Last week I blogged about how the vaunted Localism Act 2011 contains a worryingly little-known loophole which makes it apparently illegal for Parish Councillors to set an annual budget without signing a special dispensation first.
Only two days after that blog was published, Brandon Lewis — a Conservative junior minister in Eric Pickles’ Department of Communities and Local Government — wrote one of those lovely DCLG letters to everybody-and-nobody on the matter (thanks to Cllr Martin Petchey for the tip). Mr Lewis says:
“…some council monitoring officers are informing their councillors that being a council tax payer is a disclosable pecuniary interest in any Budget debate. Councillors are then informed they would be committing a criminal offence if they speak or vote in that debate unless they obtain a formal dispensation.
“Whilst my department does not issue legal advice, in our opinion, such dispensations are unnecessary. Council tax liability applies to the generality of the population; councillors have no unique position in that regard.
“Being a council taxpayer or being eligible for a discount under the new local arrangements for council tax support are pecuniary interests, but are not disclosable pecuniary interests as specified in regulations. Therefore a councillor does not need to seek a dispensation in order to participate in discussions or vote on decisions in the council tax setting process or local arrangements for council tax support.“
Which makes for very interesting reading. It’s nonsense, but it’s interesting nonetheless.
Mr Lewis appears to be trying to paint omitting an exemption from the interest declaration rules for the setting of precepts as a deliberate act. It’s common sense, says Mr Lewis. All councillors will be paying council tax, so it’s obvious that this couldn’t prevent participation in a budget.
A nice thought, but it doesn’t really hold water. The previous code of conduct had explicitly contained an exemption. The new code, under the Localism Act, has no such exemption. The only legitimate conclusion — if one assumes that the government is halfway competent, and knows what it is doing with legislation — is that the exemption has been deliberately repealed because it is not intended to apply any longer.
It would have been refreshing had Mr Lewis admitted that the DCLG had made a mistake in the drafting. It would even have been passable — though nonsense in a different way — if he had explained it as an ideological move to do…something. But I’m afraid this is just hollow spin from a government which doesn’t have a clue what its doing.