Treasurer who swindled Suffolk pre-school out of £50k avoids jail

Mendlesham Pre School was located on the community centre and primary school site Picture: GOOGLE

Mendlesham Pre-school - Credit: Archant

A mother-of-three who swindled a Suffolk pre-school group out of £50,000 and contributed to its closure has been handed a suspended prison sentence.

Sentencing 34-year-old Laura Stannard, who was chair and treasurer of Mendlesham Pre-School, which was run by a registered charity, Recorder Sally O’Neill QC described what she’d done as “a nasty offence”.

“It’s not just taking the money. It’s the consequences to everybody as a result of taking the money,” said the judge.

“Whether you were responsible for the closure of the pre-school, the effect of what you did on many people, including children whose school is now closed and the community, is considerable.”

The judge accepted Stannard hadn’t taken the job for the purpose of committing the offence and that she’d been under considerable financial pressure at the time.

However she added: “Many people are under (financial pressure) and don’t resort to stealing money and using it for their own benefit.”

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Daniel Setter, prosecuting, said Stannard became chair of the pre-school group in September 2013 and treasurer from August 2016.

Concerns were raised over the pre-school’s finances after a number of late payments of bills were discovered, including £17,000 owed to suppliers, £4,700 rent owed to the parish council for the hall used by the pre-school group and £2,800 owed to HMRC.

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When the pre-school’s financial records were analysed it was also discovered there had been bank transfers to accounts linked to Stannard.

Mr Setter said that £37,400 of the £50,000 involved in the fraud had been repaid by Stannard.

A victim impact statement said that as a result of Stannard’s offending the charity that ran the pre-school had incurred £46,000 of costs related to loss of income, redundancy payments to staff and administration and bank charges.

The statement said the pre-school had closed in November 2019 because of its financial position.

ipswich crown court

Laura Stannard was sentenced at Ipswich Crown Court - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Stannard, of Westhorpe Road, Wyverstone, near Stowmarket, admitted fraud by abuse of position between August 2013 and February 2017.

She was given a two year prison sentence suspended for two years and ordered to do 100 hours unpaid work. She was also given a rehabilitation activity requirement of up to 10 days and ordered to pay £340 costs.

Declan O’Gallagher for Stannard, who has no previous convictions, said there was no evidence that suspicion had fallen on other staff members as she had been in sole control of the finances.

He said although the victim impact statement blamed Stannard for the closure of the pre-school he said it had also received an unfortunate Ofsted report.

He said Stannard had borrowed money to repay £37,400 of the £45,000 she accepted taking.

He said Stannard had three children who each had issues and she also had medical problems which were being investigated at Addenbrooke's Hospital.

The pre-school, which leased the village hall in Mendlesham, abruptly closed its doors in November 2019.

In the summer of 2019, Ofsted graded the pre-school as requiring improvement. 

Speaking after the sentence, Marnie O'Hare, who was asked to step in as chair after the fraud was discovered, said it had been a "heart-breaking four years for everyone involved" at the pre-school. 

She said: "We fully respect the court's decision to suspend the sentence due to the impact it would have on Laura’s children who we agree must be of paramount consideration.

"However, we are saddened that Ms Stannard was unable to afford the pre-school children the same level of consideration in her conduct. 

"It was also disappointing to note Ms Stannard sought to rely on our Ofsted report as our reason for closure as opposed to her conduct which is incorrect.

"The matter has taken four years to bring to court and after almost three years we could no longer secure emergency funding.

"We fought so hard to try and keep the pre-school open for the children, but the redundancy we had to make, reduced employee hours and stress the staff were under and the financial constraints clearly impacted on our ability to provide a Class A service.

"We all did the absolute best we could during an exceptionally difficult time and it’s clear from the report that we had the full support of the parents.

"But our financial position ultimately led to the closure of the pre-school and the loss of four jobs despite the efforts of Suffolk County Council, who supported us throughout. 

"Unfortunately we were unable to secure recovery of the remaining outstanding funds or costs incurred as a result of the fraud which now ultimately leaves many pre-2017 creditors out of pocket. 

"It has been an exceptionally tough and heart-breaking four years for everyone involved."

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