Express & Star

Council agrees constitution changes after amendment in eleventh hour

Stafford Borough councillors have agreed amendments to their constitution including providing advance notice of alternative budget plans – but a last-minute bid to change one word in relation to debt-write off's did not prove successful.


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Political groups putting forward an “alternative budget” for Stafford Borough Council will now have to give at least five days’ notice of their plans, in a rule change put forward after an eleventh-hour amendment attempt by opposition members earlier this year.

Conservative councillors were told at the January meeting, where the authority’s latest budget was approved, that their proposals to change fees and charges could not be brought forward because the decision on 2024’s prices had been made within the past six months.

The meeting was adjourned for around half an hour while an alternative amendment that complied with council rules was considered.

A procedure for dealing with alternative budget proposals is now being added to the borough council’s constitution as part of the annual review of the document.

But another amendment, put forward at Tuesday’s full council meeting in relation to the process of writing off unpaid debts owed to the council, was not passed.

Councillor Mark Winnington, speaking about the constitution review, said: “As chairman of the resources committee I would like to say thank you to all involved – it was a very civilised and useful exercise. However, when I read the papers I did pick up an anomaly that does need sorting out.

“The report says the group agreed to change the debt value from £2,500 to £10,000. This means that for anything under £10,000, the Section 151 Officer (the council’s chief financial officer) can sign it off without going to cabinet.

“However, for debts over £10,000, outstanding debts may, on recommendation of the Section 151 Officer, be referred to the cabinet for consideration of write-off.

"I don’t know what other people think, but it doesn’t seem particularly democratic or transparent that the borough council will be leaving it up to officers, not cabinet, to deal with the write-off of debts over £10,000.

“We are all aware of the fact it is taxpayers’ pounds and I think it should go to cabinet. On that basis I have asked for an amendment to be put to council.

“I would ask that we strike out ‘may be referred to cabinet for write-off’ and replace that with ‘will be referred to cabinet for write-off’. This is not a political jibe but I think it is only right we are transparent on this one.”

Councillor Winnington’s amendment failed to gain enough support from fellow members in the chamber however. The council went on to vote for the original amendments to the constitution to come into force from the next municipal year, which begins next month.

Councillors were told that it had been made clear that officers were not being given permission to write off debts of more than £10,000. Instead the proposed working gave details of how these debts could be written off.

Councillor Tony Pearce said: “It’s quite clear that debts under £10,000 can be written off by the Section 151 Officer. Where debts are over £10,000, our policy is to pursue recovery of those debts.

“Only in exceptional circumstances would we be looking at the possibility of writing them off. Surely it should be a matter of judgement on the part of the officers concerned as to whether or not there is a potential for pursuing debts further, rather than considering they be written off.

“On this basis, the cabinet will be looking at every debt over £10,000. And that will have to happen at every meeting in order to consider whether or not they should be considered for writing off.”

Councillor Ralph Cooke, cabinet member for resources, said: “We had this matter at the task and finish group and Resources Committee and these points were never made. It seems curious that it takes the intellectual process so long to come forward and deliver that at the council meeting.

“Why weren’t these matters raised at the task and finish committee or the Resources Scrutiny Committee? It almost seems to be done for effect, to get a bit of publicity.”