Council must repay thousands of vulnerable people after care payment ruling

Norfolk County Council at County Hall in Norwich

Norfolk County Council at County Hall in Norwich - Credit: Archant

Norfolk County Council could have to repay millions to the county's most vulnerable people after a High Court judge ruled it had discriminated against them in changes to its disability support.

Two years ago, the council agreed to change its minimum income guarantee (MIG) in a cost-cutting measure, which meant that more than 4,000 disabled people were left having to pay more for their adult social care.

It was a decision that was widely criticised at the time, prompting the mother of a young woman with Down syndrome to launch a lengthy legal challenge, which saw the council taken all the way to the High Court.

And in what the woman has described as "the best early Christmas present", on Friday the judge ruled the council had acted unlawfully in its decision to change the way it calculates care cost.

The mother, who can not be named for legal reasons, said: "Like many people, we have had a most difficult 10 months with the majority of that time spent shielding for safety reasons and this burden on top has been a very added stress for us.

"Not only us and all the members of Disability Network Norfolk Group, who formed for mutual support to fight these unfair charges, but groups across the county and the country who have been so supportive of our situation, can take heart and note and know we have been vindicated.

"It has been a long, hard struggle on top of our very busy, more complicated and tiring roles as it is, without the added stress of these extra charges."

Norfolk county councillor and cabinet member for adult social care Bill Borrett. Picture: Matthew Us

Norfolk county councillor and cabinet member for adult social care Bill Borrett. Picture: Matthew Usher. - Credit: Matthew Usher

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Following the ruling, the council has vowed to refund every individual that was overcharged for the same reasons as the claimant - estimated to be around 3,200 people.

The council has not yet calculated the cost of the refunds, but opposition councillors fear it could run into millions of pounds.

It will also have to spend around £600,000 per year more going forward, a spokesman said.

Bill Borrett, the Conservative-led council's cabinet member for adult social services, said: "I absolutely regret that people were charged the wrong amount and am very sorry for the distress this has caused.

"We have no intention of appealing the judge's decision and we will now get on with sorting out this issue. We will be contacting all the relevant service users and any overpayment will be refunded in full."

The proposals faced fierce opposition at the time, with protesters picketing the council meeting ahead of it being voted on and widespread petitions.

But Mr Borrett said: "I think people not wanting a change to happen and a change not being fair are two different things. We have to take a view that we have to offer the best we can with what is available to us.

"We do not have an unlimited budget and as a result, we have to make difficult decisions - if we did we would not be here today. 

"In his judgment, the judge said that our charging policy was discriminatory but in an ‘unintended and unforeseen way’.

"I will be bringing forward proposals for how to rectify this situation to the next meeting of cabinet."

The woman, who said she was "over the moon" thanked opposition councillors for their support throughout.

Steve Morphew, Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Steve Morphew, Norwich. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2018

Steve Morphew, leader of the Labour group, said it was inevitable the cost of refunding people would run into millions - and that the pain caused could have been avoided.

"Time and again we have said how cruel, callous, unfair, unjust, inhumane and damaging this was," he said.

"Time and again families have pleaded with Conservative cabinet members to listen, but even getting them to meet has been a real struggle. "

Steffan Aquarone, Liberal Democrat group leader at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Alex Broadway

Steffan Aquarone, Liberal Democrat group leader at Norfolk County Council. Picture: Alex Broadway - Credit: Alex Broadway

Stefan Aquarone, who leads the Lib Dem group, added: "It feels like the administration is almost principally opposed to the idea of those with the greatest need getting more support. 

"They have forced people with disabilities to have to fight for two years, with the time and expense of going to court, to get the right to be treated as we would all expect - to live a normal life.

"The council says it wants people to live independently but then withdraws the money that enables them to do so."

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