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'Licence to print money' revoked

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A gang of crooks who ripped off the government of more than £2m through a fraudulent computer skills training course have been jailed for a total of nine and a half years. Stuart Leary, 39, of Poole, Dorset, John Stirling, 41, of Glasgow, and Steve Moran, 29, of Birmingham, savored a lavish lifesytle by exploiting Department of Education and Skills programme (DfES) set up to provide subsidised learning for students working from home.

Bournemouth Crown Court heard how Leary recruited more than 8,000 "students" to a correspondence course in computing before bringing in Stirling and Moran as partners to sign-up even more recruits. Each student netted the gang a payment of £200 through the Individual Learning Account (ILA) scheme, but all students received in return was a pirated CD-ROM which cost just £1 to produce. "The disc was a plagiarised version of other software that was repackaged and renamed," Andrew Wheeler, prosecuting, told the court, The Times reports. "The CD-Rom was sent to most students although some didn’t get it at all. The discs cost £1 each but the company charged the Government £200 a time. It became a licence to print money. Leary employed teams of agents to sell the courses which were marketed as being free."

Much of the gang's ill-gotten gains - minus the money needed to pay for a two Jaguar cars and a £80,000 Porsche - was stashed in overseas bank accounts in a bid to avoid tax.

Eventually, the DfES became suspicious of the trio's activities and called in the police, who uncovered the fraud. Leary was jailed for three and a half year after he pleaded guilty to two charges of fraudulent trading. Moran and Stirling were each jailed for three years after they were found guilty of conspiracy to defraud. In addition, they were banned from holding company directorships for five years. Leary was banned from being a company director for seven years.

The Individual Learning Account scheme was axed by the government in December 2001, just over a year after it was established, after ministers realised the scheme was open to abuse. Detective Sergeant Andrew Strong, of Bournemouth CID, said attempts would be made to recover the gang's fraudulent earnings. ®

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