Four A4e workers forged paperwork to make fraudulent claims against a Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) welfare-to-work scheme, a jury has ruled.
Ines Cano-Uribe, aged 38, of Madrid, Spain, Matthew Hannigan-Train, 30, of Bristol, and Hayley Wilson, 27, of Milton Keynes, were yesterday found guilty of conspiring to make false instruments on the Inspire to Aspire contract to cover up fraudulent claims.
Cano-Uribe was also found guilty with Zabar Khalil, 35, of Slough, of a separate count of forgery.
A further six defendants had already pleaded guilty before the 13-week Reading Crown Court trial to 48 counts of forgery and related conspiracy offences.
They were Dean Lloyd, 38, of Milton Keynes — 13 counts of forgery, Julie Grimes, 52, of Laleham, Surrey — nine counts of forgery; Aditi Singh, 31, of Slough — three counts of fraud and forgery, Bindiya Dholiwar, 28, of Slough — seven counts of forgery, Nikki Foster, 31, of Wokingham – eight counts of fraud and one conspiracy, and Charles McDonald, 44, of Egham, Surrey — six counts of fraud and one of conspiracy.
Lisa Rose, specialist fraud prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service, said: “This scheme involved blatant deception on behalf of the defendants. Instead of helping people back into work, the defendants created false clients and false paper trails for future audits.
“This criminal abuse of their position and responsibility was simply to boost the company’s performance and increase the amount of money it received.
“The defendants claimed A4e had helped find jobs for people who were in fact already employed, people who had never come to A4e for help, and even for some A4e colleagues who had not even used the scheme to join the company.
“For an organisation with such aspirational aims and goals, it is very disappointing that the defendants behaved so dishonestly. Instead of spending time helping those who genuinely needed to find work these defendants were tirelessly covering their tracks, not to mention causing considerable losses to the public purse.”
Between 2008 and 2011, Wilson, Lloyd, Grimes, Singh, Dholiwar, Foster and McDonald worked as A4e recruiters at branches throughout the Thames Valley, together with account manager Cano-Uribe, deputy business manager Hannigan-Train and contract administrator Khalil.
Thames Valley Police said that over this period, the recruiters claimed financial rewards by fraudulently saying they had found work for people, many of whom either did not exist or had not found work. They then forged documentation to support these false claims.
Andrew Dutton, A4e chief executive, said: “A4e co-operated fully with the police enquiry, after our own internal investigation first brought these alleged incidents to light. Since these alleged events took place, we have augmented our controls and processes to seek to ensure that nothing like this could ever happen again.
“Furthermore, rigorous audits undertaken by the Department for Work and Pensions [DWP] and the Skills Funding Agency have concluded that there is no evidence of fraud on any of the contracts that we hold with them.
“A4e has, of course, committed to paying back in full the total value of alleged unsubstantiated claims that were made to the DWP.”
The fraudulent claims were discovered following a whistleblower report that led to a DWP and Thames Valley Police investigation into the ‘Inspire to Aspire’ Lone Parent mentoring programme, which was funded by the European Social Fund (ESF). The programme ended in July 2011.
In some cases, said police, the offenders created files for people who did not exist and included fabricated contact details and details about false training sessions.
In others, claims were made for people who had attended A4e for help, but had not yet found employment. The offenders made claims to say these people had been helped into work by A4e and so rewards were claimed.
Although the money was not received directly by the offenders, many of them were given bonuses for each person they helped into work and met targets set by their managers.
When the DWP audited the contract and asked to see 21 files in March 2011, Cano-Uribe, Hannigan-Train and Wilson were all involved in making the files appear to be in order, including fraudulent ones.
The fraud came to light when documentation completed and purporting to be signed by candidates and employers to show successful job outcomes, was found to have been produced and signed by staff themselves.
DI Gavin Tyrrell, from the Thames Valley Police Economic Crime Unit, said: “This has been a long and highly complex investigation and so we are pleased that it has resulted in a positive outcome here at court.
“Together, these ten people acted dishonestly to abuse a scheme which was designed to help those who had been out of work for long periods and were trying to find jobs in what was a very difficult employment climate. Financial rewards had been introduced in order to help that process and these defendants took advantage of that for their own personal gain.
“The money they fraudulently claimed came from the taxpayer and just over £1.3m was paid to A4e between 2008 and 2010 for their implementation of this contract.
“I want to thank the jury who have deliberated for over 55 hours for their patience in carefully listening to all the facts, in what has been a complicated and difficult case.”
The defendants are due to be sentenced on March 30 at Reading Crown Court.
Sarah Hawkins, 32, of Bagshot, Surrey, Serge Wyett, of Richmond, and Yasmin Ahmed, both 40, of Southend on Sea, faced similar charges, but were cleared of all counts.