Sunday, 29 June 2014

Councillor Adam Monk: Mouthpiece of the machine

Over the last three years I have written to South Gloucestershire councillors a number of times regarding their grand larceny on liability order costs.  Only Ukip Councillor Ben Walker took any interest in it, and coincidentally I have finally received a reply from our Labour Councillor.  You know, those famous protectors of the vulnerable.  Here's what he had to say...

Mr North

Thank you for your email, I am Adam one of Councillors representing Filton and I sit in the committee making decisions on Council Tax Support and therefore the best to reply to your question. The issue of Local Council Tax Relief is a very difficult one to deal with.  Ian Roger & I are very aware of the real impact this is having on those requiring support.

With regards to the costs & fees incurred by the Authority collecting Council Tax, those fees are passed on.  For example in the year 2013/2014  7,495 cases  were charged £55 each in costs. Of these only 4,436 actually went to court to obtain a liability order and those cases incurred a further £30 in costs. The authority has to pay HM Court Service per summons issued.

Surcharges to use a credit card are imposed by the bank at 1.8%.   The surcharges for last year were £8,561.87.  The Council doesn’t make a single penny from these surcharges.

The Council charges each customer that goes into arrears up to £85 in summons & liability order costs. These costs are calculated by the finance department, a breakdown is available to the court if they request to see it, to cover such things as;
Staff hours to process those accounts that are in arrears and what action to take once the order has been granted by the Magistrates court.
IT/Computer processing time.
Postage and post room costs, to print & pack notices.
Magistrates fee.

The council has a duty to collect the maximum through annual council tax. Those people that fail to pay in accordance with their demand do have recovery action taken against them to protect the interest of the council.  The court costs charged are by comparison with other local authorities not the highest, for example Bristol City charges £103 on the issue of a summons.

With regards to the increase of people visiting Citizens Advice I am sure there will have been a significant surge in demand as the relief available on Council Tax has been reduced. The reason for this is simple Central Government have imposed a year on year reduction on the support grant provided to authorities and this means that  the most needy in society will be effected. South Glos supported the 1st years reduction in funding by utilising funds from reserves but that is not a sustainable position. 
The councillor workshop for the new scheme for next year will start in July as there will be a legal requirement to consult with the public and the scheme is required to be voted upon in December.  I will ask that you directly contacted during the consultation period.  

I appreciate that you will not have received the answer that you are looking for but I can reassure you that all Labour Councillors are fighting to protect & support the most vulnerable in society.

Cllr Adam Monk
Filton Ward.
01454 864056
07801 999699
You won't be surprised by my reply...

Dear Mr Monk,

A few points...
A system to administer council tax would have to exist with or without defaulters or people in arrears.  Speaking as an enterprise scale database developer, I know full well that creating and running a check query for those in arrears is a very simple operation that requires no great programming talent.  Moreover, it is reasonable to assume any such process would be written into the software as a primary requirement, which would have economies of scale over the database life-cycle. In fact, such a system would run quite comfortably off a standard SQL database server which can be procured from HP for less than £10k. I run bigger databases than South Gloucestershire Council.

So even factoring in public sector waste, the whole system could be built (even in-house) on one years liability order takings alone, which (even using your revised figures) still amounts to hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Meanwhile, the actual court costs amount to £3 per order. Further to this, you state that there are staff hours involved in assessing each case. This is a lie. Given that enforcement was directed against me for the matter of nine pence, this tells me that absolutely zero human interaction is invested in the process whatsoever.

Essentially you have sought to fob me off with the litany of boilerplate excuses and lies I have read many times before, which I could have got as a press release from any council in the land. Councillors should be cutting through this dishonest mantra rather than repeating it. If not, what exactly are you for? We vote for representation, not press officers. Your inaction makes you a defender of state larceny, rather than a representative of the people. You have forgotten who you serve and are acting as a spokesman for the machine. And by the way, that Bristol Council is greedier than South Gloucestershire is not a mitigating factor.

As for your reassurance that "all Labour Councillors are fighting to protect & support the most vulnerable in society", I have great reason to doubt your sincerity since you have clearly no interest in pressing the council on their (unlawful) use of "costs" as a revenue stream. The system is piling masses of costs on those who can least afford it, and our trigger happy council is pushing thousands of people through the courts and into the hands of profiteering thugs like Rundle & Co, while your own recovery officers turn a blind eye to unlawful behaviour. If you were at all sincere you would be ripping into our local kleptocracy, but your inaction is tacit consent to it.

I take the view that the measure of a good councillor is one who will defend the public against authority, not be the voice of it. You have clearly decided which side you are on. And it is not ours. It is the moral obligation of every councillor to minimise the footprint that government has on our wallets, yet the council is running a huge deficit, reducing services and yet bills only ever go upward - sucking money out of our wallets and our community. Far from protecting and supporting the vulnerable, you are creating more of them. Shouldn't you get your own house in order before demanding more from us?

You complain that central grants have been reduced, but councils do have the autonomy and authority to mitigate this, and that does not excuse the fact this grubby little "costs" scam has been going on for years. Where is the value in piling on costs for those who are already struggling to make ends meet?

Peter North.

Friday, 20 June 2014

South Gloucestershire Council climbdown

Councillor Ben Walker
Readers will recall this from a couple of weeks ago where our favourite council attempted to charge "costs" of £85 for 9p in council tax arrears. Well it so happens that an email making mention of this was sent yesterday by Ukip Councillor Ben Walker, to the BBC, the council chief executive and a selection of other council members.

Coincidentally, this morning, I received an email from SGC recovery officer Ms D Hooper (she who denies bailiff fraud without investigation) saying "I have on this occasion only, cancelled the costs incurred".

I'm a little disappointed. I was prepared to take this as far as the courts because I do wonder what a judge would make of this council's intemperate greed. It is not then surprising that SGC have climbed down. They don't need this in the media as this "costs" scam is a nice little earner.

A recent Freedom of Information request reveals that South Gloucestershire Council netted £412,22 last year in "costs" from council tax Liability Orders. Of the £85, the courts take their cut of the profits, but the council charges £55 for the act of sending a letter. 7,495 of them last year. The law allows only for "reasonable costs", but councils clearly disregard this and use arrears as a source of revenue. Further to this, it has also collected nearly £10k in credit card surcharges on those same payments.

It is little wonder then that new figures have revealed that between January and March, one in five people reporting debt problems to Citizens Advice were presenting council tax arrears issues. In the first three months of this year 27,000 people with a council tax arrears problem got help from Citizens Advice – a 17% increase on the same period last year. Councils are causing more debt problems than pay-day loan companies. Our own council is creating debt problems and dumping them on the private sector, the courts and debt charities without taking responsibility for the mess they are making.

I make special note of Ms Hooper's words in that she has "on this occasion only" dropped the charges. So I do not see this as a victory. It still means South Gloucestershire Council is willfully ripping off the less well off, having now demonstrated they do have the authority to quash them, or better still - cease to be engaged in this grand larceny in the first place.

It should be noted that this issue has been raised with our local Labour councillors (for three years in a row) and not a single one of them ever replied. Councillor Walker on the other hand seems to be a man who gets things done. Hopefully he will be instrumental in bringing this grubby little scam to an end.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Police on the retreat

UK Police: Now an occupying force
A Bristol MP has said plans to close 27 police stations across the Avon and Somerset force area leaving no police presence in some areas is "a mistake". Something of an understatement. This marks a total retreat from neighbourhood policing - and not just in Bristol. This is happening everywhere. Across the nation, local police stations are closing and police are moving into mega-fortresses out in the sticks, changing their operations from neighbourhood policing to being an occupying force.

One of the more alarming examples is Bath. With Bath, a city in its own right with its own policing needs, losing its own police station and instead being serviced by Keynsham near Bristol, much of a police officers time will either be spent processing criminals or making the 30 minute journey between the two cities. Criminal lawyer Ed Boyce said the move could turn police into "expensive taxi drivers". That is exactly how I see it.

Bath Police Station is a main station in the very centre of Bath, near to a very busy railway station. Under the plans anyone arrested, instead of being held in Bath, will be taken to one of three new "police centres" at Bridgwater, Keynsham and Patchway (not within walking distance of any major population centre), which house "custody suites" - even though stations with perfectly adequate "custody suites" are to be closed.

Sue Mountstevens, Avon and Somerset Police and Crime Commissioner, said "the new police centres would enable officers to serve people better". Which people exactly? Certainly not the vulnerable people that police thugs lock up for speaking out of turn, and certainly not the taxpayer. As much as local police stations are necessary for obvious reasons, they are also places of storage for equipment not carried by patrol cars. Ms Mountstevens seems to think that having police fighting through rush hour traffic to central booking stations at excessive speeds (in pimped out BMW's), causing a noise nuisance, to retrieve equipment in an emergency, somehow better serves the public.

"People are not using some of the buildings we have got - the public are not visiting them," she said. In fairness in the age of internet and smartphones there are fewer reasons to go to a police station, and in an emergency, the telephone is the first point of contact, but even so, it is unlikely that police stations will be used to report crime when for some years they have been keeping irregular desk hours. Further to this, when reporting crime largely means a fat tattooed thug issues you with a crime number, why on earth would you bother? But supposing you were in central Bath and been mugged or raped and your phone stolen, are the citizens of Bath supposed to walk to Keynsham, or use one of the non-existent payphones?

But this is about more than just bean counting. This is about a retreat from our neighbourhoods. The excuse used is that police have faced cuts since 2008 but in reality, this has been the direction of travel for a very long time.  It has been happening so slowly that few have noticed. It is only now that local and central police stations are closing for good, being sold or demolished, coinciding with the opening of police fortresses like Patchway, that the retreat is visible.

Rather than policing being integral to the community, policing is now abstract to the community - and is set only to get worse.  The policing tactics now more resemble an occupying force, similar to that of the Iraq occupation. We will now have central heavily defended police barracks with flex-squads sallying out at night to do snatch operations - probably to arrest people who said the wrong things on Twitter.

Neighbourhood policing has died a death, with day to day offences and minor breaches now dealt with through use of fixed penalties and fines, rubber stamped by magistrates court computers, without any intervention by a human beings, enforced by private bailiff companies (who have free license from the police to break the law), the public henceforth will be the cash cow by which to finance their para-military operations.

Ms Mounstevens would argue that this reconfiguration makes for a more efficient police force, but one would ask "more efficient at what"? It is an efficient way to manage livestock but it is not an efficient way of policing a community. And for all the "efficiencies", why are council tax bills going up? Now that the police are totally divorced from us and our communities, offering a figleaf of community policing over a Twitter account, it creates a separation that makes policing an "us and them" equation. This is totally at odds with the Peelian principle that the "police are the public and the public are the police".

Of course our police commissioners may pretend they have an influence in this, but this was decided long before Police and Crime Commissioners even existed. Being that the case, there is no way we can pretend that the appointment of a commissioner through a voting ritual (based on less than 10% of the electorate) is democratic - and certainly not for a region larger than a hundred countries in the UN - with a population several times larger than Iceland. They are overpaid press officers in place to pretend there is some kind of democratic accountability, and to manage expectations when complaints are made.

This all makes me wonder if this retreat coincides with the purchase of water cannon by the London Met. Now that the police are retreating into their mega-fortresses, it suggests the police are preparing a move into a defensive role - and that they are afraid of us.

Just this week I had a visit from a policeman who himself was a fat, ill-mannered, tattooed thug, just itching to start a fight, who had come to my house not to offer any help, but to reiterate that the police will not investigate an epidemic of fraud I have complained about (even when government guidelines have categorically specified that fraud by state enforcement agents should be reported to the police and treated as a criminal offence). Said police officer was clad in riot gear and bulletproof vest (as far as one can tell the difference).  Just now I have seen three obese plod in bulletproof vests crammed into a Ford Focus, and recently I saw a policeman at the local Tesco filling station carrying a sidearm. Does this suggest community policing to you? This is Filton, not Camp Bastion. 

The picture this all paints is that the police are being re-tasked not as servants of the public, but the defence force for the oligarchy that now rules us, with a slick PR operation designed to give the impression they are still public servants, who will serve the public if it serves their PR needs, but only if the victim fits the demographic of their latest targets.

In most cases now, certainly reflecting on my own experiences, the police profession has been slowly hollowed out to the point where any decent, moral and capable individual would never want to join the police. Consequently we are now at the stage where police lapel cameras are being rolled out to officers because the police simply cannot be trusted, and calling the police now has the potential to make a bad situation much worse and the public need the footage for protection from the police.

For most people, they who live largely apolitical lives, pay what they are told when they are told to pay it, and rarely encounter any serious crime, this gradual shift in the make-up of our society is barely noticeable. It is the result of a decade of salami slicing public services. It only becomes noticeable when you stick your head above the parapet and stop behaving like docile cattle.  It is then one realises that the police are not public servants. They are policy enforcers who, when not serving the oligarchy, are serving themselves. They are the enemy. Perhaps then it is better that the police are retreating into barracks. It makes them all the easier to contain when the people wake up and realise what is being done to them. We do not want this filth in our neighbourhoods.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Greed like no other

It's official. There is no limit to the greed of South Gloucestershire Council. They have actually taken me to court, adding £85 in "costs" for the sum of £0.09p. That's right. NINE PENCE!!! Unless I pay £85.09 within 14 days, they will send the bailiffs who will add £310, bringing the total sum to £395.09. This is the contempt with which they treat us.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

House Guests

Just had a fat, thick, tattooed plod come to my house to shout at me, to categorically deny that bailiff fraud is police business. I read out the following ministerial guidelines...

"5.8 The Government consider that any fraudulent practices should be reported to the police as a criminal offence under the Fraud Act and that Local Authorities should terminate any contract with companies whose activities are proved fraudulent."

He kept raising his voice shouting over me as I tried to explain, yelling "It's a civil matter". I got the message loud and clear that the police are not in the least bit interested in taking on a massive epidemic of fraud, so I basically told him to get lost because nothing he said is anything I didn't know already: The police have no interest in upholding the law.

I showed him the ministerial statement and he replied "Well the minister can represent you in court then can't he?"  He then got aggressive and said "You can take a pop at me if you want and see how that works out". He has been outside blocking me in for the last twenty minutes.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the face of our modern police force.  "La La La, we can't hear you". It's a shame that plod didn't have a lapel camera because I would have his badge for that. Wilfully disregarding ministerial instructions is pretty gob-smacking even from Avon & Somerset's knuckle-draggers.


Having complained about this individuals conduct, his colleague (yes, the police investigate themselves) stated that the plod in question was "scared that I was going to push him down the stairs". On reflection, I probably should have. That is the contempt they deserve.

Avon & Somerset Greed

According to the Bristol Post "Fresh arguments have erupted over the effectiveness of speed cameras, after it was announced that the yellow boxes in South Gloucestershire could be turned back on." Avon & Somerset Police want to turn them back on, "despite data showing accident rates at camera sites have not changed since they have been off."

This is because Avon and Somerset Police have no interest whatsoever in actual police work, especially if it means getting up from behind a desk. All around the Avon & Somerset region police stations are closing as the force is centralised.  Even Bath is losing its police station and will now be served by Bristol. Bath is a city in its own right with unique policing needs but Avon & Somerset doesn't think so.

This is due to the effectiveness of their new policing strategy, whereby if a crime is reported and a government agency is not the "victim", they passs the buck onto voluntary organisations and close down the case without investigating.  They have discovered that if they don't look for crime, they will not find it - which explains a huge drop in crime in the region.

From now on Avon & Somerset Police will now take up a new role as a feeder agency for petty & victimless crimes courts which generate up to £10,000 in revenue per offence. Magistrates will be replaced by a speak-your-weight machine also capable of handing out fines

Community safety and public order has proven inefficient and expensive - and it's a total mugs game when you can sit behind a desk taking no risks for the same money. The plebs might whinge a bit but who are they going to complain to who cares? Not their MP, and certainly not their police commissioner.

If this model proves successful I suggest a merger with the HMRC, for it is difficult to tell the difference between the two agencies already - and if it means fewer fat, tattooed uniformed thugs on the street, then I'm all for it.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Theft on a massive scale

The reason I have a criminal record is because, according to a judge, I am supposed to surrender to fraudsters making unlawful demands rather than cutting off a wheel clamp with an angle grinder. My own view of what constitutes a "reasonable act" differs in that I do not think that bailiffs should be allowed to get away with this - and I do not think councils should be turning a blind eye to it. There is also the issue of theft writ large by councils who charge obscene and unlawful fees for the act of sending a letter to those in council tax arrears.

We are told that councils only resort to bailiffs as a last resort, but today we (yet again) learn from the Money Advice Trust that this simply isn't true.  According to the their findings, Birmingham City Council was shown to have referred the largest number of debts to bailiffs (on 82,329 occasions) in 2013, accounting for 17 per cent of properties in the city. That's £4.5m in liability order charges in one authority alone. There is an automatic assumption of guilt and greedy councils are using poverty as a revenue stream.

Not for the first time I have written to three local councilors on this matter using figures obtained from South Gloucestershire Council on this very issue.
Dear Adam Monk, Roger Hutchinson and Ian Scott,

A Freedom of Information request this morning reveals that South Gloucestershire Council netted £412,22 last year in "costs" from council tax Liability Orders. The council charges £55 for the act of sending a letter. 7,495 of them. The law allows only for "reasonable costs", but councils clearly disregard this and use arrears as a source of revenue. Further to this, it has also collected nearly £10k in credit card surcharges on those payments. This isn't right.

New figures have revealed between January and March, one in five people reporting debt problems to Citizens Advice had a council tax arrears issue. In the first three months of this year 27,000 people with a council tax arrears problem got help from Citizens Advice – a 17% increase on the same period last year. Councils are causing more debt problems than pay-day loan companies.

While council tax benefit changes have caused an upsurge in council tax arrears, councils have the authority to write this off and make cuts elsewhere.  But if SGC does intend to collect this money, there is certainly no way that sending a letter costs £55, and if anything, economies of scale should mean those costs go down significantly. Councils should not be pushing the poorest deeper into debt and profiteering from it.

Moreover, it does not cost councils anything to chase up late payments because councils themselves do not do the chasing. They instead subcontract to the multi-million pound enforcement industry who are allowed by law to charge £310 simply for knocking on the door. There is big money to be made from council tax arrears and it is a handy source of income for councils and bailiffs alike. This is dishonest, amoral and parasitic.

Yours sincerely,

Peter North.
Not a single one of them has replied. I have also asked the Communities Minister, Brandon Lewis,  directly for a response.  He also did not see fit to reply. Every council is engaged in a mass theft against the people and our so-called democratic representatives are not in the least bit interested.

I have been reporting on this for years now and have since taken the view that if councils are going to charge us council tax then it is our duty to make it cost them more to collect it. When the authorities investigate themselves and find themselves innocent and police feel free to pass the buck, there is nothing left in the "reasonable" inventory for ordinary citizens.

It is interesting that the magistrates court where I was originally convicted lost a days trade last week due to an arson attack. I don't know what the motive behind this is, but I suspect it is some other citizen who has been treated in a shoddy way by the justice system, which in itself is not fit for purpose. One does not go to these lengths without a feeling of being wronged.

This sort of action does not surprise me. When the system is as bent out of shape as it is, with zero legal protection and no democratic resource, fear is a weapon to which the ordinary citizen will resort. They treat us with contempt because they do not fear us - so those who want change can hardly be blamed if they use the tools available to them. They realise that fear is the only language their persecutors understand.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The Taxpayers Alliance are part of the problem

As our political masters and pathetic media once again ponder taxing plastic bags, one wonders if they occupy the same planet as the rest of us. Last week it was reported that council tax arrears is now the biggest debt problem reported to Citizens Advice.

"New figures have revealed between January and March one in five people reporting debt problems to the charity had a council tax arrears issue. In the first three months of this year 27,000 people with a council tax arrears problem got help from Citizens Advice – a 17% increase on the same period last year."

So much so, that even councillors appear to be falling behind. An unnamed Sutton councillor had to be threatened with court over unpaid council tax while nine others had to be reminded to pay up last year. Andy Silvester, of campaign group the Taxpayers' Alliance, said: "It costs the council money to chase up late payments and councillors should really know better. "Every penny of avoidable spending unnecessarily puts up local residents' council taxes."

It is Andy Silvester who should know better. A Freedom of Information request this morning reveals that my local authority alone netted £412,22 last year in "costs" from council tax Liability Orders. The council charges £55 for the act of sending a letter. The law allows only for "reasonable costs", but councils clearly disregard this and use arrears as a source of revenue. Further to this, it has also collected nearly £10k in credit card surcharges on those payments.

Moreover, it does not cost councils anything to chase up late payments because councils themselves do not do the chasing. They instead subcontract to the multi-million pound enforcement industry who are allowed by law to charge £310 simply for knocking on the door. There is big money to be made from council tax arrears and it is a handy source of income for councils and bailiffs alike. There is no link between the relatively small amount of council tax arrears and cuts to council budgets, which are in themselves minuscule - even in these times of so-called austerity.

It is bad enough that our Uncle Tom media uncritically report what they are told, but rent-a-quotes like Silvester mouthing fact-free platitudes is not very helpful. The TPA is supposed to be an organisation that sticks up for taxpayers and advocates low taxes, but all too often can seen in our local rags cheering on the rampant greed of councils. They speak the same language as rags like the Daily Mail who, on the basis of figures cooked up by private bailiffs, claim that "Council tax bills could be cut by an average £100 per household if authorities chased up debts properly." - The message being that "council tax dodgers" increase the burden on others. This is not so.

Jean Baptiste Colbert, a French finance minister once said “The art of taxation consists in so plucking the goose as to obtain the largest possible amount of feathers with the smallest possible amount of hissing”. If we had anything approaching democracy, taxation would never have reached present levels, and councils would not be running deficits to fund their CEOcracy, their vanity projects, their final-salary-pensions and worthless non-jobs. So in the absence of democracy it is time to hiss, and those who do are the canary-down-the-mine who prevent bills soaring ever upward.

But mostly, those who don't pay are those who can't pay, yet TPA is egging on councils to be as greedy as possible, when every council has a moral obligation to reduce its footprint on our wallets. If thousands of people are being summoned to court in every authority, each accumulating further debt of up to £85 each time (before it is even sent to bailiffs), then it is a broken system and it is exploiting the poorest. If the TPA had a genuine concern for taxpayers it would be campaigning to stop councils pushing the poorest deeper into debt - and to stop profiteering from it.

While council tax benefit changes have caused an upsurge in council tax arrears, councils do have the authority to write off this debt, and should make cuts elsewhere. As the TPA is very often keen to point out, there is plenty fat to be trimmed and still an army of non-jobbers to fire, yet they join the ranks of the other Uncle Toms in calling for councils to be more aggressive in stripping the public of their every last penny. With friends like the TPA, who needs enemies?