Police cuts could damage North East's 'biggest' fraud case

A barrister has warned that Northumbria Police cutbacks could jeopardise prosecution in the region's biggest ever mortgage fraud trial

Teesside Crown Court

Prosecutors warned police cuts could jeopardise the case against eight people allegedly involved in the North East’s largest ever mortgage fraud.

A complex trial involving bosses and staff of North East Property Buyers and Newcastle Home Loans was due to take place next March.

But after a catalogue of delays, the eight accused will not now face justice until February 2015.

Crown Prosecution Service barrister Paul Greaney told Judge Howard Crowson at Teesside Crown Court the case had been plagued by delays.

He also revealed efforts to bring the case to trial were being hampered by a lack of support from Northumbria Police, which at one stage had taken all their officers off the case.

“At the beginning of the investigation there were substantial police resources available – more than four officers working full time, with a dedicated financial investigator and an accountant to assist them, and others available at the drop of a hat,” he said. “Since then, the economic crime unit of Northumbria Police was disbanded and while there is a small financial investigations unit it’s not on the same scale.

“Throughout we had a dedicated sergeant and constable – and their work was quite superb – but they were taken off the case, then told that if there was work to be done on it, then it would have to be alongside their other duties.

“It’s since been remedied, but there’s still only two of them – that means there are now more barristers for the prosecution than there are police officers involved in the investigation. Resources need to be put into this by the police and unless that occurs there will inevitably be consequences for the prosecution.

“The director of public prosecutions has taken a personal interest in this and we will be consulting with police to impress quite how critical the need for resources is. This is a case of significant public interest, where vulnerable people in the Newcastle area are going to lose their homes because of this, and the chief officer of Northumbria Police has got to understand it’s that important.”

David Purdie, 55, and his wife Grace, 50, both of Wardley Lane in Gateshead, Peter Wardle, 66, from Witton-le-Wear, Samantha Douglas, 43, from The Brambles in Birtley, Linda Patterson, 55, of Maynard Close in Forest Hall, Michael Foster, 41, of the The Meadows in Bournmoor, County Durham, Amee Wilkinson, 28, of Grange Road in Felling, and Stephen Keay, 52, of Hopton Drive in Sunderland, all face charges relating to their business dealings between March 2003 and September 2008, when it is alleged that both property sellers and financial institutions were defrauded.

In 2009, around 2,000 tenants were told they could be made homeless at only 60 days’ notice – a decision upheld at the Court of Appeal in 2012. Before a trial can begin defence barristers said a myriad of problems needed to be resolved.

Peter Lodder, acting for Wardle, said the delays could have been avoided if politicians had thought more about the effect slashing budgets would have. David Purdie’s barrister Leonard Smith said he was still waiting to find out what exactly valuer Stephen Keay was to be tried for.

Former clients of the companies last night were furious at the delays. Eric Duffield, 59, who saw his marriage of 30 years collapse after his home came under threat, said: “I’m disgusted by the length of time this has gone on. A lot of people have lost their homes and a lot of people have given up, but I won’t give up however long it takes.”

Assistant Chief Constable Jo Farrell defended the resources Northumbria Police have assigned to the investigation. He said: “As with most investigations of this kind, inquiries can take several years to reach a conclusion.

“Northumbria Police recognise fraud cases of this scale and complexity, which span several years and include hundreds of thousands of documents, require appropriate staffing.”

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer