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Friday, 15 January 2010

Wirral Council agrees to pay £244,000 back to vulnerable adults it overcharged for years, vindicating a 'whistleblower'

15th January 2010

Wirral Globe by Justin Dunn »

Wirral Council finally admitted owing a quarter of a million pounds to vulnerable adults last night.

In what council leader Steve Foulkes described as "not our finest episode", the authority systematically overcharged at least sixteen people for years on end.

The overcharging only came to light when a whistleblower repeatedly tried to highlight them with his bosses at Adult Social Services.

The whistleblower, Martin Morton, was eventually paid £45,000 to leave the service and keep quiet. Instead, in November 2008, he approached the Globe and we helped him tell his story.

The result was last night's meeting of the council's ruling cabinet committee, where it was agreed to repay almost a quarter of a million pounds to the sixteen adults who had been overcharged.

Mr Morton maintains the amount is nearer to £500,000 and involves more than just sixteen people.

As the cabinet prepared to approve the process of allowing people to reclaim the money, council leader Steve Foulkes declared: "This was clearly not our finest episode."

He said it was "regrettable" that anybody may have been "damaged" by the long-running saga and added: "I offer my personal apologies to those involved."

The committee read from a report that told how elderly and vulnerable people living in homes at Bermuda Road, Curlew Way and Edgehill Road, all in Moreton, were systematically overcharged by Adult Social Services for seven years.

Mr Morton had raised his concerns several times with his managers, but claims he was ignored, bullied and driven out of his job.

Days after our exclusive report in November 2008, two senior officers were suspended but, after disciplinary hearings, were later reinstated.

The stress of blowing the whistle drove Mr Martin to the verge of a nervous breakdown and he was subsequently hospitalised.

He was given a £45,000 pay-off from the council to leave his job in social services.

An internal audit to examine Mr Martin's claims was eventually ordered and reported its findings in September of last year.

It ruled that people living in the three homes under a so-called "special charging policy" had been overcharged and that the policy was unlawful.

The town hall has set aside £68,000 to repay the residents - but the total sum needed is £244,000.

The report to last night's meeting made it clear the authority is not going to just hand over a cheque for the money it owes.

Instead, the council's director of law, Bill Norman, recommended that officers write to individuals "advising" them to make a claim against the authority.

He said residents on means-tested benefits may encounter unexpected difficulties if they suddenly come into a substantial sum of money.

He wrote in the report: "There is the potential impact upon each affected individual’s current financial position.

"The impact of the reimbursement of a significant sum of money, when combined with any capital resources an individual may already have, may have wider implications that may not be initially appreciated by those in receipt of means-tested benefits.

"The regulations for such benefits are framed in such a way as to preclude individuals or those acting on their behalf from taking such actions, in any way, which may be regarded as an evasion of benefit regulations."

Mr Norman recommended that individuals will need to be notified that they may have a claim against the council in respect of the "deemed overpayment".

"They will need to consider their positions, and if they believe they have a legitimate entitlement, make a claim for reimbursement against the council.

"It would be advisable, and indeed highly desirable, that each individual be given access to independent advice in formulating such a view and potential claim."

He suggested the council should steer tenants with a potential claim towards the Wirral Advocacy Service, a charity which offers free legal advice.

Officers will now write to individuals and their carers and advocates informing them of this, and inviting them to seek appropriate advice "so as to ensure they make an informed decision if they choose to submit a claim".

Cllr Foulkes said the affair had proved that anyone within the council with a complaint - "or a whistleblower, as the term has been used in this case" - would have their grievances properly investigated and acted upon.

Martin Morton's blistering response to that will appear in his own words in next week's print edition of the Globe, and later online.


© copyright Wirral Globe. Reproduced under fair use for the dual purposes of comment and news reporting

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