Five former A4e workers have been jailed for their parts in a back-to-work scheme fraud that cost the taxpayer nearly £300,000.
A further five former employees were handed suspended sentences at Reading Crown Court for a plot that involved creating faked records of welfare-to-work learners.
Between 2008 and 2011, the defendants submitted fraudulent paperwork for learners on the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Aspire to Inspire programme, claiming to have found work for learners who either did not exist or who remained unemployed.
Four people were convicted following the 13-week trial at Reading which finished on January 14, with sentencing taking place yesterday.
Former account manager Ines Cano-Uribe, aged 39, of Madrid, Spain, was sentenced to 18 months in prison for two counts of forgery.
Former contract administrator Zabar Khalil, 35, of Slough, received a 12-month sentence suspended for two years, 150 hours’ unpaid work and £2,000 costs for one count of forgery.
Former deputy business manager Matthew Hannigan-Train, 31, of Bristol, was sentenced to 12-month sentence suspended for two years, 200 hours’ unpaid work and £2,000 costs for one count of forgery.
Former recruiter Hayley Wilson, 27, of Milton Keynes, was handed a 12-month sentence suspended for two years, 200 hours’ unpaid work and £2,000 costs for one count of forgery.
Six other defendants pleaded guilty to their part in the scheme at earlier court hearings.
Former recruiter Dean Lloyd, 38, of Milton Keynes, was sentenced to 15 months’ imprisonment for 13 counts of forgery.
Former recruiter Julie Grimes, 52, of Surrey, was jailed for 26 months for nine counts of forgery.
Former recruiter Aditi Singh, 31, of Slough, was given a 10-month sentence suspended for two years, 150 hours’ unpaid work and £530 costs for three counts of fraud and forgery.
Former recruiter Bindiya Dholiwar, 28, of Slough, received 15 months in prison for seven counts of forgery.
Former recruiter Nikki Foster, 31, of Workingham, was sentenced to 22 months’ imprisonment for eight counts of fraud and one of conspiracy.
Former recruiter Charles McDonald, 44, of Surrey, received a 40-month sentence for six counts of fraud and one conspiracy.
The defendants worked at A4e branches throughout the Thames Valley.
Although the money claimed from the DWP was given to the company rather than to the fraudsters themselves, they received bonuses for helping people into work and meeting targets.
When the Department of Work and Pensions 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.
A4e helped 558 people find jobs on the £1.3m Aspire to Inspire contract for Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire, but staff fraudulently claimed for a further 167 people.
The fraud came to light when Grimes confided in a new member of staff that she had forged signatures, who reported it to senior staff.
However, defence lawyers claimed that fraudulent practices were “entrenched” within the company itself which, they said had a “culture of dishonesty” and put “unrealistic demands” on its staff. A4e rejected the claims.
Andrew Dutton, A4e group chief executive, said: “We note that the judge in her sentencing remarks dismissed claims that a culture of dishonesty existed within our business.
“We also note that those who made these claims raised no concerns about workplace practices or culture until they were confronted with the proof of their own dishonest behaviour.
“Their claims do not reflect the way this company operates, or the values of our 2,100 staff, whose honesty and integrity are much valued.”
He added: “A4e has a zero tolerance policy towards fraud and took this case extremely seriously.
“The sentences bring a conclusion to the investigation that was started by A4e in 2010, when we uncovered some irregularities in a small contract in the Thames Valley, and we co-operated fully with the Department for Work and Pensions and police to bring this case to court.
“These convictions relate to a single contract which ended four years ago and represented only 0.24 per cent of our annual business at that time, and to people who no longer work at A4e.
“We are obviously disappointed and sorry that there were people working for us on this historical contract who behaved dishonestly, and in doing so let down the customers we had intended them to help and the taxpayer.
“A4e long ago set aside the money to pay back the DWP the amount it received as a result of the unsubstantiated claims and we have ensured that the taxpayer will have lost nothing from the conduct of the people involved.
He added that A4e had made “far-reaching” improvements to its control system.
Detective Inspector Gavin Tyrrell, from the Thames Valley Police’s Economic Crime Unit, said the offences had “targeted vulnerable people who had been out of work for long periods and were trying to find jobs during what was a very difficult employment climate”.
“I hope the convictions send out a clear message,” he said.
“Thames Valley Police takes offences of this nature seriously and makes every effort to ensure offenders face the consequences of their actions.”