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Smart motorway firms are probed over fraud as workmen face accusations of stealing scrap metal

Smart motorway construction firms were placed under investigation for fraud, bribery and corruption, it can be revealed.

Workmen for companies building the roads were accused of stealing scrap metal and submitting false claims for hours worked by creating ‘ghost employees’.

Investigators at National Highways found £320,000 of scrap metal was ‘unaccounted for and missing’ from a project on the M1, according to leaked internal documents.

But they were unable to pursue a criminal prosecution for theft due to a lack of ‘reliable witness testimony’ and ‘concerns for the safety’ of one witness.

They found ‘no evidence’ to support the ‘ghost employees’ accusation. The claims were part of a bombshell dossier, obtained by the Daily Mail, which was compiled by road bosses at National Highways.

They relate to a section of smart motorway on the M1 from junctions 13 to 16, between Milton Keynes and Northampton, due to open later this year or next. The agency said it has withheld payments to construction firms following the claims.

Development of smart motorway at Junction 14 of the M1 between Milton Keynes and Northampton, which is due to open either later this year or next

Among the accusations was also that one worker for the main contractor, a joint venture between Costain and Galliford Try referred to as ‘CGT JV’, was handed ‘brown envelopes’ on building sites by subcontractors, said to be in return for business favours.

The same worker, who was alleged to have benefited from the theft of scrap metal, was also accused of accepting ‘inappropriate gifts’.

National Highways investigators said that, although there was evidence cash-filled envelopes changed hands, it accepted the explanation that the money was for ‘staff parties’. The documents added that it could not find evidence to support the gifts claim, which involved the CGT JV worker accepting ‘a significant sum of money [from a subcontractor] to pay for a trip abroad to watch a football match’.

The claim could not be supported because the worker, who cannot be named, ‘produced receipts to demonstrate the trip was made at his own expense’.

But evidence was uncovered to suggest he bullied colleagues and he resigned last year after being suspended.

National Highways investigators said that, although there was evidence cash-filled envelopes changed hands, it accepted the explanation that the money was for ¿staff parties¿. Pictured: The scene after a crash in June 2019

National Highways investigators said that, although there was evidence cash-filled envelopes changed hands, it accepted the explanation that the money was for ‘staff parties’. Pictured: The scene after a crash in June 2019

Costs for the removal of the hard shoulder on the 23-mile stretch had ballooned by more than 50 per cent from £297 million to £453 million.

Whistleblowers feared that contracts were being manipulated to line construction bosses’ pockets. But National Highways found the allegations were not behind the cost rises. CGT JV also denied the hike was due to the claims.

The papers concluded: ‘Our calculations suggest scrap metal to the value of £320,000 is unaccounted for and missing from the credits recorded.’ The report found that ‘on the balance of probabilities, National Highways has incurred a financial loss’. But a lack of ‘reliable witness testimony’ meant it was unable to prove the allegation of theft.

The worker who quit was also said to have gained from the sale of scrap metal on an earlier M1 stretch, between junctions 16 and 19. But National Highways did not investigate this. Construction on the M1 J13-16 scheme started in 2018. It is one of six smart stretches pressing ahead, despite 11 other schemes paused by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps last week.

It followed a report by the Commons transport committee calling for action to address flaws blamed for contributing to several deaths.

Tory MP Karl McCartney, who sits on the Commons transport committee, said: ¿I believe these alarming allegations need more investigation.¿ Pictured: Heavy traffic on the M1 'smart motorway' in Bedfordshire

Tory MP Karl McCartney, who sits on the Commons transport committee, said: ‘I believe these alarming allegations need more investigation.’ Pictured: Heavy traffic on the M1 ‘smart motorway’ in Bedfordshire

Separate papers also show that workers employed by the main contractor, Kier, for another scheme ‘manipulated’ tender processes, awarded a subcontract worth £1.4 million in breach of rules and that this was ‘influenced by bribery’.The claims were in relation to a stretch of the M6, junctions 13 to 15, also being converted.

The internal National Highways papers state: ‘Evidence found during this investigation supports the allegations made but is insufficient to identify individuals.’

Tory MP Karl McCartney, who sits on the Commons transport committee, said: ‘I believe these alarming allegations need more investigation.’ It is understood no formal police probe was launched.

National Highways smart motorways programme director David Bray said: ‘We investigated, working collaboratively with our contractors, the allegations around the M1 and M6 schemes and prevented the payment of any amounts that we were not fully satisfied with.’

And CGT JV said: ‘Both the CGT JV and National Highways investigations confirmed that there is no connection between any of the allegations and increased costs of the M1 junction 13-16 project.’

A Kier spokesman said: ‘In this instance, following a thorough investigation and report by National Highways in May 2020, we worked with an independent body to carry out a further internal investigation.

‘Both concluded that there was no evidence to support potential procurement fraud and bribery.’


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