Marples family to sue DfE for over £37m

Founder of 3aaa seeks damages for aborted sale in 2016

Founder of 3aaa seeks damages for aborted sale in 2016

15 Feb 2023, 15:15

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The former owner of collapsed apprenticeship giant 3aaa is attempting to sue the Department for Education for over £37 million.

Peter Marples and three other members of his family recently filed a lawsuit in the high court that claims negligence and “misfeasance” in public office.

The claim centres around the sale of 3aaa (Aspire Achieve Advance Ltd) to Trilantic Capital Partners in 2016, which was aborted after the DfE’s then-Skills Funding Agency refused to sign off on the deal because officials feared a change of control would prejudice delivery of the agency’s contracts.

Court documents seen by FE Week claim the refusal was unjustified. If the acquisition completed, the Marples family would have immediately received the sum of £26,752,979 as well as “deferred consideration” in the form of “roll over loan notes” to the value of £10,271,389, the documents claim.

The Marples family therefore “expect to recover the principle (sic) sum of £37,024,368” in damages, plus interest and costs. There are four claimants in the case: Peter, Sarah, Lee and Thomas Marples.

It comes almost five years after 3aaa went into administration when the Education and Skills Funding Agency – the successor to the SFA – terminated the firm’s skills funding contracts worth over £15 million following an investigation in 2018. The agency passed its findings to the police through Action Fraud, but the police ultimately decided not to pursue a criminal investigation.

This was the ESFA’s second investigation into the provider in two years.

One reason listed for the demise of the company relates to claims by a whistleblower who shared information with the agency in 2016 that alleged non-compliance with funding rules including incorrect start dates for learners and artificially inflated success rates by failing to report breaks in learning.

This led to an unannounced external audit conducted by KPMG, described in the court documents as a “dawn raid”. The KPMG report, codenamed “project vanilla” and seen by FE Week, found dozens of funding “overclaims”. Marples’ court documents state that the ESFA confirmed, however, that “there was no evidence found of deliberate circumvention of funding rules by 3aaa” pursuant to the KPMG investigation.

Marples and family claim that the whistleblower was later identified by the ESFA’s former chief executive as Nick Linford, the former editor of FE Week.

Linford said: “During my time as the editor of FE Week, whistleblowers approached me numerous times wanting to share information about various publicly funded organisations. In some circumstances, based on the information shared with me and with the consent of the original source, I would share the information given to me with the relevant funding body or government department.

“This was the case with 3aaa. I shared the information obtained with the funding agency.”

The court documents claim that Peter Marples was subject to a “particular animosity within the ESFA” and was seen by the agency’s top officials as a “necessary evil”.

There is no mention in the documents of the events that occurred after the aborted sale to Trilantic Capital Partners that led to the termination of 3aaa’s funding contracts.

The ESFA is yet to file its defence with the high court.

Both the ESFA and the Marples family lawyers, DWF Law LLP, declined to comment.

Read next week’s edition of FE Week for the full story on the case.

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