West Yorkshire Police has been called in to carry out a detailed investigation into Lancashire Constabulary’s involvement with a Blackpool charity which ran into trouble.
The probe will look at the Lancashire’s ties to the award-winning Jobs, Friends and Houses Community Interest Company, which hit financial difficulties despite having had more than £1m of public and lottery money.
The West Yorkshire force was called in by the Independent Office for Police Conduct after Lancashire Police referred itself to the watchdog in November last year over the issue.
The Gazette understands that no raids or arrests have been made and that the investigation could take many months to conclude.
Jobs, Friends and Houses was set up in 2014 in the resort to help former offenders and recovering addicts find useful work and support and was run by a seconded police officer Sgt Steve Hodgkins, along with Justin Nield and Matthew Idle.
It helped a succession of people find work, friendship and support in Blackpool and won a BIBAs award at the Tower Ballroom in 2015 for the Most Inspiring Business of the Year prize but in 2016 began to hit money problems as it expanded and talks began with Lancashire Police and Blackpool Council to save the organisation.
It received £200,00o from Lancashire Police, a £100,000 loan from Blackpool Council and a £499,114 grant from the National Lottery in 2017.
Jobs, Friends and Houses was taken over by a five man board – three from Blackpool Council, Head of Governance Mark Towers, Chief Executive Neil Jack and director of public health Arif Rajpura – and Lancashire Police director of resources Ian Cosh along with Chief Supt Stuart Noble, although Mr Cosh later stepped down.
The news of the investigation was greeted with concern by leader of the opposition Conservative group on Blackpool Council, Coun Tony Williams.
He had gone on record last year questioning why the council had got involved and why public money was being lent to the company.
Today he confirmed he had given a statement to West Yorkshire Police for the probe.
He said: “I was really surprised that the council got involved with this at all. It was clearly in serious trouble financially and management wise.
“There are a couple of other groups in Blackpool doing similar work to Jobs, Friends and Houses and the council has not got involved with them.
“There has been an awful lot of public money put into this from the beginning. I am sure all the intentions of everyone involved were very well meant but it was a good idea that seemed to go badly wrong.
“The council continues to support it on a smaller scale. I would like to know who arranged this. I understand that the leader of the council (Coun Simon Blackburn) was a major influence in signing this off.”
Lancashire Police confirmed today that the IOPC investigation was under way at its own instigation.
A spokesman said: ” We can confirm that we made a voluntary referral to the IOPC in November 2017 and we continue to co-operate fully with the on-going investigation.
“It would be inappropriate to make any further comment at this time.”
The IOPC took over from the Police Complaints Commission as the body responsible for overseeing the system for handling complaints made against police forces in England and Wales.
IOPC Acting Deputy Director of Major Investigations, Steve Noonan said: “In November 2017 Lancashire Constabulary made a voluntary referral to us concerning their involvement in the community interest initiative known as Jobs, Friends and Houses, with particular reference to the period between May 2014 and August 2016.
“An investigation is underway and is being carried out by West Yorkshire Police.
“This is a complex investigation involving a number of charitable organisations, funding bids and their governance arrangements. WYP has analysed a significant amount of evidence already, but due to its complexities the investigation is likely to take some time to conclude.”
A Blackpool Council spokesman, said: “It is our understanding that this investigation relates specifically to events and individuals related to Jobs, Friends and Houses (JHF) up to August 2016. Blackpool Council was not operationally involved with JFH during this period and is not under investigation.
However, we will provide West Yorkshire Police with any assistance that they may request but cannot comment further on an ongoing investigation.
“JFH is still a community interest company and has with the support of Blackpool Council and Blackpool Coastal Housing worked through a challenging period of change while continuing to deliver life changing support to people recovering from addiction and substance abuse.
“Some limited financial support was made in the form of loans and payments continue to be in line with the agreed repayment schedule.”
Aim to give work and hope for ex-offenders
Jobs, Friends and Houses was set up in 2014 with its first registered office at Bonny Street Police Station with Sgt Steve Hodgkins seconded from Lancashire Police to act as one of the directors.
Its aim was to give work and a purpose in life for ex-offenders and recovering addicts, often people with extremely complex issues difficult to resolve.
It redeveloped properties in Blackpool giving work to people in recovery, with a view to either renting the properties to others in recovery, or putting them back on the market to make money for the social enterprise to keep it going.
It attracted around £1m in its first year from a vareity of sources such as the Department for Communities and Local Government, Arts Council England and from Lancashire’s Police and Crime Commissioner’s budget.
It also worked in partnership with Blackpool and The Fylde College to offer apprenticeships to employees and with the NHS to ensure workers’ good health.In Feburary last year it emerged that bosses had been in talks with the council and police to save the organisation and that five senior officials from the two public bodies have been appointed as directors – in effect a public sector takeover.
Former director and public face of the company Steve Hodgkins resigned his role in August 2016. Fellow director Justin Nield also left the company.
The organisation shut its offices in Church Street, Blackpool, with remaining staff working from the offices of Blackpool Coastal Housing, an arms-length company owned by Blackpool Council.
It also shut down its letting agency arm and retrenched to concentrate on construction arm and specialised recovery housing function.
At the time, a Lancashire Constabulary spokesman said: “We would want to reassure our employees, stakeholders, funders, suppliers and most importantly our tenants that the constabulary and the council are committed to JFH continuing to help change lives. “Jobs Friends Houses has delivered fantastic results to individuals who otherwise would be resigned to a life of addiction and crime.
“Lancashire Constabulary and Blackpool Council are committed to the company, and will continue to work hard to support it, and the people it helps, in the future.”