MERSEYSIDE police are probing allegations of fraud involving a Wirral company which helps new businesses.
Wirral Council is already investigating claims that Birkenhead-based Wirralbiz had issued grants of up to £20,000 to businesses without first carrying out proper checks – some of those firms went bust a short time later.
However, the company insists it has done nothing wrong and the council was responsible for approving those grants.
The concerns were first raised by a former accountant at Wirralbiz, Nigel Hobro, who has now contacted police after becoming concerned that Wirral Council’s investigation has stalled.
Wirral Council’s cabinet member for corporate resources, Cllr Adrian Jones, arranged for Mr Hobro to raise his concerns as a whistleblower with senior council officers in February.
Back in April, when the concerns were first revealed by The Liverpool Post, the council said a report on the investigation should be completed within weeks.
Mr Hobro, and another Wirralbiz former employee James Griffiths, had raised a series of concerns about the BIG (Business Investment Grant) Fund which was set up to help businesses through the recession, and the ISUS (Intensive Start-up Support) programme – with funding of around £2m – intended to help start-up firms.
Mr Hobro, who was made redundant by Wirralbiz earlier this year, said he also has evidence that companies which “did not meet the criteria” for ISUS grants were given money. These were intended for firms which were less than three months old, but Mr Hobro says Wirralbiz had helped some firms which received the cash with their tax returns for the previous year.
The programme gave grants of around £500 each to the businesses, but also earned Wirralbiz around £1,500 per company, according to Mr Hobro.
Linda Turnbull, a director of Wirralbiz, said their ISUS programme had been one of the most successful of its kind, helping create more than 400 new businesses a year.
She said her company is paid for business start-ups “but it was not £1,500” and said she would be “happy to go to the police” when she returns from holiday but said: “I don’t think I have anything to tell them.”
She added: “All our clients, in order to receive a grant, have to prove residency, show bills, proof of lease and sign a declaration that their business commenced trading on such a date. The only person that would be lying is the businesses themselves.”
Ms Turnbull said it was possible “one or two slipped through” their checks but said: “If there is any fraud it’s the individuals themselves the police would be contacting.”
A spokesman for Wirral Council said the claims have been “investigated in great depth” and initial findings suggest “there is no evidence that substantiates the allegations made against council officers”.
He said there are two draft reports being prepared, but each individual who has provided evidence to the investigation must be given a “right to reply”, then the findings will be published.
He said: “The council shared all of the issues raised with the police at an early stage of the investigation and copies of the final reports will be provided to them.”
A police spokesman said: “Merseyside police can confirm an allegation of fraud involving a business in Birkenhead has been received by the force.
“Enquiries remain ongoing to establish if any criminal offence has been committed.”