Detectives investigating a website offering to pay the tuition fees of female students in return for sex have arrested a man on suspicion of inciting prostitution.
After an undercover investigation by The Independent into a man who claimed to be an “assessor” for SponsorAScholar.co.uk, Mark Lancaster, 39, was detained by officers from the Metropolitan Police’s Trafficking and Prostitution Unit at an address in Milton Keynes.
Material including computers was seized at the address and at Mr Lancaster’s family home in the village of Horndean, near Portsmouth in Hampshire, on the edge of the South Downs national park.
The computer consultant, who is said to have clearance to work on a major Ministry of Defence computer project, was questioned and released on police bail.
He will return to Charing Cross police station in central London in February.
DS Alan Clark, who is leading the inquiry, urged anyone who had made contact through the website to get in touch with police.
“If anyone has information in relation to the man shown in the film or the photographs or on the website itself, please contact us on 0800 783 2589 and we will get back to you in strict confidence,” he said.
SponsorAScholar.co.uk offered female students aged 17 to 24 up to £15,000 a year in return for what it described as “discreet adventures” with businessmen in private flats or hotel rooms.
An Independent reporter posing as an undergraduate arranged to meet a man claiming to be an “assessor” for the website at a south London McDonalds last month.
She was told that she would have to undergo a “practical assessment” with him at a nearby flat to demonstrate the level of intimacy she was prepared to show to future “sponsors”. She was told that it would be up to her whether or not she used protection with the men.
He claimed he needed to carry out “quality control” with her. The reporter, who secretly filmed the encounter, declined and left. The website has since been taken down.
While SponsorAScholar.co.uk claimed that 1,400 women had received “scholarships”, it is not known how many responded to the professional-looking website or whether any money has ever changed hands.
However, one student told Channel 4 News that she underwent the “practical assessment” and was later told in an email that her application had been unsuccessful – but that she could re-apply to go through the process again in two months.
The Minister for Women Jo Swinson last week urged the police to investigate anyone suspected of taking advantage of students or forcing vulnerable women into prostitution, in response to a question by the Labour MP and former minister Helen Goodman about SponsorAScholar.co.uk.
The investigation followed mounting concern that rising student fees could be forcing young people into sex work to cover their debt with experts claiming the site was the “tip of the iceberg”.
Mr Lancaster was cleared to work on the vast MoD contract known as “DII” or Defence Information Infrastructure, marrying up the military’s various computer networks.
The “assessor” used the name and former address of a top academic at a leading British university in his dealings with potential students. The academic has since contacted the police.