A recent case has highlighted an emerging problem: bogus or fraudulently obtained skills cards are being used by workers to access sites. Binyamin Ali investigates the true scale of the problem – and how the industry is fighting back.
On 19 October, Andrew Mark Weeks of Ashby Road, Hinckley, was sentenced to three years and eight months in prison at Warwick Crown Court.
The 53-year-old had pleaded guilty to one offence under the Fraud Act 2006, after a Warwickshire County Council trading standards investigation uncovered he was fraudulently producing driving licences, exam certificates and work-based qualification cards.
His imitations included bogus CSCS cards across multiple specialisms, as well as fake certificates used to obtain genuine cards.
The scale of trading standards’ investigation meant the CITB, CSCS and the Electrotechnical Certification Scheme were all brought on board, as well as various other skills card administrators and qualification-awarding bodies in support.
According to both the CITB and CSCS, the issue of fraudulently produced or obtained skills cards and qualification certificates has been growing over the past 12 months – the CITB estimates some facilitators are earning as much as £60,000-per-week.
The two bodies, alongside 35 other card scheme administrators who use the CSCS logo, have been taking steps to make it harder for fake cards to be produced since the Construction Leadership Council launched its One Industry Logo campaign.
Under the initiative, for a card scheme to qualify for the CSCS logo, there must be an agreed appropriate qualification to which the occupation of the card relates; the cardholder must be at NVQ Level 2 as a minimum; and from 2020 the cards themselves will have to incorporate smart technology.
One Industry Logo was launched at the start of 2015. In October that year, however, a BBC Newsnight investigation revealed corruption at test centres for CSCS cards, which led the CITB to retest 6,000 people.
Since the BBC exposé, convictions such as that of Mr Weeks – as well as several other smaller-scale cases – have shown that the industry continues to have a serious problem: there are still unskilled and untrained people on sites who should not be there.
Modern slavery construction worker silhouette
Nature of the threat
Before 2014, the procedure for obtaining a construction skills card bearing the CSCS logo was relatively straightforward.
“You [would have to] sit the CITB health, safety and environment test, [which] you can revise for in half a day, go to a test centre, pass that test and you could have a card within 48 hours,” explains CSCS head of communications Alan O’Neile. As a result, the nature of the fraud threat was limited to “fake pieces of plastic or cheating the examination,” he adds, as was exposed by the Newsnight investigation.
However, the threat from fraudsters has evolved as workers have been moved over to the current smartcard scheme, which involves chips and ghostmarks as well as requiring qualification certificates to be sent into CSCS as part of an application.
“What we’ve now got is fraudulently obtained genuine [cards] – legitimate cards being obtained through fraudulent means,” says CITB fraud manager Ian Sidney, who is also a former police superintendent.
“What we’ve now got is fraudulently obtained genuine [cards] – legitimate cards being obtained through fraudulent means”
Ian Sidney, CITB
The primary driver of this trend is the use of fake but high-quality qualification certificates. “If those aren’t spotted, a genuine CSCS card gets issued,” Mr O’Neile explains. “There are, potentially, people out there with a genuine CSCS card but obtained with a fake certificate.”
He says that on some occasions, fake certificates may be identified two or three weeks later “because sometimes it takes a while before you catch it”, at which point the card can be cancelled electronically. But once a fraud case has reached this stage, the only way it can be identified and removed from circulation is through electronic detection at construction sites.
The most up-to-date data on how effectively sites check skills cards comes from a 2015 CSCS-CITB joint survey. This revealed that of the 829 construction workers surveyed, only 6 per cent had their cards checked through smart technology, while the majority (69 per cent) said they were checked visually.
This is where “we’re falling down,” says National Federation of Demolition Contractors CEO Howard Button, as only electronic checks can raise a red flag if a card has been cancelled because of fraud. “We have no way of retrieving a fraudulently obtained card,” Mr O’Neile adds. “If the individual still has the card in their pocket, we can’t physically take it off them.”
CITB’s Mr Sidney says it is difficult to estimate the number of construction workers currently working with fraudulently obtained skills cards, but believes that “it’s only a small proportion of the 650,000 health and safety tests a year and 300,000 CSCS cards”.
“But even if it is 1 or 2 per cent, that can still equate to several hundred, if not thousands of people,” he says. “The risk is those people are not trained or qualified and can be putting themselves or others in danger on the site.”
Mr Weeks: tip of an iceberg?
Although it can be difficult to retrieve both cards once they are in workers’ pockets, there are a number of preventative steps that can be taken as cards and certificates are being produced and sold.
One of these is disruption.
Mr Sidney’s CITB fraud team was investigating and gathering evidence on Mr Weeks before it alerted Warwickshire trading standards. Once it confirmed that the CSCS cards being sold were indeed bogus through a test purchase, the team got in touch with the website domain names and internet service provider to take the website down. An intellectual property complaint was made by the CSCS and a cease-and-desist letter issued.
The scale of the scheme
A Warwickshire County Council Trading Standards-led raid on Mr Week’s business address unearthed counterfeit certificates and licences including:
- Driving licences
- O and A-level certificates
- GCSE certificates
- City & Guilds certificates
- a PhD degree certificate
- First aid certificates
- Competence in demolition
- Construction site workers and electrical installation certificates
- Security close protection licence cards
- National Union of Students cards
- Certificate in Occupational Health
- Registered carers cards
It was during this time that the CITB contacted the trading standards authority, which was already looking at the case having been alerted to it by an awarding body.
At this time, Mr Weeks was trading as Nuneaton Print and hiding behind a fictitious Nuneaton address. Following the issue of the cease-and-desist, he signed an undertaking agreeing to stop producing fraudulent cards and certificates. However, Mr Weeks simply changed his trading name to Yorkshire Novelty Print and carried on.
This is very common, Mr Sidney says, as these “companies are fly by night and they will just fold and you will be left with massive legal bills and chasing shadows”.
Taking only civil legal action against fraud can therefore be risky. But in the case of Mr Weeks, having trading standards on board was “useful because they have got powers under the misrepresentation defences”.
Following Mr Weeks’ change of company name, Warwickshire trading standards launched its own investigation, to which the CITB, CSCS, ECA and the NFDC all provided evidence and statements, along with various other card scheme administrators and awarding bodies.
As well the successful prosecution of Mr Weeks, CSCS’s copyright claim also led to an award of £6,000 in damages.
Organised crime element
The nature of this case meant trading standards was fully capable of tackling it. In other cases, however, where organised crime is involved, the discovery of fraudulent cards and certificates can be the tip of an iceberg.
Many of the people who actually use fake skills cards and certificates are foreign nationals, Mr Sidney says.
There will be those who arrive legally and are duped into thinking that the cards and qualifications they require are impossible to obtain, and that counterfeit versions are therefore their only option.
But more alarmingly, there are those “who are trafficked here and arrive illegally, and their CSCS cards, driving licence and so on, will be there in a package ready for them”, Mr Sidney says. “That’s all part of a debt bondage where they will end up owing thousands of pounds and be indebted to the gangmaster-type person, and that’s how they keep control of them.”
In one of the CITB’s ongoing cases, Mr Sidney’s team estimate that the facilitators are making £50,000-£60,000 a week.
Source: GMJ and City of London Corporation
He adds that it’s a growing trend because, in comparison to arms or drugs smuggling and the organised crime rings often involved, this is relatively low risk and high reward. What’s more, there is a higher percentage of this sort of activity in London, Mr Sidney adds, because “that’s where the bulk of the construction works are [and] the big sites – clearly [those sites] will be more [at] risk [of being worked on by fraudulent cardholders]”.
DCI Phil Brewer of the Metropolitan Police’s modern slavery and kidnap unit says his team is aware of the issue of fake skills cards within the wider people-trafficking crime rings.
“It’s a difficult area to police,” he says, because as well as individuals like Mr Weeks, there will be those who have infiltrated test centres as employees and have links to organised crime. “What we want to do is work with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority and look at what we can do to police the companies that are running these courses,” he says.
Clearly, this is not an issue the construction industry will be able to tackle alone.
There are, however, ways in which the industry can contribute to the fight against counterfeit skills cards and certificates.
As things stand, if a skills card administrator such as the NFDC is alerted to a fraud by a demolition contractor, for example, the NFDC will escalate it to the CSCS, which then sends the case through to Mr Sidney’s fraud team at the CITB.
At this year’s forum between the CITB, CSCS and the 35 card scheme administrators that use the CSCS logo, Mr Sidney offered to centralise and co-ordinate all anti-fraud matters on behalf of all the card schemes through his CITB team.
“It was only in October that it was presented. The card schemes are now considering that offer,” CSCS’s Mr O’Neile says. He believes it would be the right move for the industry: “The card schemes don’t have the skills to do a criminal investigation. Ian Sidney and the CITB team have that experience. They’re ex-police officers. They know how to [get] a conviction.”
“We have no way of retrieving a fraudulently obtained card. If the individual still has the card in their pocket, we can’t physically take it off them”
Alan O’Neile, CSCS
The NFDC’s Mr Button agrees on the importance of further action, though sounds a note of caution on exactly how this will take shape. “We’re not exactly sure how that’s going to work, but it does need something – we’d agree with that 100 per cent,” he says. “Exactly how, I don’t think anybody really knows.”
There have also been early-stage discussions with qualification awarding bodies over introducing electronic verification of certificates. This would put test centres in a position where they can definitively check the authenticity of a certificate before a card is issued, Mr Sidney says.
But with regards to the fake cards – and the genuine cards obtained fraudulently – that are already out there, it’s down to construction sites to check them electronically and confiscate them.
A smartcard audit conducted in October by Build UK, CECA and CSCS across 711 sites audited 47,226 cards – 37,657 were read electronically while 9,569 were checked physically.
The exercise led to the removal of 805 expired cards and identified “a number of fraudulent cards”, highlighting the role sites have to play.
If the industry is to effectively crack this problem, it’s going to need a fully co-ordinated approach.
What to do if a fraud is suspected
Build UK, CECA and the CSCS advise:
- Retain the card if possible
- Make photocopies of the front and back
- Record the cardholder’s name and address
- Ask the cardholder where the card was obtained from
- Call the police and report the matter
- Refuse access to site (subject to company rules)
- Forward copies of all evidence with details of the crime number given by local police to: CSCS Ltd – Operations Team, The Building Centre, 26 Store Street, London WC1E 7BT
This article was amended to state certificates must be sent into CSCS and not presented at test centres.