POLICE have launched a major fraud investigation after claims that 200 British workers at Scotland’s environment agency were sacked and replaced by cheaper staff from India and South America.
Most of the replacements are alleged to have been allowed to enter the country on Tier 2 Visas – designed only for people coming to the UK to fill a position that cannot be filled by a settled workers.
The claims, made by two former employees, were also passed on to Scotland’s First Minster Nicola Sturgeon, who was last night challenged to explain on why she took no action.
Embarrassingly, they come just two weeks after the SNP leader declared: “We need strong controls on immigration and we need to make sure people do not get away with abusing the system the rest of us pay for.”
Detectives from Police Scotland’s Economic Crimes Unit were last night investigating a raft of allegations including fraud, Visa fraud, breaches of employment law and misconduct in public office.
The IT unit at the department of Agriculture, Farming and Rural affairs formally consisted of around 200 mostly British experts tasked with creating a £200m online system for processing farming claims and agricultural subsidies.
The replacements began in November and happened over a period of four months, in batches of 30 and 40.
By March this year, almost all staff employed in the project were Tier 2 Visa holders from India, South America and Korea.
Last night former IT consultant John Dunning described a culture of “fear and resentment” as new workers worked double shifts without extra pay, for fear of having their Visas revoked and being sent home.
He reported his concerns to the Scottish Government under Whistleblower rules, and made a separate complaint to Police Scotland.
He also contacted both Nicola Sturgeon and Richard Lochhead MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, and was astonished to discover that his concerns had simply been bounced back to AFRC’s HR department.
One email, written on December 17, states: “Thank you for your emails to Ms Sturgeon, First Minister on 1 December 2014 and to Mr Lochhead, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs, Food and Environment on 29 November 2014. Your emails have been passed to me to reply.”
Speaking to the Sunday Express, Mr. Dunning, 48, recalled the day when the first batch of workers were asked to leave Saughton House, AFRC’s headquarters in Edinburgh.
“It was November 21, a Friday.
“A line manager came and a number of contractors were taken into a room.
“A total of 23 were let go that day,” he said.
“On the following Monday around 25 Indian staff joined the project to replace those who had left.
“It transpired that the majority of these individuals were on Tier 2 Visas allowing them to work in the UK.
Mr Dunning said new jobs were deliberately advertised as low rates in Britain so that they would not appeal to UK workers.
On average, replacements were paid around half the rates of those they replaced, with new recruits being expected to work illegal hours without overtime and not being paid expenses.
“They go through a recruitment process in India and from about 1000 applicants, 100 are chosen to go to the UK,” he said.
“They are bred into a culture of fear in that they are required to do everything their employer tells them and anyone who does not will be sent back to India and replaced.”
So swift was the process that many were brought in without having proper security checks.
“When I joined, we all had to have security clearance – it’s a Government department and there is potential access to other Government computers.
“We had to show our certificates before being allowed into the building,” he said.
“But many of the new staff were allowed on site without having this clearance.
On the following Monday around 25 Indian staff joined the project to replace those who had left
Mr Dunning added “I also saw one of the new Indian employees pass Visa documents to another with the instructions ‘photocopy these and then change the name’.”
Last night a Government Scotland spokesman said it had launched an investigation with the Home Office, but that no evidence of Visa fraud had been found.
But Mr Dunning said: “They concentrated on the forgery issue, but not the way in these Visas were obtained.”
Last night his claims were backed by another worker at the site, who resigned in protest.
“They were given five minutes to clear their desks and escorted off the premises,” said the former team leader.
“Many were on six month contracts with the option of extension, but I was told by one that he was paid off until the end of his contract.
“I left because of the way they had begun to run the programme.
“I also do not agree with way Tier 2 Visas appear to have been abused.
“Britain is full of very capable and skilled It workers, but the new generation is being killed off because it’s much cheaper to ship in cheap foreign labour.
“Those Visas are for genuine skills shortages, not to help Government agencies save money.”
Last night Ukip accused Nicola Sturgeon of “sheer hypocrisy” over immigration.
“In recent election debates, Nicola Sturgeon denied that migrants are a hugely significant factor in the way the UK labour market operates,” said migration spokesman Stephen Wolfe.
“Yet, this miserable episode illustrates the SNP’s sheer hypocrisy.
“Far from benefiting Britain, directly replacing workers in this country with immigrants with similar skills from abroad causes more unemployment, poverty and grows a benefits culture whilst lowering wages for those British people still lucky enough to have work.”
Alex Fergusson, Conservative rural affairs spokesman for Scotland, said: “I was made aware of these serious concerns, but it was on an anonymous basis, so I could not take further action.
“It is clear, however, that if these allegations are still being investigated, that the Scottish Government must answer them.
“It is no good passing the buck to the company allocated to take care of recruitment.
“This a Government department and is ultimately the Government’s responsibility.”
A spokesman for Police Scotland said: “We can confirm Police Scotland is looking into these allegations and enquiries are at an early stage.”