I attended Cambridgeshire’s Police and Crime Panel on the 5th of February 2014 where the panel voted to approve a 1.92% increase in the policing element of council tax for 2014/15 as Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright had proposed.
The report to the panel on the proposed increase was presented by Niki Howard, the Director of Finance & Resources for Cambridgeshire Police; who the Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright has appointed his acting Chief Finance Officer. In my view this makes a mockery of commissioner Bright’s claims to be operating independently from the police.
I had used the public participation slot at the start of the meeting to raise this concern, and also to urge the panel members to ask the commissioner how he can justify the increase given a key element of his election campaign was a promise to put no extra burden on council tax. (I also asked if the Commissioner’s emails, and IT, were being handled by the police meaning the physical separation of his office from police HQ is just symbolic). No panel members took up my suggestions of points to raise.
Police and Crime Commissioner Graham Bright sought to distance himself from the council tax hike proposal and told the panel that his friend Brian (who he has appointed Deputy Police and Crime Commissioner) was the architect of the tax hike he was asking the panel to approve.
While the majority of those panel members voting supported the commissioner’s council tax hike only Conservative Cllr Curtis explained his reason. Cllr Curtis astonishingly said that the council tax rise would be affordable to those on low incomes as they would have extra cash as a result of increases in the tax free income tax allowance. Cllr Curtis made this statement after two of panel members from Peterborough had raised concerned about the affordability of the rise, claiming there were already queues of people unable to afford their council tax outside the magistrates courts in Peterborough. Cllr Curtis made no comment on how he expected those on fixed incomes, such as pensioners, to afford the increase, though he did cite surveys saying people are prepared to pay more council tax.
Cambridge’s representative, Liberal Democrat Tim Bick, left the room while the vote on the council tax rise was taken.
The commissioner’s chief of staff informed the panel that a few moments before the meeting started the government had announced the level of council tax increase which would trigger a referendum. This threshold was set at 2% so the commissioner’s proposal will not require approval at an expensive referendum. The fact the panel’s own officers weren’t providing the panel with this key information for them to consider while deciding if to approve the proposal or shows a worrying lack of independence in the panel’s operations.
The Police and Crime Commissioner issued a press released following the Police and Crime Panel meeting; reports in the local media appeared to be based entirely on that press release and did not reflect the concerns about affordability which had been raised by panel members at the meeting.