6:20pm Thursday 14th January 2010
By Leigh Marles
The outcome of a "whistleblower" investigation could tonight see Wirral Council agreeing to repay almost a quarter of a million pounds to 16 care home residents.
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.
The scandal only came to light after former council employee Martin Morton revealed the overcharging to the Wirral Globe in November, 2008.
He had raised his concerns several times with his managers, but claimed he was ignored, bullied and driven out of his job.
Following our exclusive reports, 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.
And a report to tonight's cabinet meeting makes 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, is recommending that officers write to individuals "advising" them to make a claim against the authority.
Mr Norman says that residents on means-tested benefits may encounter unexpected difficulties if they suddenly come into a substantial sum of money.
He says: "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 recommends 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 suggests the council should steer tenants with a potential claim towards the Wirral Advocacy Service, a charity which offers free legal advice.
The cabinet will be asked to authorise reimbursing the 16 people who are owed money.
Officers will be told to 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."
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