom of Information Act 2000. Usually, the ICO becomes involved when a member of the public believes an organisation has failed to release information thought to be in the public interest.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Liverpool City Council said: "As required by the Act, we have carefully considered the balance between the public interest to know this information, and the rights to privacy over tax matters for the individuals concerned.
"Following a review, we have confirmed our view that the balance of public interest in these specific cases is for non-disclosure. We can also confirm that no councillor has breached their obligation not to vote on a Council Tax motion whilst in arrears."
They added that they "recognise that this matter raises important issues of principle with wider implications for local government" and that they will "abide by" the judgement of the Information Commissioner.
The local authority has also published the full letter sent to the ICO, written by Andrew Lewis, Chief Executive at Liverpool City Council. It reads: "I am writing to you following a request we have received from the Liverpool Echo under the Freedom of Information Act. The journalist, Liam Thorp, is asking us to release the names of sitting City Councillors who have received a court summons for council tax arrears.
"We have released the fact that this applies to two councillors. However, having carefully weighed up the personal circumstances which applied in these two cases, we have reached the conclusion that the balance of public interest is that the names should not be released. This conclusion was confirmed at stage two of our procedures. We have also issued a public reassurance that no councillor has breached their obligation not to vote on a council tax motion whilst in arrears.
"Mr Thorp has stated that he will apply to the ICO, and if necessary to the court, to secure the withheld information. We support his rights to do this and recognise that this case raises important issues of principle, in balancing the right to information, against the reasonable expectations of individuals to privacy in their tax affairs. We therefore felt it important to draw this to your attention, and we will of course make all the relevant documents available to your team.
"Following past failures in governance, Liverpool City Council is working hard to enact best practice in transparency. If, after considering the issues that apply in this case, you believe the public interest is best served by disclosure, we will of course comply with any ruling made by your office. We would also welcome any further guidance you can offer on how councils should balance the public interest in these cases."