Job agency staff posed as workers to opt them out of workplace pension

HR officer among employees pleading guilty to computer misuse offence

An HR and compliance officer was among staff at a recruitment agency who posed as workers to opt them out of the workplace pension in a case that reached court yesterday.

Lisa Neal, a 33-year-old from Derbyshire, was one of five senior employees at Workchain who were encouraged by owners and directors Phil Tong and Adam Hinkley to mislead the National Employment Savings Trust (NEST) to get temporary workers out of the retirement scheme. The five employees, as well as Tong and Hinkley, all pleaded guilty at Derby Magistrates’ Court yesterday (7 June).

The senior staff members used the passcodes of 67 workers to log into NEST’s online portal and opted them out of their pension. If the offence had not been spotted, Workchain would have avoided paying pension contributions. 

The other senior staff from Workchain – which was previously known as Smart Recruitment UK  – who pleaded guilty at the court on Thursday were financial controller Hannah Armson, 34 of Derbyshire, and branch managers Martin West, 31 of Nottinghamshire, Robert Tomlinson, 38 of Nottinghamshire, and Andrew Thorpe, 33 of Staffordshire.

The company and the seven individuals were prosecuted with an offence of unauthorised access to computer data contrary to the Computer Misuse Act 1990. 

District judge Jonathan Taaffe committed the case to Derby Crown Court for a sentencing hearing on 28 June. When sentenced at a crown court, the computer misuse conviction carries a maximum sentence of two years’ imprisonment and an unlimited fine.

The Pensions Regulator (TPR), the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, Derbyshire Constabulary and Nottinghamshire Constabulary launched a joint investigation into Workchain, which is headquartered in Derby and has offices across the Midlands, after NEST flagged its concerns about the job agency to TPR in May 2014.

The prosecution is also the TPR’s first for computer misuse. 

“Workchain’s directors saw denying their temporary workers pensions as a quick and easy way to save the company money,” said Darren Ryder, TPR’s director of automatic enrolment. “Both they and their senior staff thought nothing of misusing NEST’s online portal. Thanks to the vigilance of NEST, their attempt to cheat the automatic enrolment system failed. 

“Automatic enrolment is not an option; it’s the law and the law is clear – no one can opt a worker out of a pension scheme, even if the worker agrees. Those who try to avoid their pension responsibilities in this way face prosecution.”

Nathan Long, senior pension analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, added: “This particular case involved treating temporary workers differently to permanent staff, which given more modern, flexible working patterns makes it particularly important. Any employers that are not doing their bit should get their house in order quickly, as the regulator once again shows it is not to be crossed.”

Auto-enrolment, which was rolled out from October 2012, requires organisations to provide eligible employees with a workplace pension. Eligible staff are those aged 22 and over earning at least £10,000 a year. Employees can choose to opt out of the scheme but their decision must be made freely and employers are prohibited from encouraging workers to do so.