A trustee of an east Suffolk playgroup has described how a former treasurer's £17,000 fraud resulted in staff being underpaid and meant money could not be set aside for a new building.

Gemma Pearse, 33, has pleaded guilty to charges of defrauding Knodishall Playgroup of the sum by making bank transfers to herself and of falsifying an account during a five-year period from January 1, 2017 to March 17, 2022.

Speaking after Friday's hearing before Suffolk Magistrates' Court in Ipswich, trustee Gwen Haxell said the group, which provides care, education and play for children aged between two and five, only survived because the fraud happened over a five-year period.

East Anglian Daily Times: Knodishall Playgroup in east SuffolkKnodishall Playgroup in east Suffolk (Image: Google Maps)

She said: "We just knew that we were not making enough money to keep us stable and the less we had to keep our costs down, so the staff were not paid what they ought to have been paid.

"The immediate impact was when we discovered what had happened and how it made the staff feel and they spent days burning the midnight oil trying to work out how much had gone.

"We have a very big issue with the building. The building is falling to bits, it is terrible, we really need to build a new one. There is no way we have been able to put money aside for that."

The hearing heard Pearse had since repaid the cash, but Ms Haxell said this only happened after she had been challenged about the missing money.

"We did want her prosecuted because we did not want her to find another gullible charity and do the same thing," she added.

The court heard Pearse had taken the money because she was in an unhappy marriage and could not pay for what she wanted and used the cash to buy things for her three children.

Sarah Dawes, prosecuting, said there had been some "dissatisfaction" with her performance as treasurer, including her failure to attend committee meetings to present financial reports and expenses not being recorded against invoices.

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When challenged, she admitted taking the money and has since paid back some £46,000 using money from the sale of the house she shared with her ex-husband and children.

Ms Dawes said: "It places in the high culpability. There is abuse of position in power, trust and responsibility, fraudulent activity sustained over a long period of time, together with a large number of victims."

In mitigation, Sue Threadkell said Pearse, who used to live in Leiston, but now lives in Braintree, should be given credit for her guilty plea and did not use the money to fund a "lavish lifestyle".

She added: "It is right to say that in Gemma Pearse's words she is ashamed of her behaviour and her actions and the way in which her children will be caused distress by her having to appear before the court. There will be things said to them on social media."

Magistrates declined to sentence the case, which will be heard at Ipswich Crown Court on February 26.

Pearse was granted unconditional bail.