Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Costs reasonably incurred

The FOI requests are beginning to drift in now – but they come at me in different formats, with some councils sending information in spreadsheets and others in Word tables. They have to be processed so that I can publish them here, and that is taking a bit of time, so bear with me.

This one is from East Hants District Council, a strong Tory area north of Portsmouth, centred on the town of Petersfield.  With a population of 111,700 souls and 2082 liability orders churned out in the last financial year, it comes out lower than Runnymede, in the per capita ratio stakes, delivering 1:53 – representing one in every 53 people being served with an order.

However, there are several interesting things about the charges. Firstly, the council combines the charge, currently £85, and applies it to all those who are summonsed. Thus, people are paying the full whack of fees, even if they pay off their tax immediately, without a liability order being made.

With the legislation stating separately in respect of each document, that the council may recover "costs reasonably incurred", it can hardly be legal to impose charges on people for something that does not apply to them. Those who merely receive summonses should not be paying the same as those who also get liability orders.

As to the level of the charges, we see the levy stating at £40 in 2004 and more than doubling six years later. If the fee was correct initially – and it was then certainly inflated – then to more than double it in the space of six years cannot be justified.

In terms of the total amounts charged, in 2004/5 we see the council pulling in £83,160. Six years later, it is taking £268,685. There can be little doubt that the council is using its debtors as an income stream – wholly illegally.

But then, when your chief executive, Sandy Hopkins, is pulling in £125,000 from the payroll, plus two executive directors taking £91,000 each, the odd quarter of a million from the very poorest in your district can come in very handy indeed.