An award-winning deaf businessman was jailed for 20 months after admitting he used his business to defraud £80,000 from taxpayers.
Andrew Thomson, who was born profoundly deaf, was described as a “highly-culpable” fraudster by Sheriff William Gilchrist at Stirling Sheriff Court yesterday for using his company to fraudulently claim the cash.
The 51-year-old admitted using Sign-now to milk a government scheme intended to help the disabled into employment and channel tens of thousands of pounds through another company for the deaf, run by his deaf wife, into his own pocket.
He pleaded guilty to defrauding the so-called Access to Work Scheme between January and November 2011, before an anonymous tip-off alerted the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), who investigated the claim.
Defence advocate David Nicolson said it had got into financial difficulty when software designed by Thomson was mimicked by others and his clients no longer needed his services.
He said since the fraud came to light Thomson had been ostracised, isolated and shunned in the deaf world. Sign-now closed in 2012 and The Interpreting Agency went the same way.
The court heard Thomson claimed he needed six hours a day of interpreting assistance and two hours a day translation to assist him with correspondence and making and taking phone calls.
Freelance British Sign Language interpreters, charged out at £44 an hour, were employed under the Access To Work Scheme through the Interpreting Agency Ltd, run by Thomson’s wife, Caroline Thomson (52).
The Interpreting Agency Ltd submitted invoices in support of Thomson’s claims which were paid by DWP into a bank account in the name of The Interpreting Agency Ltd. The court heard that Thomson himself was a signatory of this bank account.
Sarah Lumsden, the depute fiscal, said there weren’t enough British Sign Language interpreters “physically available” to cover the number of hours claimed. His wife’s plea of not guilty to involvement was accepted.
Mr Thomson won the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs – the UK’s top accolade for disabled people - in 2008 for his work in establishing Sign-now.com, providing video conferencing for the deaf.
Thomson’s company, whose clients had included the NHS, a charity for the deaf and Falkirk Council, was described as “a web-based means of enabling deaf people to communicate with the hearing world”.
He received his 2008 award from easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannau who said that Thomson had demonstrated “drive, creativity and determination”.
During the DWP investigation the Thomsons’ home in New Carron, Falkirk, Sign-now’s offices in Grangemouth and the Interpreting Agency’s offices in Blythswood Square, Glasgow, were searched.
Diaries and invoices were seized and the freelance British Sign Language interpreters used by the Interpreting Agency Ltd were questioned.
The couple had originally been charged with a four-year scam to defraud taxpayers of nearly £250,000 by submitting bogus claims stretching back to 2008 – the year Thomson collected the Stelios Award.
Jailing Thomson for 20 months, Sheriff Gilchrist referred to judges’ guidelines for dealing with welfare scams, though he said the Access to Work Scheme was actually a grant.
Addressing Thomson though a sign language interpreter, he said: “If I had been applying the guidelines for benefit fraud, I would have assessed culpability here as being medium, on the basis that the claim was not fraudulent from the start, although there were elements of high culpability, in that there was an abuse of trust and responsibility and the fraud required planning and was not unsophisticated.
“The amount defrauded was substantial – £80,000 – and this amount was defrauded in the context of the accused and his company already receiving generous financial support from the taxpayer.
“In the circumstances I am satisfied that a custodial sentence is the only appropriate sentence.”
Thomson’s deaf wife, who like him uses signing rather than oral language, let out a guttural scream when the sentence was announced and shook her fist at the sheriff
One of the couple’s two sons, who are not deaf, banged the seats and wall of the court and shouted obscenities before being ushered out by a police officer.
Thomson was then led to the cells in handcuffs.
A confiscation hearing under the Proceeds of Crime Act has been set for June 22.
When collecting his £50,000 Stelios Award, Thomson said Sign-now.com was “all about gaining the confidence of our clients and the trust and support of the interpreters we employ”.
The awards are a partnership between Sir Stelios’s Philanthropic Foundation and the Leonard Cheshire disability charity.