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Agenda item

Call in - the feasibility and costs of a council tax voluntary scheme


The Chair reminded all present that the purpose of the call-in was to determine whether Cabinet’s decision on 11 November 2019 was flawed in relation to the council’s principles of decision making. 


The Chair invited Councillor Anthony Fairclough to speak as a signatory to the call-in request. Councillor Fairclough said that he believed that Cabinet’s decision had been flawed in relation to two of the principles of decision making – D “a presumption in favour of openness” and F “ consideration and evaluation of alternatives”.


Councillor Fairclough said that the Cabinet report was light on evidence and should have included some of the information that was set out in the officer response to the call-in as this would have been available at the time and would have been of assistance to Cabinet in making its decision. He said that Cabinet had only spent 4 minutes discussing the report and had not considered alternatives such as writing to residents to see if they would be willing to contribute. Although the Council motion referred just to Band H, he would expect Cabinet to have included consideration of expanding beyond Band H when making its decision. He called on Cabinet to be bold and innovative in taking action on Council’s motion.


Councillor Fairclough posed three questions to the Head of Revenues and Benefits, David Keppler:


·         What briefing was given to officers prior to the November cabinet meeting?

·         When was the bulk of the cabinet report written?

·         Did David Keppler consider providing additional information from the Westminster workshop and was this discussed with the Cabinet Member?


In response to a question, Councillor Fairclough said that the content of the officer response (particularly the slides from the Westminster workshop and information from Kensington and Chelsea) indicated that this information was available prior to the meeting of Cabinet and this gave the impression that Cabinet had already made a decision on the issue.


The Chair invited David Keppler to set out the timeline. David Keppler said that the slides from the Westminster workshop had not been available prior to the Cabinet meeting and that all of the information in Appendix C had been collected subsequently in response to the call-in request. He and the Head of Democracy Services, Julia Regan, had followed up with authorities who had been present at the workshop and had indicated that they were considering a voluntary contribution scheme. The Director of Corporate Services, Caroline Holland, said that only Westminster had fully implemented the scheme, Kensington and Chelsea had still not put a scheme in place and were therefore not included in the report to Cabinet.


Councillor Fairclough said that the minutes of Council indicate that there may have been some pre-determination as the Cabinet Member stated that a voluntary donation scheme should not be used to fund important or strategic services. A member of the Commission replied that the minutes of the subsequent Cabinet meeting show that the Cabinet Member had an open mind on the issue as he thanked the Council for raising the matter and, as an alternative to a council tax voluntary scheme, encouraged residents to support the voluntary sector organisations in the borough by making charitable donations.


Cabinet Member response

The Chair asked the Deputy Leader and Cabinet Member for Finance, Councillor Mark Allison, to respond to the points made by Councillor Fairclough.


Councillor Allison said that he believed that Cabinet had been open and transparent in its approach to consideration of this issue and had based its decision on the evidence that was available at the time. The only authority with an operational voluntary scheme at the time was Westminster and this was therefore the only one for which information was provided. Cabinet had limited its consideration to a scheme for Band H properties as that was what the Council motion had specified.


Councillor Allison added that a four minute discussion was typical at meetings of Cabinet for a straightforward decision such as this one had been given that there was overwhelming evidence that take up numbers would be low and that the council would not recoup its costs. Cabinet could therefore not support Council’s motion. He said that he continued to have an open mind on the issue and would give it further consideration once evidence has been gathered from operational schemes in other boroughs.


Councillor Allison made additional points in response to questions:


·         Consideration of a scheme that went beyond Band H properties would be a matter for debate at Council to consider whether it wished to rescind the earlier Motion.

·         The first line of decision making is to assess whether the model is financially viable. If viable, the second line would be how to set up the scheme and what to spend the money on.

·         Agreed that it is important to take some risks but that, in this instance, the financial risk would be too high

·         Officers will continue to monitor the establishment and operation of similar schemes elsewhere


Discussion by the Commission

The Chair directed the Commission to limit its discussion to the evidence received in relation to whether the principles of decision making had been followed by Cabinet.


A majority of members agreed that Cabinet had followed the council’s principles of decision making and welcomed Cabinet’s willingness to continue to look at options in the future. They expressed agreement with Cabinet’s decision that the voluntary scheme was a risky approach financially, particularly given the lack of experience from other boroughs.


Two members stated that they were opposed to idea of a lottery scheme, as evidence showed that this would be paid for disproportionately by poorer residents.


Councillor Paul Kohler said that the information set out in Appendix C showed that there was additional evidence that should have been made available to Cabinet at the time. He proposed a motion to refer the matter back to Cabinet but there was no seconder so the motion was not taken forward.


The Commission then RESOLVED to decide not to refer the matter back to Cabinet, in which case the decision of Cabinet shall take effect immediately.


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