Not setting the Council tax – My letter to Maghull Town Council leader Caroline Esterson

Below are some extracts from my letter of 7th March to Caroline Esterson – wife of Sefton Central MP Bill Esterson

Dear Caroline,

I am trying to get to the bottom of how the Town Council has put itself in the invidious position of having asked Sefton Council to collect a precept figure for 2013/14 which even as I write simply does not exist and will not do so until the Full Town Council meeting on 20th March approves a budget and precept for 2013/14.

As you will be aware the Parish Councils in Sefton usually set their budgets and precepts for the following year in January or early February yet Maghull Town Council has done neither to date and only intends to do so on 20th March. However, it is very clear that someone acting on behalf of the Council (I know not whom or the date it was done) telephoned Sefton Council informing its Finance Department that the Town Council had set a precept for 2013/14 and even gave them a figure to collect from Maghull’s Council tax payers. Sefton followed that telephone call up with an e-mail requesting confirmation and a copy of the Town Council’s budget.

You will be aware that I raised this issue at Sefton Council’s budget meeting on 28th February because I knew that the information that Sefton was supplying to its councillors in its own budget report, where it referred to the Town Council, was erroneous and indeed completely without foundation. I attach a copy of a letter that Sefton’s Head of Finance circulated on 1st March referring to the matter.

The fact is that the Town Council has not set a precept and should not be trying to pretend that it has prior to actually doing so.

I also raised my concerns at last night’s Town Council Finance Committee meeting and was told at first by Cllr. McKinley, who was chairing the meeting, that a precept had been set and that such was minuted. Cllr. Blackburn pointed out that there were no minutes saying any such thing. I was then told that a ‘direction of travel’ had been agreed and that the precept was not going to increase. I am not sure what this means or who agreed to the ‘direction of travel’ but on the basis that my Group is proposing a reduction in the 2013/14 precept (tabled but not voted upon last night) it certainly is something that has not been discussed at any meeting we have been invited to.

In case there is any doubt, can I make it clear that a Parish Council budget and precept has to be agreed at a meeting of the Full Council and no one acting for the Town Council has the right to anticipate what a precept may be and ask for it to be collected without such authority.

I realise that you may well be operating with what I will call an unofficial Cabinet made up of the Committee Chairs and Vice Chairs. Could it be that this unofficial body, which has no powers what so ever within Parish Council legislation and has not been sanctioned by the Full Council, gave the instruction to report a precept to Sefton Council as the billing authority?

Whatever the circumstances that led to the Town Council acting in the way that it did I would appreciate sight of any documents or minutes where the authorisation was given, to anyone acting on behalf of the Town Council to contact Sefton Council and declare that it had set a precept. If you require a Freedom of Information request to be able to provide me with such evidential material then please make that clear.

Should no documents or minutes exist which authorise the course of action outlined above please detail for me in writing what your understanding is of the process used to declare to Sefton Council that the Town Council had set a precept.

Yours sincerely.

Cllr. Tony Robertson

Political cartoons

The cartoon of Sefton Council’s Labour Leader and a red herring that I posted about recently was very well drawn and it took me back to my time as Leader of Sefton Council when I agreed a Council budget one year with the then Labour Group Leader Dave Martin, who has sadly since died.

The Council was ‘balanced’ at the time so no one party had overall control like Labour and Peter Dowd do now.

The Champion under its then editor Martin Hovden produced a Morecombe and Wise type cartoon of me and Dave Martin sat in bed together. If it was meant to offend it didn’t and I recall we both laughed about it. Strangely all kinds of folks kept asking me if I was upset about it as they clearly thought I would be.

Cartoons of those in power have long been used to great effect and I quite like them but whether Peter has laughed at himself with a red herring I have yet to find out.

Maghull Town Council – a budgetary fiasco, a deadline missed and a strange story about a phone call and an e-mail

Let’s return to the precept of Maghull Town Council or, more to the point, the lack of one that I exposed yesterday.

Last night was Sefton Council’s yearly budget meeting and there in black and white in the published papers for the meeting was a report that said Maghull Council had informed officers of Sefton Council that it had set a precept demand! How could that be when it has done no such thing?

By the way, my colleague Cllr. Simon Shaw, an accountant by trade and probably the only person I know who can get his head around the weird world of local government finance, had, as usual, been looking into the many nooks and crannies within the Borough’s finances. Simon had also read this blog so he knew that Maghull TC had not held a budget meeting. He had been asking questions and had been informed that a Maghull precept request had been telephoned through from Maghull Council.

“That’s strange,” thought Simon. “How can a Council that has not set a budget or precept yet for 2013/14 telephone through to Sefton Council (who collect the precept money via the Council tax bills) a figure, to be collected from Maghull’s Council Tax payers, which does not actually exist?”

It was clearly time to ask more searching questions at Sefton’s Budget meeting like:-

What is Sefton Council going to do because it is clearly being asked to collect money that it seemingly has no legal right to demand from Maghull Council tax payers?

You can probably appreciate that there were some astonished faces in that Council Chamber; both councillors and Council Officers. What’s more, 7 of the Borough Councillors who sat in that Sefton Council budget meeting also sit on Maghull Town Council – 5 of them being from the ruling Labour group; the other two being Cllr. Andrew Blackburn and me who are opposition members on Maghull Council.

But the point is that all 7 of us must have known straight away that whomever had telephoned-through a ‘precept demand’ (subsequently confirmed by e-mail, I am told) for Maghull Council could not have had any evidence what so ever to back up such a demand.

So, not only has Labour-run Maghull Council failed to set a budget/precept to date it has asked Sefton Borough Council to collect money that Maghull Council has no legal right to request and that Sefton, as the collecting authority, surely has no right to demand from Maghull’s Council tax payers!!!!!

Watch as this appalling ‘carry on’ is played out…………………….

Maghull Town Council fails to set a legal Council tax demand!

I know I keep on saying things like ‘you could not make it up’ about Maghull Town Council under its now 21 months of Labour rule but they really are at it yet again. However, this time the self-made crisis ranks as one of the biggest failures of local council governance that you could ever imagine!

It’s a failure to set a budget and legal precept for the financial year 2013/14, indeed a budget meeting for Maghull Town Council has only just been called for the 6th March and according to the Council’s published timetable of meetings a precept will not be confirmed by the Full Council meeting (a requirement of legislation) until 20th March!

So far, all that has happened is that a presentation on a draft ‘work in progress’ budget was given at a Finance Committee meeting by a Council officer on 23rd January. That ‘work in progress’ was not voted on. After that there was mention of a budget for 2013/14 at a meeting on 6th February when we were told by a senior Labour Councillor that the budget was being ‘taken back to the drawing board’. My posting of 7th February refers.

All 10 Parish/Town Councils in our Borough (like those across all of England) set their budgets for the following municipal year before Sefton Council sets its own budget. Such has been the case for generations. This year Sefton Council sets its budget today – 28th February. However, Maghull’s Labour Leaders have, for reasons known only to themselves, not put a budget and proposed precept demand before the Town Council for a decision to be made within the proper timescale. Indeed, with the 1st of March being the usual deadline for a Parish Council to agree a precept, Maghull Council is in a sorry position because it can’t legally call a meeting in time to meet such a deadline. Three days clear notice have to be given of a Parish/Town Council meeting not including the day of the meeting or the day the papers are issued.

I should explain, at this point, that a budget and precept are two different but directly linked matters. The budget, as you would expect is an informed estimation of the Council’s expected income and intended expenditure for the following year. The precept is that part of the income which is demanded from Council tax payers and this is the important matter that has a deadline attached to it.

Surely it must be the case, must it not, that Maghull Council cannot now make any demand upon the Town’s Council tax payers for a precept in 2013/14 because it has failed to make a decision on an amount it wishes to demand from them within the accepted timescale. The positive angle to this farce, at least for the hard pressed Council tax payers in Maghull, could be that Maghull’s Council Tax bills will be much lower than anybody was expecting i.e. NIL payable to the Town Council!

We Lib Dems have been demanding a Council Tax reduction from the Town Council, something that Labour has opposed. However, they may just have delivered the mother of all reductions via the biggest cock-up you could imagine!

This could now leave Maghull Town Council in one hell of a financial and governance crisis and the obvious question that comes to mind is why on earth has the Labour run Council put itself and the Town that it is supposed to be representing in such a position?

Maghull Town Council – It’s all change AGAIN – Lib Dem opposition members are and then are not to be thrown off Council committees.

What on earth is going on Labour run Maghull Town Council? They only reorganised and drastically reduced the size of the Council’s Committees a few months ago, because their own members were not turning out for meetings, then they give notice of reorganising again, just as 3 more Labour councillors have resigned!

This all started with a document that was issued by the Labour administration with the papers for the Town Council’s meeting on 6th February. It clearly showed that the 3 Lib Dems on the 16 member Council (10 Labour, 3 vacancies) were to be excluded from the Amenities, Personnel and Communities Committees, whilst oddly letting us stay on the Audit & Governance Committee. The Finance Committee was also down to return to being one where every member of Council sits on it having had its numbers drastically reduced just weeks ago.

Then the meeting happens and things get turned on their head!

Well it was certainly a turn up for the books as we Lib Dems tried to work out what the Labour run Council was up to because, after publishing a very clear and specific document that chucked us off the committees mentioned above, they then effectively disowned their own document saying it was wrong! Now we Lib Dems are not to be thrown off the committees, so why on earth did Labour write and publish a paper that says we were to be? If the document had been so fundamentally wrong, as Labour claimed it was how come they did not stop it being issued?

This is either a ridiculous political blunder that makes you wonder what on earth they were thinking or they really had decided to hoof us off committees and then decided not to do it because……..You don’t publish Council documents like this and then disown them at least you don’t on a normal Council.

You really could not make this up – but I assure you it did happen!