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The video above is of the Birkenhead Constituency Committee meeting held on the 8th October 2015 (public question and answer agenda item). The video should start at the point I asked a question which is at the 36 minutes 17 seconds mark.
Below is a copy of my question for the Birkenhead Constituency Committee. I submitted it on the 18th September 2015 for its meeting on the 24th September 2015. However the 24th September 2015 meeting was then cancelled and rearranged to the 8th October 2015.
The Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority decided recently to transfer the land by Birkenhead fire station to Wirral Council for a Youth Zone which will be called The Hive.
I also discovered that councillors on Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority were receiving their allowances in full, but the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority was paying any tax or National Insurance due (an arrangement costing Merseyside council taxpayers an extra £10,820.28p). These amounts for tax were not deducted from the allowances they received but instead were paid by the Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority.
Could the Birkenhead Constituency Committee:
a) give an update on progress on the expected timescales for the Youth Zone called “The Hive”
b) explain why some councillors are paying payroll taxes directly out of their allowances, whereas in other cases these taxes are paid not by the politician but by the public? It just seems a basic issue of fairness.
The written answer is below.
Response from CYPD and Merseyside Fire Service:
a) The Hive is due to open in December 2016.
b) Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service (MFRS) have advised that they have given John Brace an explanation of the figures on a number of occasions. If John Brace would like further information he should contact MFRS directly.
However a verbal answer was also given at the meeting which was more detailed. Sadly some of what Jo Burrell said at this point is unclear on the video.
Rt Hon Frank Field MP (Chair) Great, on a) we’ll ask for a report. On b) this is not actually relevant to this Committee because we have no say in it. I’m all in favour of extending our authority but I gather they have written and will continue to take up your points and Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority will answer your issues on that John.
On where are we with the Hive? [Cllr] Jean [Stapleton]’s not here about this, do you know?
Cllr ??? ???: … Chief Exec.
Jo Burrell (Constituency Manager) That’s the information we’ve received. I don’t know exactly where the, this building is up to, it’s something I would probably have to ask …
Rt Hon Frank Field MP (Chair): Yes but I think whatever the target date is it’s on target, and most of the money seems to have been raised, hasn’t it? So I think it’s actually, it’s huge sums, it’s brilliant that people have made contributions so that will actually go ahead. The police, the Fire Authority John are very happy having a conversation with you by correspondence.
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£7k was the amount claimed back by councillors, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Service then paid a further £7k in expenses directly (that should’ve been included in the figures).
With me so far?
No I come to a rather shocking revelation.
The allowances paid to councillors at Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority are paid tax-free. A Wirral Council councillor has left a comment stating that for Wirral Council, income tax and NI are deducted from councillors’ allowance from the amounts councillors receive.
I’ll try and explain.
I’m self-employed so I have to declare what I earn each year to HMRC [Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs]. HMRC then tell me how much National Insurance and Income Tax I pay and I pay that out of my gross profits.
However councillors are paid allowances and at MFRA (and presumably other public bodies but not Wirral Council) that pays them the allowance is paying any income tax or National Insurance due on top of that!
It isn’t coming out of their allowances! So everybody else has to pay tax out of their gross pay councillors do not! Who pays for this cosy arrangement? You do through taxes!
The amounts of course for a small authority like Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority for these beneficial tax arrangements the costs are small (£10,820.28) as it has only eighteen councillors.
In a question I posed to Councillor Adrian Jones earlier this year he stated “however in future the cost of Member’s [councillor’s] taxi journeys undertaken pertinent to these taxi contracts will be published on the Council’s website as soon as practicable after the end of each financial year.”
This response to a FOI request I made, shows the total spend on councillors for taxis from April to December 2014 was £1,829.55.
So over the whole year, that would be an estimated £2,400.
The figures however declared in the official expenses table only come to less than a thousand pounds.
Obviously this means the taxi amounts have once again not been included with the official figures despite Councillor Adrian Jones suggesting that they would.
I exercised my Audit Commission Act 1998, s.15 right this year (as I’m a local government elector in Wirral) to copies of the paperwork to do with expenses.
Wirral was supposed to (as not to do so would be breaking the law) provide them by the end of the inspection period which finished on the 14th August 2015.
This is to allow a reasonable period for any questions to the auditor or any objections to be resolved by the time the accounts have to be closed by 30th September 2015.
I have sadly only received a very small fraction of what I requested.
Merseytravel, Merseyside Fire and Rescue Authority and Merseyside Waste Disposal Authority all managed to provide the information either by the end of the inspection period or shortly after.
Wirral Council has not. It’s now over a month passed the 14th August 2015 and I’m still waiting.
There’s also a right to inspect these councillor expenses, again Wirral Council just states that they are dealing with this under the audit legislation, that the paperwork they have from HR on councillor expenses is incomplete therefore I can’t see it yet!!!
I mean seriously! They didn’t mind giving me incomplete paperwork last year (but did mind me pointing out it was incomplete and having to go back and do it properly).
Wirral Council likes it seems to be downright unusual and not learn from best practice elsewhere how to get better. As detailed above in the question to Councillor Jones, change from practices that shouldn’t happen are promised, but then the changes that have been promised don’t happen.
The public notice for those other authorities (apart from one that didn’t include a name) meant the request went straight to a member of their senior management team.
At Wirral Council that wasn’t the case.
At those other authorities this meant the request got dealt with within or near the timescales as the “instructions came down from on high” .
Wirral Council would seriously try the patience of a saint. Sadly they force me into a position where I have to use arcane legal procedures and involve the external auditor (thus costing Wirral Council more by sadly driving up their external audit costs) to try and get anywhere.
Wirral Council’s Audit and Risk Management Committee meets next week on the 22nd September to discuss the 2014/15 accounts. One of the matters they’ll be discussing formed an earlier story on this blog.
The £6.9 billion Merseyside Pension Fund that Wirral Council manages pays a pension to a close relative of mine so I had better declare that as an interest.
However does anyone have any suggestions as to what I can to ensure Wirral Council does things better?
Or do people already think I’m perfectly capable of answering that one myself?
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Every year I deal with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs I realise that half the frustration is caused by internal problems within HMR&C. The excuse given usually is that different departments can’t talk or share information with each other.
Getting money out of HMR&C is like getting blood out of the proverbial stone and can take years. Currently they state regarding the money they owe me “Your repayment request will be processed as soon as possible. ” . Sadly that’s been the way it’s been for the last few tax years.
In 2004 I was owed over £1000! It took a few years before they paid it back (along with a number of denials in the meantime that I should have it). It’s probably far quicker to take them to court!
I really don’t understand why they seem to take bureaucracy to the nth degree and not be able to show some common sense. I do remember Wirral Council owing me some small amount of Council Tax one year, about £5. They refused to pay it back; their excuse was I couldn’t have it back now they’d ended their financial year. I don’t mind too much with such amounts. I did however question the sense in Wirral Council one year sending me about a dozen different council tax demands; it must’ve cost them a bit in postage and printing! I suppose however I shouldn’t moan and most people who are self-employed have gripes with HMR&C. No system is perfect.
For people who are employed (or even self-employed and employed) it can be even worse. For 2009-2010 £1.8 billion was overpaid by 4.3 million people (an average of £418/year each). For small amounts most people can’t be bothered dealing with forms, bureaucracy and government systems seemingly designed to frustrate, confuse and bamboozle in equal measures.
My grandmother used to pay an accountant each year about £80-£100 to claim back about £400-£500 worth of tax overpaid. People on low incomes and minimum wage jobs can’t afford the fees that professionals charge and ultimately end up being hit in the pocket because of a system that is complex, hard to understand and confusing.
It is the system of underpayment of tax and overpayment of tax credits that is more worrying. Both seem designed to deter low-paid people from working. I hope with the new government’s plans for Universal Credit that:-
a) money will be saved by making the system clearer, simpler and easier to understand
b) people will finally get the message that working pays rather than being stuck in the benefits trap created by Labour.