Why did allegations of fraud at Bradford free school slip through the net?

David Cameron meets children from Kings Science Academy, Bradford, in 2012
David Cameron meets children from Kings Science Academy, Bradford, in 2012
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For six months allegations of crime at one of the Government’s flagship free schools were not properly passed to the police. John Roberts reports on the questions that remain about what went wrong.

THE FRAUD investigation now underway at a Bradford free school may never have taken place had the matter not been leaked to the public.

Before the scandal broke the Kings Science Academy case had already been filed away as an information report.

When the Department for Education’s (DfE) audit investigation team found allegations that invoices for just over £10,000 had been fabricated and submitted to claim public money it recommended the matter be passed to the police.

However for six months after the case was reported to fraud authorities it was not investigated.

It was only passed to West Yorkshire Police for criminal investigation after the DfE’s findings became public and people started to ask questions. But the question that still remains is exactly what went wrong?

In April last year, the DfE reported allegations of fabricated invoices with a telephone call to Action Fraud, a call centre which handles financial crimes. Action Fraud receives calls and passes them on to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau (NFIB) as either crime or information reports.

Calls are classed as information reports “where there may not have been a fraud committed, but there is suspicion of criminal intent.” However these reports are said to be unlikely to lead to criminal investigations. In the Kings’ case human error by Action Fraud is being blamed for the case being sent to the NFIB as information only.

The DfE has said it reported the matter through the correct channels, that this was Action Fraud’s mistake and they have apologised for it. However questions still remain.

Why did it report its findings over the phone? It had a detailed audit investigation report. Why was this not sent in? The DfE has also repeatedly said it included “all the critical information on its findings of potential fraud” to Action Fraud. But the DfE then says it has no record of what was said in the phone call.

As a result we still do not know exactly what Action Fraud were told and how or why this matter was wrongly recorded. Labour’s shadow education minister Kevin Brennan and Bradford MPs David Ward and George Galloway have accused the DfE of being reluctant to reveal the manner in which they reported the case. Parliamentary answers from the Home Office suggest it has a recording of the phone call to Action Fraud.

However the DfE has said it does not intend to request it.

Another question for both the DfE and Action Fraud is why they never realised the matter had been wrongly treated as an information report. The DfE waited six months before asking for an update. And emails obtained by The Yorkshire Post show that when it did it was told by Action Fraud that the matter was being dealt with as an information report - but neither party realised this was a mistake.

This exchange on September 5 happened six weeks before the scandal broke on Newsnight which led to Action Fraud then discovering that the matter had been wrongly recorded as information. Six weeks earlier Action Fraud told the DfE that the matter had been reported as information. The DfE was told that more information was needed and that a criminal investigation would rely on the matter being reported as a crime. Why did the DfE not tell Action Fraud it had intended to report a potential crime? The DfE says it included all critical information from its investigation when it reported the matter. Why did it not chase this up when Action Fraud said it did not have enough information to go on?

On October 25 when the scandal broke the department said it had informed the police who had “decided no further action was necessary.” But this does not tally with what the DfE was actually told - which was that matter would need to be reported as a crime in order for police to be able to investigate.

When asked to comment on the questions still facing the department the DfE said: “The department acted as soon as it received allegations of wrongdoing at Kings Science Academy. We formally investigated and referred the case to Action Fraud. This resulted in a police investigation which is ongoing. Separately we have recovered the appropriate funds.

“All free schools are held to rigorous account. The vast majority are performing well with three-quarters rated good or outstanding. But where there is failure we will not hesitate to intervene.”

Now The Yorkshire Post reveals that the NFIB also has questions to answer. The force discovered the matter had been wrongly recorded in June of last year but did not reclassify it meaning the mistake was not corrected.

Mr Ward and Mr Galloway have suggested that the failure of authorities to pass this matter to the police was a cover up motivated by political reasons. The NUT and NAHT unions have called for an independent inquiry. Until this happens we are likely to have more questions than answers.