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Revealed: The North Lanarkshire councillor who owed £4000 in council tax

Caroline Stephen’s debt was paid off so she could vote in the budget
Caroline Stephen’s debt was paid off so she could vote in the budget

THE SNP politician whose £4000 council tax debt was paid off by her colleagues so she could take part in a crucial budget vote can today be revealed as Caroline Stephen.

Miss Stephen, 43, was elected to represent the Coatbridge West area for North Lanarkshire Council in last year’s elections.

However, when it came to setting the local authority’s budget last week, her SNP colleagues bailed her out of her debts in order for her to be able to vote.

Councillors are legally not allowed to vote in their local authority budget if they have council tax arrears, so the SNP group used its own funds, gathered from a £20 contribution by councillors each month, to pay off her debt. The party still lost the budget vote when the Conservatives backed the minority Labour leadership to pass an alternative plan.

Some of her party colleagues are said to be unhappy about the decision to pay her debt.

An SNP insider said: “It has caused a definite rift in the group.  Only after it was agreed to pay off the debt did many of us actually discover how much it was. By that point it was too late as the decision had been made.

“Quite a few folk are angry about it, and are asking why she was allowed to run in the first place with so much debt owed to the council.

“It makes the whole party in North Lanarkshire look foolish and some people are saying it’s hypocritical for a councillor to be contributing to setting a budget, deciding where to make savings or where to spend money when you owe so much to the public purse.”

Stephen with Nicola Sturgeon

When contacted, the SNP would not provide details on their candidate vetting process, or whether Miss Stephen declared her debts before standing as a councillor.

Labour councillor Kevin Docherty, who represents the same area as Miss Stephen, said: “Councillors should not have any privilege when it comes to council tax. The average person couldn’t just get their debts paid off like that.”

Conservative leader for North Lanarkshire, Meghan Gallagher, said: “Not only has the SNP had to bail this person out, but they’ve had to do so using their own councillors’ money.

“Most voters would understandably think this is unacceptable. The circumstances aren’t great but it allowed the individual to vote in the budget.”

When contacted, Miss Stephen said she has “nothing to say” about her arrears, but said: “I don’t owe anything, ask the council.”

The councillor said her identity had been kept secret previously, and added: “I’d like it to stay that way.”

When our reporter asked her to explain why, she said “I don’t wish to discuss it” and then asked repeatedly “What benefit will this have for my constituents?”

It is the latest problem facing the SNP in North Lanarkshire. The leader of the group, David Stocks, previously came under fire for accepting hospitality from the Orange Order – outspoken opponents of the SNP – while fellow councillor Dr Imtiaz Majid was ordered to pay his ex wife £150,000 in a divorce settlement when it was discovered he had hidden his assets.

Another former councillor Julie McAnulty is suing a fellow SNP member for defamation, while in 2016 the Coatbridge branch of the party was suspended temporarily when attendees at a meeting called each other “racist” and “animals”.

In 2015 Alan Beveridge and John Taggart quit the SNP with Mr Beveridge citing a “climate of fear” in the local branch.

An SNP spokesman said: “SNP councillors in North Lanarkshire make a personal monthly contribution to group funds. It’s entirely appropriate for us to use group funds to help one another.”

A North Lanarkshire council spokeswoman said: “We do not comment on individual cases. However, all council tax payers are treated equally in the approach to arrears.

“We would urge anyone struggling with council tax to approach us as soon as possible.”