A FRAUDSTER who won Britain's top accolade for disabled entrepreneurs was jailed amid angry scenes this week for using his award-winning business to steal £80,000 of public money.

Andrew Thomson won the Stelios Award for Disabled Entrepreneurs for his work in establishing Sign-now.com, providing video conferencing for the deaf.

He received his award at a ceremony in 2008 from easyJet founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, who said that Thomson had demonstrated "drive, creativity and determination".

But at Stirling Sheriff Court on Wednesday, Sheriff William Gilchrist labelled the 51-year-old a "highly-culpable" fraudster and locked him up.

Thomson admitted using Sign-now to milk a government scheme intended to help the disabled into employment and channel tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money, through another company for the deaf – run by his deaf wife – into his own pocket.

He pleaded guilty to defrauding the programme, called the Access to Work Scheme, out of £80,000 between January and November 2011, before an anonymous tip-off alerted the DWP.

The court heard Thomson, the self-employed director of Sign-now, applied for a grant via the scheme, saying he needed British Sign Language interpreters for himself and employees.

He claimed he needed six hours a day of interpreting assistance and two hours a day translation, to assist him with correspondence and making and taking phone calls.

Freelance British Sign Language interpreters, charged out at £44 an hour, were employed under the Access To Work Scheme through the Interpreting Agency Ltd., run by Thomson's wife, Caroline Thomson, 52.

The Interpreting Agency Ltd submitted invoices in support of Thomson's claims, which were paid by DWP into a bank account in the name of The Interpreting Agency Ltd.

The court heard that Thomson, who was born profoundly deaf, was a signatory of this bank account.

The DWP began an investigation into the grant after receiving an anonymous letter.

The Thomsons' home in New Carron, Falkirk; Sign-now's offices in Grangemouth; and the Interpreting Agency's offices in Blythswood Square, Glasgow, were searched.

Diaries and invoices were seized, and the freelance British Sign Language interpreters used by the Interpreting Agency Ltd were questioned.

Sarah Lumsden, the depute fiscal, said there weren't enough British Sign Language interpreters "physically available" to cover the number of hours claimed.

Thomson pleaded guilty to defrauding the DWP of the £80,000 sum, between January 1 and November 30, 2011.

His wife's plea of not guilty to involvement was accepted.

The couple had originally been charged with a four-year scam to defraud taxpayers of nearly £250,000 by submitting bogus claims, stretching back to 2008 – the year Thomson collected the Stelios Award.

Thomson's company, whose clients had included the NHS, a charity for the deaf, and Falkirk Council, was described as "a web-based means of enabling deaf people to communicate with the hearing world".

Defence advocate David Nicolson said it had got into financial difficulty when software designed by Thomson was mimicked by others, and his clients no longer needed his services.

He said since the fraud came to light Thomson had been ostracised, isolated and shunned in the deaf world. Sign-now closed in 2012 and The Interpreting Agency later following suit.

Jailing Thomson for 20 months, Sheriff Gilchrist referred to judges' guidelines for dealing with welfare scams – though he said the Access to Work Scheme was actually a grant.

Addressing Thomson though a sign language interpreter, he said: "If I had been applying the guidelines for benefit fraud, I would have assessed culpability here as being medium, on the basis that the claim was not fraudulent from the start, although there were elements of high culpability, in that there was an abuse of trust and responsibility, and the fraud required planning and was not unsophisticated.

"The amount defrauded was substantial...and this amount was defrauded in the context of the accused and his company already receiving generous financial support from the taxpayer.

"In the circumstances I am satisfied that a custodial sentence is the only appropriate sentence."

Thomson's deaf wife, who like him uses signing rather than oral language, let out a guttural scream when the sentence was announced..

She then shook her fist at the sheriff, while one of the couple's two sons banged the seats and wall of the court and shouted "fucking pricks" before being ushered out by a police officer.

Thomson was then led to the cells in handcuffs.

A confiscation hearing under the Proceeds of Crime Act has been set for June 22nd.

When collecting his £50,000 Stelios Award, Thomson said Sign-now.com was "all about gaining the confidence of our clients and the trust and support of the interpreters we employ".

The awards are a partnership between Sir Stelios's Philanthropic Foundation and the Leonard Cheshire disability charity.