DISMAY and anger has greeted news vulnerable residents in council care are still waiting to be repaid hundreds of thousands of pounds they were wrongly charged for their accommodation.

The overcharging was at the centre of a scandal exposed in the Globe in 2008 by former Department of Adult Social Services manager-turned-whistleblower Martin Morton.

In 2010, the council finally acknowledged nearly 40 vulnerable adults collectively were owed more than £240,000.

That sum was reimbursed to residents last year.

But today in response to a Freedom of Information request by Mr Morton, it has emerged that up to May of this year, a further £493,000 is still to be repaid.

The response said a complex issue surrounding a so-called “benefits trap” was responsible for the three-year hold-up.

Conservative group leader Cllr Jeff Green said he was “appalled and disgusted.”

Councillor Green ordered the repayments to be made as a priority during his time as leader of the authority in 2011.

He also commissioned a £250,000 investigation by consultant Anna Klonowski, the scathing results of which sparked a massive upheaval in the way the town hall is run.

He said today: “It is almost impossible to describe the sheer incompetence and callousness of this council.

“No doubt there is an important issue around residents' benefits. But to take three years to resolve it is frankly unbelievable.

“The over-payments made by vulnerable adults and the council’s so-called ‘special charging policy’ was at the very centre of Mr Morton’s whistleblow.

“It is utterly shaming that elected members and officers of this council still apparently fail to recognise the upset and chaos they have caused to these people and their families - and how it should be their top priority to repair this damage.”

The council's response to Mr Morton’s FoI request reads: “The process of repaying vulnerable service users was complicated by the so-called ‘benefits trap’ – the fact that many users were in receipt of benefit payments which might be affected by the sudden repayment of a large sum of money.

“Consideration was also given to the difficulty of reimbursing service-users with severe learning difficulties which might affect their understanding of and engagement with the process.

“The situation in May 2013 is that the council have identified all of the service-users and the amounts owed to each, and is ready to begin reimbursing them, or in the cases in which the service-user is now deceased, their families.

“The process of reimbursement involves a complex mix of capacity assessments, advocacy and wider benefit assessment, and as such reimbursement will take varying lengths of time to conclude.”

It adds that in September of 2012, the director of adult social services presented an
update on his department’s work to implement the findings of the Klonowski report.

His report included details of further reimbursements of around £320,880 owed to 17 residents of homes in Curlew Way, Bermuda Road and Edgehill Road, while 22 residents at Balls Road and North Road were owed £120,000.

One additional person was identified and the total further amount to be reimbursed including interest now stands at £493,296.

Council chief executive Graham Burgess said advocates from mental health charity MIND are to be appointed to help residents make claims for repayment.

He said: “The council has been very thorough and while there might have been delays in the process, they were for no other reason than we wanted to be sure residents received their full entitlement.

"We also wanted to safeguard residents from losing their benefits when a lump sum was paid to them, which also caused some delays.

“Just over £243,000 has been repaid to 17 people from the North Road and Balls Road centres and we have recently appointed MIND to act as advocates for a further 30 or so people who we believe will be entitled to further repayments.”

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Whistleblowers' view:

Martin Morton told the Globe: “I understand the issues and complexities related to this case more than anyone, but the delay is completely inexcusable.

“I have maintained throughout that there appears to be a hierarchy of human worth.

“Failing senior officers - some of whom I hold responsible for the cover-up of these unlawful charges - were paid substantial sums of public money in the blink of an eye.

"Yet those who can't speak for themselves or lack legal advocacy have to literally wait years for recompense.

“Meanwhile I remain unemployed and living hand to mouth.”

He continued: “What is deeply concerning is why I am still having to pursue progress on reimbursement via Freedom of Information - five years after I was harassed out of my job for exposing this malpractice.

“Lack of scrutiny and accountability have been a constant feature and this still appears to be the case. 

“I understand better than anyone the council's desire to ‘move forward’ from past scandals.

“But I am compelled to continue simply because if I don't, everything my family and I have endured will have been for nothing - and that would be a very bitter pill to swallow.”

Editor's note: Apologies for original version of this story which said the repayments process had not begun.
A council representative has been in touch explaining that although the FoI response was unclear in this respect, it has in fact repaid almost £244,000 to the residents.
The outstanding £493,000 is over and above that sum.
Leigh Marles,