APPRENTICES dumped by a recycling firm received further blows yesterday when it emerged the company is in such a dire state administrators have refused to take it on.
It also emerged yesterday that Northwood’s Birmingham-based NVQ training provider, Skillsfinder UK, has also gone into administration.
Northwood Environmental closed last week with its owner James Jennings saying he was seeking to place it into liquidation to trigger payouts for 65 trainees and workers. But the stricken firm, set up to reduce youth unemployment in Swindon, did not own a single piece of equipment or property, having relied on lease deals with other firms. Troubleshooters approached by Northwood refused to step in as there were no assets to be salvaged, meaning the process to claim redundancy payouts could not be initiated.
However Mr Jennings claimed yesterday that he was in talks with another administrator who was set to take on the enterprise in the Hawksworth Trading Estate.
The Skillsfinder news is also another massive blow to workers. Mr Jennings had claimed the firm owed his company £215,000. But this was denied by Skillsfinder, which said it was in dispute over a much smaller amount which was unrelated to staffing costs. The Adver can also reveal that Chris Martin, the training provider’s quality and development manager, had been a director in another company, Luis Michael Training, which is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office.
Skillsfinder’s closure will be felt across the country as it was a subcontractor for REMIT, another training provider, and Tribal Group, which provides education services.
North Swindon MP Justin Tomlinson said: “Almost daily the mystery of this sudden business collapse looks ever more murky and suspicious and every effort must be made to find out whether foul play was involved and, if it was, the full force of the law should be deployed.
“The one thing that’s clear is that the 65 staff caught in the middle are certainly not to blame and, if it was anything other than a genuine business failure, then that is totally and utterly unacceptable.”
Sarah Leyfield and her 17-year-old son Sam received the news of Skillsfinder’s closure by email yesterday. Mrs Leyfield, 46, from Royal Wootton Bassett, said: “What has happened to the company is catastrophic. The situation has gone from bad to worse.
“Our son had overcome his troubles and turned his life around, but now there is not even anyone to approach for what he is owed.”
Sam, who worked for free despite being owed £500 in wages, said: “I haven’t got any money and I can’t afford to run my car, pay rent, buy food or pay my own way. It’s such a let-down and I feel depressed waking up in the morning knowing I’ve got nothing to go to.”
The announcement was made by Tribal Group, one of the biggest education support services in the UK, which said it was looking for new organisations to continue the training and assessment provided by Skillsfinder.
It read: “We (Tribal Education) are now working to support you in securing a new apprenticeship placement or other employment, and wherever possible to make sure you are given the opportunity to successfully complete the apprenticeship you have started.
“We have already begun looking for organisations in your area which may be able to support us in this and will contact you with more details in the near future.”
Chris Martin held a directorship with Luis Michael Training, according to documents at Companies House. That company is being investigated by the Serious Fraud Office over an alleged £1.6m plot to defraud the Government’s Skills Funding Agency. Three men, not including the 48-year-old businessman, were arrested in May.
A spokeswoman for the SFO said no charges had been brought and the investigation was continuing. Mr Jennings claimed he only became aware of Mr Martin’s connections to Luis Michael Training, which provided football-based apprenticeships, at the end of last month. He said: “When we checked the organisation it was totally clean.
“When we checked out the director Neil Harrup there were no issues. It was only pointed out to us recently that there were issues. “We had no reason to believe it wasn’t valid. We suspended them at the beginning of September because we were concerned about the quality and the debt built up.”
Mr Jennings, 36, said an approach to one administrator to take on Northwood had been unsuccessful and he was in talks with another which would allow RP1 forms to be sent to workers, allowing them to make redundancy claims.
He said: “The first one we had didn’t believe they would be able to draw their fee from assets. I am in a meeting with another who believe they can take it forward.”
He has blamed the company’s collapse mainly on a £215,000 debt he claims is owed by Skillsfinder, which combined with other factors.
Mr Martin refuted this allegation before Skillsfinder went into administration. He did not reply to a request for comment yesterday.
The Government’s Skills Funding Agency distanced itself from Skillsfinder in a statement.
It said: “The agency does not hold a direct contractual relationship with Skillsfinder. The company is a subcontractor of REMIT and Tribal Education, which the agency holds direct contracts with.
“We have a duty to ensure learner interests are being protected and are working with REMIT and Tribal Education to ensure all learners affected by the closure of Skillsfinder are being supported in every way possible and are able to continue with their learning.”
TANGLED WEB OF CLAIMS
SKILLSFINDER UK had been involved in a tangled web of claims and counter-claims with Northwood owner James Jennings before the administrators moved in last week.
Mr Jennings has alleged he waited in vain for a promised money transfer from the skills provider to pay wages for staff until the end of the day on Friday, September 28.
Northwood closed on the Monday with staff being told on the spot they no longer had jobs.
Mr Jennings, who formerly worked as a project manager for Government employability schemes, said his company was owed £215,000 overall.
He claimed the problems started with an unexpected underpayment on May 31, which he had believed to be a short-term problem.
However Chris Martin, Skillsfinder’s head of quality and development, said his company had only covered room hire, heating and other associated costs which were unrelated to staffing.
He said: “James Jennings’ issues around money are nothing to do with us. Our position is we are the training provider. We are trying to look at alternatives for the apprentices. We are talking to another large organisation in the area to take the apprentices.”
A total of 150 Northwood Environmental workers and apprentices across the country have been made redundant.