£750m of unpaid tax written off by English councils

EXCLUSIVE

Unpaid taxes totalling more than £750m have been written off by local authorities over the last five years, figures have revealed.

Last year £147.7m of council tax was wiped from accounts in England, following a £168m write off the year before.

The figures, released by the Department for Communities and Local Government, included debt incurred from previous years which councils had given up chasing. Reasons for not collecting council taxes include absconding, bankruptcy and death where no assets exist.

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps said: “Every penny of council tax that isn’t collected means higher council tax for the law-abiding citizens who do pay up on time. It’s vital that councils do all they can to support their residents and by having efficient collection services, they are better placed to keep bills down for everyone.

“Of course councils should not be heavy-handed, should protect the vulnerable, and should use bailiffs as a last resort. Councils should instead look at ways to better improve collection rates and ensure better value for money for all taxpayers.”

Separate figures released last year in response to a parliamentary question named Manchester City Council as the local authority with the most unpaid taxes. More than £11m was owed to the council by the end of March 2010 with 9.1% of taxes unpaid.

Salford, Stoke-on-Trent, Bradford and several London boroughs were also in the top 10 of councils with the highest proportion of council tax due.

Councils that managed to collect the highest proportion of taxes included City of London and the Isles of Scilly where less than 1% of taxes was unpaid by 2010.

Iraq War minutes publication refused again

Key meetings leading up to the Iraq War remain secret after Cabinet Office reject FOI request // Photo: Benjamin Nolan

EXCLUSIVE

The Cabinet Office has refused for a second time to release the minutes of key meetings that led to the invasion of Iraq, nearly nine years ago.

A Freedom of Information (FOI) tribunal in 2009 ordered the cabinet minutes to be released as it said this was an exceptional case. But the publication was vetoed by the then Justice Secretary Jack Straw at the last minute, after a long battle with the Cabinet Office.

Now the FOI request has been rejected again by the Cabinet Office, despite the change of government and the age of the documents. The Cabinet Office claimed it was in the public interest to keep the information secret.

A letter claimed that the nine years since the invasion of Iraq was “not a long time”. It said that Cabinet’s collective responsibility relies on free discussion and must remain private.

But in the letter, which was sent last week, the Cabinet Office misguidedly assumed that the publication would set a precedent. It claimed: “The candour of all involved, and the records of meetings, would be affected by their assessment of whether the content of the discussions will be disclosed prematurely.”

But the information tribunal in 2009 stated that the “very unusual” nature of the case has “the effect of reducing any risk that this decision will set a precedent of such general application that Ministers would be justified in changing their future approach to the conduct or recording of Cabinet debate.”

The tribunal also pointed out that Cabinet minutes have always been a qualified, not an absolute, exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

There were discrepancies also with the Cabinet Office’s latest justifications for withholding the documents, compared to its justifications in 2009.

In 2009, the Cabinet Office had argued that factors in favour of maintaining the exemption included:

  • “the decisions in question were fairly recent;”
  • “several of the ministers who took part in it remained in Government;”
  • “the Prime Minister was still in office”

But when the Cabinet Office refused again to publish the minutes last week, it claimed: “The change in government has not diminished the case for maintaining the convention of collective Cabinet responsibility.”

It added that there was a “strong public interest in the United Kingdom being able successfully to pursue our national interests, and to avoid causing unnecessary risk to the UK’s international relations.”

It said: “We are more likely to do so if we conform to the conventions of international behaviour, avoid giving offence to other nations and retain the trust of our international partners (all of which apply regardless of changes in administrations).”

The Cabinet Office is set to complete an internal review of its decision to refuse the publication. It is likely that this will also find the minutes exempt from release and the case will be taken to the Information Commissioner later this year.

All in it together: George Osborne’s family business reveals big losses

This blog post was also published as an article in the Guardian. 

For AccessDocs, I am also uploading the PDF files of Osborne & Little’s full accounts – here (2011) and here (2010). Please do get in touch if you spot anything interesting that I’ve missed! 

George Osborne’s family business has made a loss of nearly three-quarters of a million pounds, the third year in a row it has announced a deficit.

The upmarket fabrics and wallpaper company Osborne & Little, which is chaired by the chancellor’s father, Sir Peter Osborne, made a pre-tax loss of £739,000 in the last financial year. That followed a loss of £150,000 the year before, and a £7.5m loss in the preceding 12 months. George Osborne has a 15% stake in the family firm.

A series of cutbacks have been made by the firm since 2009, but financial losses have deepened.

The company has made workforce cutbacks, with £538,000 saved from salary payments over three years. However, the directors have only taken a small reduction and have kept their combined salaries at more than £1m. Political donations by the firm were axed in 2011, following a donation of £3,500 last year. Company pension contributions have also dropped, by £80,000 since 2010.

Losses have forced the company to increase its borrowing by almost £1m, bringing its net borrowing position to more than £2m. The latest accounts, published by Companies House, blame the financial losses on an increase in the cost of raw materials. The report said: “With overheads being maintained at prior year levels, the loss for the year was a direct consequence of the falling margins.”

The company, which was set up by Sir Peter Osborne and his brother-in-law Anthony Little in 1968, has a turnover of almost £23m. It says that 46% of its sales are made outside Britain, including 35% to continental Europe.

The chancellor’s mother, Lady Felicity Osborne, was appointed as a director of the firm last year, with her husband.

George Osborne has previously spoken proudly about the family business: “It’s been a part of my family for the whole of my life. I was always aware as a child when things were going well and when things weren’t going so well, so it’s given me a strong understanding of what’s involved in running a business – the risks, the hard work and the commitment.”

A company review of its finances said that tough economic times will continue: “Market conditions continue to be challenging in the current economic climate and there is little sign of this changing in the near future.” But it insisted: “The company is well placed to take advantage of any improvement in its principal markets and will continue to focus on cost control.” Osborne & Little were contacted but did not comment on its finances.

The financial losses are a further blow to the firm, which was reported to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) this year over allegations of price fixing. A complaint was made to the regulator claiming that the firm had illegally blocked discounts for luxury products. It was also accused of trying to bully other company directors. The OFT refused to comment on the case but the allegations are believed to have now been dropped.

Top 100 most complained about shows, 2011: The full list

I wrote a piece for today’s Guardian about the top 100 most complained about TV and radio shows of the year.

Now, here’s the full list…

First they rip you off… then they con you – How unis twisted numbers to “cut” fees

Detail behind the stats show unis have become more elitist, rather than cutting fees. // Photo: Flikr CC, Frandroid Atreides

Earlier this month it was widely reported that 25 universities had lowered their tuition fees to £7,500. The move allowed them to access a pool of 20,000 extra students, purposely set aside by the government.

The Mail said “One English university in five is to slash tuition fees to below £7,500”. The Telegraph reported that the universities “have lowered their tuition fees to below £7,500 a year”. And PoliticsHome said “25 universities and colleges have announced they are to reduce their tuition fees”.

They were all wrong. Most of the universities did not, in fact, make any changes to their fees. It was an illusion.

Rather than course fees being lowered for everyone, the average fees have been pushed down by the introduction of new scholarships for high-achievers only. The £7,500 figure is only reached when these are taken into account. The actual fees, for everyone else, remains the same.

Figures from the Office of Fair Access (Offa) show that only three of the 25 universities now have average fees lower than £7,500 when waivers are not included.

Five of the universities still have average fees above that amount even when all means-tested scholarships are taken into account. In Offa’s books, these places do not get within the £7,500 threshold.

But although the Offa figures only take means-tested fee waivers into account when calculating averages, university bids for extra students will be based on Hefce calculations – which include all types of bursaries.

This means that some universities have been able to give the impression they are cutting fees when, in fact, they are trying to make themselves more elitist by introducing new scholarships for successful students instead.

For instance, at Aston University, a new scheme will award £4,000 to applicants with AAB at A-level. But for students without a scholarship, tuition fees are still set at £9,000.

A similar scheme at the University of Wolverhampton is for students who have “exceeded expections” and not based at all on family income. Students are awarded £1,000 in their final year to reward academic achievements if they are selected by their department. Students who do not get selected for any scholarship will have to pay an average of £8,300.

Averages fees for the University of Hertfordshire have also been affected by work placement years, where students do not have to pay tuition fees. Meanwhile, at the University of West London, a new bursary will be given to just 16 hand-picked students. Department heads nominate individuals who are given the second year of their degrees for free.

You can see the data here, or download it as a CSV file here.

The data is originally from the access agreement data (published July, 2011) and the updated access agreement data (published December, 2011). Both can be found here.

A note about the data:   Some of these figures do not quite add up because Offa accidentally rounded up the revised estimated fee averages, but didn’t round up the original figures. Offa say they will revise this on their website. Either way though, this doesn’t affect the overall picture. In the case of Wolverhampton, the larger discrepancy is caused by a course that had not been registered in time for the original figures.

Phone Hacking: will Scotland Yard ever cough up their secretive stash of emails?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/ewancross/3025040152/

Nothing to hide? Scotland Yard delay the release of emails. Photo credit: Ewan Cross, CC license

The day after the revelations that Milly Dowler’s phone had been hacked, Scotland Yard announced that they could not disclose emails between police and the News of The World. They told this blog that all emails over three years old had been deleted.

But, when they were quizzed on this, they eventually admitted in September that the emails did still exist. They said the emails were “retained for business continuity purposes on tapes.”

It seems that politicians and journalists have not been able to get access to this secretive stash of emails. The constraints of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) restrict disclosure requests to ones that can be completed within 18 hours.

Particularly interesting would be Andy Hayman’s and John Yates’ correspondence while phone hacking was rife at News International. But the FOIA constraints appear to have prevented these from being scrutinised.

So, a new disclosure request to the Met was submitted for this blog. It was deliberately narrow, using the time allowances the Met themselves had stated, so that the request couldn’t be rejected. Although it would not retrieve very much, it was a test to see if the Met were really prepared to stick to information laws – and disclose any emails at all.

A day before the legal deadline for disclosure this month… the Met said they were delaying their response!

They said: “We are currently trying to establish what information the MPS holds, if any, and whether it can be retrieved within the cost threshold.” They could not provide a date when a disclosure would definitely be made.

The (tedious) saga continues…

Exclusive: Met Police website taken offline after AccessDocs exposes privacy breach

Offline: The Met website's disclosure log, after 105 files found with private data

Updated: 19/10/11

The Metropolitan Police has been forced to remove part of its website, after a mass privacy breach was exposed by this blog.

More than 100 documents had accidentally been published online containing confidential information in the files’ meta-data. This included names, email addresses and employment history of members of the public.

An “urgent investigation” has now been launched by police into the breach, and the entire section of the website has been taken down. The Information Commissioner has also launched its own investigation after receiving a number of complaints.

The documents had been online for months – free for anyone to read and find through Google. They were legitimately listed on a Freedom of Information disclosure log – but data within the files gave away people’s personal details.

The Met told AccessDocs: “The MPS has temporarily disabled the website whilst we carry out an urgent investigation. As an interim measure, we have removed all the PDFs that contain disclosure information from the server to ensure no further loss of personal information… We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause and aim to have the site restored as soon as possible.”

“NB – first indications show that email addresses may have been published.”

Police originally claimed to have “disabled” the website on Tuesday, but it later transpired that all the documents were still online. Instead of removing it, the home page of the information was simply moved. This meant that although old links to the data didn’t work, it could still be found through Google, or by editing the URL. This further error was reported on Tuesday evening, but it took around 12 hours to finally be taken offline.

Police also confirmed that one individual who had her personal details published has already registered a complaint. An email from the Met to the woman said: “It has been brought to our attention that your personal details have appeared on the Metropolitan Police Service website”.

Other people who had personal details published by the Met include an ex-policeman, a professor, a solicitor, an American student and a Daily Mirror journalist.

At least two people have now sent complaints to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). A spokesman for the commissioner said: “We will be making enquiries into the circumstances of this alleged breach of the Data Protection Act before deciding what action, if any, needs to be taken.” The ICO has the power to prosecute and impose penalties of up to £500,000 on organisations for private data breaches.

The Disclosure Log, which has been taken down as a result of the privacy breach, provides copies of the responses to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests that are sent to the Met.  Disclosure logs are a valuable and positive part of transparency – FOI campaigners will therefore be pleased that the Met have confirmed that this move is only a temporary one. A press officer for the police said that they would go through each of the hundreds of documents individually, if necessary – but that they would get the disclosure log back online as soon as possible. 

In future, Data Protection and Freedom of Information should not be an either/or. 

NB:  For all queries about this story, please contact me on mrw504@gmail.com , or see the ‘about’ page, or see my website.  

Exclusive: 100 private documents accidentally published on police website

File info showing name and email address of a member of public who had requested information from the police. (Here, the private details are blanked out, but they are still online on the Met's website).

Privacy breaches by the Metropolitan Police have left more than 100 documents online which contain confidential information.

Names, email addresses and employment details are among the private data which can still be viewed on the Met’s website.

Police publish all their responses to questions in an online disclosure log. But staff are routinely failing to remove personal information from the titles of files – leaving people’s details, and their questions, free to be found through Google and read by anyone.

The breaches include the details of an ex-policeman, a professor, a solicitor, an American student and a Daily Mirror journalist. In total, around 105 files contain privacy breaches, with a sharp increase in breaches since August.

Some of the documents also include whole paragraphs of personal information about the members of public making Freedom of Information (FOI) Requests. Police uploading responses to the internet have simply copied and pasted sections of correspondence which give personal information.

A rise in the number of privacy breaches follows record levels of FOI requests to the Met, suggesting that privacy is being overlooked. New figures show that requests rocketed this summer after the police force came under criticism over the hacking scandal and the August riots.

NB: Some people submitting FOI requests choose to make their information public by using whatdotheyknow.com, but a large number of requests are done confidentially for personal, journalistic or employment reasons. For instance, someone trying to gather information about an employer may not want to be ‘found out’ by future employers. 

See also:  ‘How police lost your personal data’ (from August 2011)

UPDATE: The Metropolitan Police have removed their entire online disclosure log as a result of this blog post. Several of the people who had personal details published have expressed their anger at the police. More updates to come. All enquiries to Martin Williams  – mrw504@gmail.com

BBC breaching transparency laws over Mark Thompson’s emails to Jeremy Hunt

Above the law: What does Mark Thompson have to hide?

The BBC is knowingly breaking Freedom of Information laws by refusing to release emails sent between the Director-General Mark Thompson and Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt.

The disclosure of communications was requested in June by AccessDocs, but the BBC has openly rejected transparency laws.

They said: “we need further time in which to consider the public interest in disclosing the information.” But, having already extended their response deadline by 20 days, they have now crossed the final legal deadline for response.

Despite warnings to the BBC stating that it’s intention to delay the disclosures would be a breach of the rules, staff remained defiant. “The BBC is of the view that the delay is justified,” a policy adviser said.

This was not the view of a source at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) who said he couldn’t see how the behavior did not constitute a breach.

The ICO explain: “Public authorities should respond to a request for information within 20 working days. If they need to consider the public interest this may be extended to 40 working days, providing you have been informed.” More than a week has passed since the maximum 40-day deadline.