Ministers kept in dark about free school fraud scandal decision for over six weeks

Education Secretary Michael Gove
Education Secretary Michael Gove
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THERE was a six-week delay between civil servants in the Department for Education discovering that police had been set to take no action over allegations of fraud at a free school and them passing this information on to Ministers, it has been revealed.

A written answer to a question tabled by Shadow Labour Education Minister Kevin Brennan said Ministers were not told of this decision regarding the Kings Science Academy, in Bradford, until October 21 despite the department being informed of it on September 5.

The shadow Minister submitted questions after a Yorkshire Post exclusive which undermined previous statements made by the department about why there had been a delay in the police investigation.

The Department for Education attempted to report the school to Action Fraud – a national fraud reporting centre – in April after discovering the school had submitted fabricated invoices to claim public money.

A police investigation was not launched until six months later, however, after Action Fraud incorrectly recorded the DfE call as being for information only.

The allegations against the free school came to light when a DfE internal audit investigation report was published on October 25 – after it had been leaked to the media. The DfE put a statement out at the same time saying that police had been informed but decided to take no further action.

A week later it emerged that a mistake by Action Fraud was being blamed for the case being passed on to police as being for information only – meaning no criminal investigation had taken place at that point.

Action Fraud was said to have notified the DfE of this mistake and apologised for it on November 1. But the Yorkshire Post obtained a document which showed that in fact the DfE had been told on September 5 by Action Fraud that the case was being dealt with as an information report.

An email exchange shows the DfE was told that the police would need more information and for the matter to be reported as a crime in order for there to be an investigation.

Seven weeks later the DfE put out a statement which said that police had been informed and decided to take no further action.

Mr Brennan told the Yorkshire Post last month that he believed this statement had “misinformed the public about the status of a police investigation into alleged criminality at one of the Government’s flagship free schools.”

Both he and Bradford East MP David Ward have said it was wrong for the DfE to have said police had decided to take no action when in fact the department had been told no investigation had been carried out because the matter had only been dealt with as an information report.

Now Mr Brennan is questioning why it took so long for Ministers to be told that police were not set to take action. “It seems incredible to that such an important piece of information was not passed on immediately. It once again shows the need for all the records about this case to be published so we can see exactly what has happened,” he added.

Mr Brennan also asked Education Secretary Michael Gove if he would request a copy of the report which Action Fraud submitted to the National Fraud Intelligence Bureau to see exactly what information was passed on to police. However a written answer from Education Minister Edward Timpson says the department does not intend to make such a request.

Mr Brennan also asked about the phonecall which the DfE made to Action Fraud – asking how long it lasted and how many invoices were mentioned.

A written answer from Mr Timpson said: “The department does not hold notes of the telephone call to Action Fraud on April, or a record of how long the telephone call was.”

The issue was debated in Parliament on Monday with Mr Brennan asking Mr Gove whether he had failed to take action against it because of its links to Alan Lewis, a vice chairman of the Conservative Party. Mr Lewis is the school’s executive patron and the school has been built on his company’s land in a deal worth almost £6m in rent over 20 years.

The Yorkshire Post revealed on Saturday the DfE said it had been wrongly told by the school that Mr Lewis was chairman of governors in October 2011 but found out 12 months later this was not the case. Mr Lewis has said he was never chairman of governors or had responsibility for financial management or governance at the school.