The man revealed by The Independent to be running a website offering to pay the tuition fees of female students in return for sex can today be named as a highly paid computer consultant who claims to have top-level Ministry of Defence security clearance and access to top secret material.
Mark Lancaster, 39, who presented himself as an “assessor” for the SponsorAScholar.co.uk website, has worked as a contractor on a massive overhaul of the IT network used by UK armed forces, military sources confirmed last night. He is also thought to have worked on computer systems used by British forces during the invasion of Iraq.
The Independent this week tracked down the married father-of-two to his £460,000 home on the edge of the South Downs national park in Hampshire after he was filmed asking an undercover reporter to undergo a “practical assessment” with him to prove the “level of intimacy” she could provide for the website’s claimed clients.
The Metropolitan Police has been passed a dossier of material concerning SponsorAScholar.co.uk and Mr Lancaster, and is understood to be seeking to establish whether there are grounds for investigating offences.
When confronted by The Independent at his large detached home in the picturesque village of Horndean, near Portsmouth, Mr Lancaster refused to comment, slamming the door and turning the key in the lock.
He did not respond to repeated requests from this newspaper to explain his involvement with the website, his conversations with the undercover reporter or whether he had disclosed his activities to his employer or the MoD.
On his entry to the LinkedIn website, Mr Lancaster describes himself as a “DV-cleared consultant with proven extensive experience”. DV is a reference to Developed Vetting, the highest level British government security clearance which allows holders to read ultra-sensitive documents.
The MoD states that the criteria for undergoing DV are “long term, frequent and uncontrolled access to TOP SECRET information or assets.... or in order to satisfy requirements for access to material originating from other countries and international organisations”.
A source with knowledge of the defence work carried out by Mr Lancaster told The Independent: “This was high level stuff. He had a very stringent clearance level and was involved with the computer systems used in-theatre in Iraq. He is very good at his job and he is rewarded accordingly - this work is well paid.”
The MoD last night declined to comment on the level of Mr Lancaster’s security clearance.
The LinkedIn entry, which had yesterday been removed from public viewing, states that Mr Lancaster is involved in an ongoing MoD contract known as DII or Defence Information Infrastructure (DII), which will marry together Britain’s disparate military computer systems and is described as “the single biggest [computer] infrastructure project... rolled out in Europe”.
Mr Lancaster claims to be working on DII for Japanese technology giant Fujitsu. The company said yesterday he did not appear on its database of current employees.
The IT consultant also claims to have worked for EDS, a defence engineering company based in Hampshire, and the American defence giant Lockheed Martin. Educated at the University of Hull, Mr Lancaster is listed as the secretary of an IT consultancy registered to an address in Brighton. Its latest accounts show it this year made an operating profit of £74,000.
Mr Lancaster, who used the name of a senior academic from a top British university for his dealings with potential clients for SponsorAScholar.co.uk, was secretly filmed by The Independent during a meeting at a McDonald’s restaurant in south east London with a reporter posing as a female undergraduate interested in the website’s business. The academic has since contacted police.
The site, which was set up this June using a false company name and a VAT number belonging to the legitimate dating website Match.com, claimed to have arranged for 1,400 women aged between 17 and 24 to be funded through their studies by businessmen willing to pay up to £15,000 a year for “discreet adventures”. Students were offered “up to 100% of your tuition fee” in return for spending two-hour sessions with men up to four times per term.
The sponsors, he told her, have “expectations of a high level of sexual intimacy with their chosen student”.
Mr Lancaster advised the undercover reporter: “You can choose to have protection or not have protection.”
During the conversation, the IT consultant, who said he lived in the Midlands, described himself as the website’s “assessor” and asked her to accompany him to a nearby flat for the “practical assessment” which he made clear was a condition of acceptance onto the site’s roster of students.
He said the assessment was required for “quality control”, adding that the more she was prepared to do, the money she would get from her putative sponsor. When the reporter asked for evidence that scholarships had been awarded, she was told it would be provided if she went to the flat.
The professional-looking site, which has since been disabled, appeared to operate in a grey area of Britain’s sex laws which allows escort agencies to make lawful introductions between clients and sex workers.
But amid concern that young students facing financial hardship could be exploited, campaigners for personal safety urged women to stay away from the website and warned “risks are sky-high”.
Following the publication of The Independent’s investigation last month, Channel 4 News broadcast an interview with a young woman who said she had contacted the website and been invited to a rented flat.
The woman, who spoke anonymously, said she was asked to dress in a schoolgirl outfit: “Then he just kissed me before I really had time to think about it or ask any questions... and I just froze because I really didn’t know what to do. Then he started undressing me... I just froze and went along with what he was doing.”
She later received an email stating that her application to join the website’s roster had been unsuccessful but she could reapply after two months.
Others have been more fortunate. The Independent was this week contacted by a relative of a student who had put herself forward for the scheme but backed out at the last minute after the family member found out and realised what was expected from so-called “scholars”.
Q & A
Q What is SponsorAScholar.co.uk?
A website purporting to offer female students aged 17 to 24 up to £15,000 a year in exchange for four “intimate encounters” per term with wealthy “sponsors” in a hotel room or flat.
Q Is that against the law?
A Having sex for money is not illegal and nor is paying for sex. Controlling prostitution is against the law – but police must prove that there was prior knowledge that sex was being sold. The terms and conditions of the website stressed that what happened between “sponsor” and “scholar” were a private matter and sex was never explicitly offered.
Q Who is Mark Lancaster?
A He is the man claiming to be “John” who met an undercover reporter from The Independent posing as a potential “scholar” in a south London McDonalds after contacting him through the website. Claiming he was an “assessor” he tried to persuade her to come back to a nearby flat where she would undergo a “practical assessment” to demonstrate with him what she was prepared to do with future “sponsors”. She declined.
Q How many other women have gone through with the “practical assessment”?
A Unknown but at least one woman claims to have had sex as part of the “practical” and says she was later turned down for a “scholarship” and offered the opportunity to reapply in two months.
Q Have any women actually been offered “scholarships”?
A There is no evidence that any have received cash. According to the SponsorAScholar website 1,400 have participated in the scheme which it claims has been operating since 2006. However when our reporter asked to see evidence of this she was told to come back to the flat. According to internet records the website was set up earlier this year using a false address which was the former home of a leading academic and with a company number belonging to a legitimate dating site.
Q What happens next?
A Since The Independent approached the Mr Lancaster the site has been closed down. Evidence from the investigation is being passed to the Metropolitan Police.