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latest update 12 February 2010

Thursday, 24 September 2009

The cover's blown ...

Audit and Risk Managemet Committee - 23 September 2009

Members present: Councillors Leah Fraser (Cons); Simon Mountney (Cons); Jim Crabtree (Lab); John Salter (Lab); Peter Reisdorf (LibDem); and Paula Southwood (LibDem), who chaired the meeting

At the packed meeting this evening the Wirral Whistleblower identified himself as Martin Morton, former Supported Living Development Officer at the Department of Adult Social Services. Mr Morton was the officer who managed the West Wirral Supported Living services, including those in Bermuda Road, Curlew Way and Edgehill Road.

Mr Morton acknowledged that the Internal Auditor had a difficult job in compiling the report, with so many Senior Council Officers having a hand in its production and documents turning up “out of the blue” in the last week of its preparation.

He took issue with the title of the report, as both his grievance and whistlblowing had centred, not just on "in-house" establishments, but also on private supported living accommodation, such as the one named in the Audit Commission's Follow up of PIDA Disclosure (item 38), Salisbury Independent Living.

He then set out to demonstrate that the 'special charging policy' that had been imposed on the vulnerable tenants at three properties at Bermuda Road, Curlew Way and Edgehill Road was unlawful, not only between 2003 and 2006, but from 1997.

Mr Morton told the committee that DASS were only able to "get away with it" because of the tenants' particular disabilities, and that they knew it was not a "reasonable" charge, thus rendering it "unlawful". He then quoted from an email written by DASS's Head of Finance [also identified by the Council as "Employee A"]

Councillor Mountney later read the email to the members in its entirety:

24 February 2004
Subject: RE: Supported Accommodation – Charging Policy

Once we go for a ‘reimbursement’ the cover’s blown. However we can’t bury our head in the sand for too much longer as the charging review group will start soon (it could be better to leave it to that group to consider?) In the meantime there is ‘unfairness’ in the system hence my advice to Xxxxx to consider the broader issues in AMT.

By the book:- there is no separate charging policy for this service, so it could be argued the domiciliary care charging policy must apply (and should have since ‘97), and that will mean a hefty reimbursement.

I would suggest we go to the Cabinet in the political down time (May-June) to get agreement for a ‘special charging policy’ for supported living as part of the budget strategy.... and that this policy maintains the status quo in financial terms but does so more fairly. I would also suggest the impact on individuals and groups in certain living situations are considered in more depth as I was left thinking the charging practice was very diverse and almost locally determined by individual staff (although I could be wrong there).

Councillor Mountney said the email was proof that Senior Officers in DASS believed the special charging policy did not have Cabinet approval, and were well aware it was "unfair" which rendered it "unreasonable" and therefore "unlawful". The Director of Law, Bill Norman, again argued the charge could not be unlawful as it was approved by members in 1997.

Councillor Southwood questioned the authenticity of the email, commenting that anyone could read something and claim it was a genuine email. The Director of Law, sitting next to her, could have confirmed its authenticity as Councillor Mountney had handed it to him at a previous meeting of the Committee, but he chose to remain silent.

Mr Morton said that this special charging policy could never be described as 'Modified CRAG' (Charging for Residential Accommodation) as the properties were Supported Living, not Residential Accommodation.

He said he was angry that the report sought to minimise the effect the overcharging had on the tenants, and described one of the cases where a man was reduced to such penury that he was forced to claim a Welfare payment to buy clothes.

Both Councillors Fraser and Mountney wanted to know how the mysterious 1997 document had come to light in DASS just one week before the publication of the report. Councillor Fraser pointed out that both DASS and Internal Audit had had a year in which to discover it, during which time the report had been due on no less than four occasions, yet had not managed to do so.

The badly-chaired, and at times angry, meeting erupted when Chris Batman of DASS offered the explanation that "it was brought to my attention" but he did not know how, where, or by who it was found. This was greeted with hoots of derision and shouts of "rubbish" and "liar" from the audience that included many people recently-retired from the Department.

When it came to the vote on reimbursement, Labour councillors appeared unsure of how they had voted, claiming they had voted for Councillor Mountney's proposal that reimbursement should be made back to 1997. In fact, they had voted only to do so if yet another enquiry by Internal Audit showed Senior Officers of DASS were, or should have been, aware that the special charging policy was unfair and/or unreasonable. It was also decided to ask Mr Morton to cooperate with Internal Audit on the inquiry.

After Councillor Southwood extended the thanks of the Committee to Mr Morton he was invited to make his closing comments, when he said that:

• he did not want to be thanked, nor did he intend to spend any more of his time helping Internal Audit 'find' what they had already been given.

• no apologies had been made either to him or to the tenants affected in the report.

• the behaviour of Senior DASS Officers towards him over the last few years had been horrendous, amounting to cruelty.

• he had spent many months shut away from the his colleagues, not allowed to attend meetings, with no work to do, and all his files confiscated.

• they had made him very ill, to the extent that he had been hospitalised.

• their treatment of him had been so appalling that he and his wife had at one time contemplated suicide.

• contrary to the impression conveyed by the report, this has not been a
series of unfortunate mistakes and time delay, but a co-ordinated, systematic cover-up of serious malpractice by the Council

• by continuing to diminish the full financial liability in respect of tenants at Bermuda Road, Curlew Way and Edgehill Road, the Director and officers of DASS are bringing the Authority into disrepute

• the Council has gone to extraordinary lengths to conceal the truth and thus avoid any wrong-doing by Officers being revealed

• there has been a systemic failure to protect vulnerable people from financial abuse both in-house as well as in the private sector providers such as those named by the Audit Commission.

• there has been an appalling waste of public money, which included an amount of £45,000 that he was paid by the Council to "go away and keep quiet"
(full details of total money wasted will appear in a later post)

• the direct effect of this is less money available to supply services for vulnerable people

• Wirral Council has a problem with its culture of complicity which extends right up to the Chief Executive

As he finished he received a standing ovation by the whole audience, while Council Officers and those elected Members who had continued to resist full reimbursement to the tenants concerned sat stoney-faced.

They were left in no doubt about the hostility of the audience as one young woman stormed out, loudly declared that they were "all a load of sh*te".

Will that be minuted, Mr Delap?


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