THE UK's powerful equality watchdog has accused Wirral Council of discriminating against disabled people - and it could cost the town hall £500,000 in compensation.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission says the authority should include its findings in an ongoing inquiry into the systematic overcharging of disabled people in council care.
The shock ruling centres around a scandal in which 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 from 1997.
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 outcome of an investigation saw the council agreeing to repay almost a quarter-of-a-million pounds to 16 care home residents.
However, a change of administration after last May's local elections saw a new and independent inquiry immediately being launched chaired by Anna Klonowski, a senior public sector professional with more than 20 years' experience, leading the review.
Now it has been claimed that the compensation package could rise by a massive £500,000 if the inquiry agrees with the Equality Commission's view that the overcharging represented discrimination against the disabled.
A confidential email by the Commission's disability committee chairman Mike Smith has been seen by the Globe.
It states: "I do not agree with the conclusions drawn by the council's Director of Law that discrimination did not occur because the residents were not overcharged for reasons relating to disability.
"Current discrimination law clearly establishes that motive and intent are irrelevant to this issue.
"The facts are that disabled people were subject to unlawful levels of charging (whether of not the cause was maladministration)."
It continues: "It is the opinion of the Commission that [these] concerns should be included in the inquiry in order to identify whether there are other issues or systemic problems that need to be addressed."
Councillor Simon Mountney, who has championed whistleblower Martin Morton's cause, said: "This scandal just gets worse and worse.
"The compensation of £250,000 paid to our residents was set in the light of a ruling by our legal department that the council had not acted in a discriminatory manner.
"It would have been far higher otherwise.
"It is my understanding that a further £500,000 would need to be added to that package if discrimination is found to have occurred."
Council leader Cllr Jeff Green said: "As soon as the issue of discrimination was brought to my attention I raised it with our legal department and was not satisfied with the answers I received.
"I asked at that point for the Anna Klonowski inquiry to be widened to include the Equality Commission's findings.
"I have received assurance that this has been done and I am pressing for the inquiry report to be completed as soon as possible."