Steven Morris and agencyThu, 25 March 2021, 4:30 pm
A senior army officer has been found guilty of dishonestly claiming almost £50,000 in allowances to pay for his children’s boarding school fees.
Maj Gen Nick Welch, who is believed to be the most senior officer to face court martial since 1815, was convicted of fraud following a four-week trial at Bulford military court in Wiltshire. He is due to be sentenced on Friday.
The court previously heard that Welch, 57, had applied for the allowance on the basis that he and his wife, Charlotte, would not be living close to the children’s schools in Dorset.
He claimed the continuity of education allowance (CEA) to pay for annual fees of £37,000 and £22,500 at two Dorset schools between December 2015 and February 2017.
But the prosecution said Charlotte Welch, 54, spent most of her time at the couple’s cottage in Blandford Forum, Dorset, close to the two schools, rather than at their allocated military accommodation in Putney, south-west London.
The investigation was launched in February 2017 after a neighbour alerted authorities about the Welch family’s absence from the London home. Welch denied being dishonest and said he believed he had complied with the requirements.
His barrister, Sarah Jones QC, argued that the CEA system was a “mess” and not strictly enforced by the Ministry of Defence.
Giving evidence, Welch said that over 20 years his family had moved 10 times and they chose to put their children in boarding schools so that they would make friends – as well as not have their education interrupted.
In 2015, he was promoted to assistant chief of general staff at MoD headquarters in London and was provided service accommodation in the capital. He said his work time was split between London and army HQ in Andover, Hampshire, and he spent weekends at the family home in Dorset.
Welch said he had been “surprised” after a London neighbour first raised a complaint in February 2016. Welch insisted that the London house was the family’s main home and it contained their important items such as the children’s bikes and toys.
But the court also heard that he used his ride-on lawnmower to cut the grass at his Dorset home during a work-at-home day. One of his children posted a message on a family WhatsApp group saying: “Dad hard at work.”
Sarah Clarke QC, prosecuting, said Charlotte Welch was a “country girl” who was away from the London home for more than 200 days a year and was involved in the local community in Dorset, including playing the flute at the local church, being a member of a book club and having a “network of friends”.
The court was told that when Welch heard that there had been a complaint about the fraud, he had his wife hurry to London.
Clarke said: “She cancelled her plans, drove up and spent the week going out and about being seen and being visible in the local area.”
The barrister added: “He had an obligation not only with the army, but the public too to comply with the regulations. And, let’s face it, who is really going to question the word of a major general?”
Welch was given character references by senior military commanders including former Commander Joint Forces Command, Gen Sir Richard Barrons, who said he believed that the defendant was of “unimpeachable integrity”.
But Clarke accused Welch of lying and “attempting to manipulate” the figures regarding his family’s locations to cover up his dishonesty.
Speaking afterwards, an MoD spokesperson said: “If a service person has been reported to the Royal Military police because it is believed they have committed a crime it is only right that it is investigated fully and the results of the investigation are presented to the Service Prosecuting Authority.
“It has been proven in this case that the retired Major General Nicholas Welch OBE did commit fraud and therefore he will be sentenced accordingly.”
Welch, 57, left the army in 2019 after an illustrious career which spanned more than three decades, serving in Afghanistan, Germany, Northern Ireland and Belize. He is now chief operating officer at Arts University Bournemouth.
It is 206 years since Lieutenant General Sir John Murray was convicted of abandoning his siege guns in the Napoleonic wars.