Northern Ireland news

Councillors fail to pay rates bills – but Stormont won't name them

Two Belfast councillors failed to pay their rates on time in recent years
Brendan Hughes

FOUR councillors failed to pay household rates totalling more than £2,500 in recent years.

One elected representative had legal action taken against them for owing almost £2,000, records uncovered by The Irish News reveal.

But the Department of Finance body which collects rates - Land and Property Services (LPS) - is refusing to identify the councillors who did not pay up on time.

It comes a year after a local authority in England was forced to name a councillor who had failed to pay council tax after losing a lengthy legal battle to keep it a secret.

Alex Wild, research director of the Taxpayers' Alliance, said there is a "clear public interest" in releasing the names of councillors failing to pay their rates.

"If councillors are unable to afford to pay the same bills they demand of their residents, they really should consider their positions," he said.

"There's a clear public interest in the names of councillors not paying their rates bills being made publicly available so residents can make a better decision next time they vote for their local representatives.

"In the meantime, authorities should explore ways of recovering costs from those in arrears, perhaps by deducting the amount owed from any allowances councillors are due to receive."

The details of council members not paying their rates on time were disclosed by LPS following a series of freedom of information (FOI) requests by The Irish News.

In Belfast City Council, two councillors owed £111.60 and £174.64 at the end of 2014/15, and £56.40 and £49.15 at the end of 2015/16.

The outstanding amounts were eventually recovered by their next payments.

Across the other council areas, a further two councillors also had unpaid rates in these years.

One councillor at the end of 2014/15 owed £1,303.02 and in 2015/16 owed £1,896.58.

Court action was taken to secure the debt, but as of last year the outstanding balance had still not been paid in full.

Another elected representative had £392.24 of unpaid rates in 2014/15 and the authorities threatened court action, but the amount was subsequently paid in full.

More councillors could be involved, as LPS said many of the addresses provided in the FOI request did not match with the councillor names given.

LPS had initially refused to disclose any information, but after a complaint to the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) it agreed to release some details.

However, it refused to disclose the names of the councillors, regarding it as exempt 'personal information' under the FOI Act.

In March last year, following a landmark three-year legal battle, a member of Bolton Council in Greater Manchester was exposed for unpaid council tax.

Labour's Ismail Ibrahim was sacked from his role as head of a council finance committee after it emerged he had twice failed to pay his council tax on time.

Mr Ibrahim at the time apologised for not disclosing his name sooner.

In examining whether Northern Ireland councillors should be named, ICO said the department had accepted its recommendation to disclose some details.

"Since no councillor received a summons there is no outstanding information comparable to that in the Bolton case," a case officer said.

"In my view it would be unfair to disclose the names of councillors who had only received reminders."

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