Police arrest 29 animal rights activists in fraud investigation

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Animal rights activists are under investigation over the defrauding of a government training scheme of tens of thousands of pounds, it was revealed.

A total of 29 people – 16 men and 13 women – with links to animal rights' groups have been arrested in two police operations connected with fraud inquiries into the Individual Learning Accounts scheme.

On Wednesday, Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, announced the suspension of the £150m scheme which has provided two-and-a-half million people with government subsidies to sign on for courses in basic skills and retraining.

The 29 were arrested as a result of separate police raids in Northampton, St Leonards, Brighton, Haverhill, Edenbridge, Bournemouth, Wolverhampton, Greater Manchester and Leicestershire. They have been bailed without charge pending further inquiries by the National Crime Squad. The arrests took place on 18 September and 4 October.

Police sources said they believed the amount involved in the alleged fraud ran into tens of thousands of pounds.

They said the money was used to fund individuals' own lifestyles, boost funds for animal rights activities and even gain information about those involved in "legitimate research".

The arrests came after the creation of a special police team, to be led by the NCS, which was announced by the Association of Chief Police Officers earlier this year. Its aim was to target ringleaders of animal extremist activity thought to be engaged in serious criminal activity.

But the Government's decision to suspend the scheme was connected with wider concerns about abuse and alleged fraud unconnected to the inquiries about the animal rights movement.

A total of 279 training providers are being investigated by the Department for Education and Skills due to complaints by more than 5,000 people who had taken out ILAs.

Individuals can receive up to £200 in subsidies if they take out an ILA. In many cases, officials at the DfES said, "cowboy operators" were "cajoling people in the street" to take them out and keeping the subsidy without providing the training.

As a result of Ms Morris' announcement, the scheme is to be suspended from 7 December and no new applications to register for ILAs are to be allowed. Those who have set up an account but have yet to take up their training must do so by the cut-off date.

Ministers are planning to review the arrangements for the scheme before relaunching it.