An accounts manager who stole £238,000 from his printing firm by creating a fictitious employee has been jailed for 32 months.

Father-of-five David Howard milked Stafford-based George Street Press of about £700-a-week over the course of nearly seven years by setting up a bogus bank account in the name of the non-existent worker.

When the fraud was uncovered, Howard claimed financial difficulties and "family trouble". This included the birth of a premature son who died 18 months later, his wife's drinking and the family's descent into debt, Stafford Crown Court was told.

Howard, of Woodlands Road, Stafford, admitted eight charges of theft, two of false accounting and one of inducing a bank to provide services.

Nick Brown, prosecuting, said the offences were carried out between November 1999 and February this year.

"He worked for George Street Press for 13 years and was the accounts manager. He was responsible for the payment of wages to employees and quite simply what he did was to set up a bank account in the name of a fictitious employee... in order to receive money that he was intent on stealing from his employer.

"To conceal the payments he used his position to ensure that the money went into the account without anyone noticing."

Mr Brown said it was "persistent fraud" and Howard was unable to provide a satisfactory explanation when challenged by his employers.

"He said he thought the money he took could be as much as £104,000. The total amount was £238,782. He made admissions straight away and made full admissions to the police.

"He gave as an explanation for taking the money family trouble and financial difficulties which had to be addressed. He said he was shocked at the very large amount of money that had been involved.

"His cupboard is bare but there might be a small amount of money left. The company have now started civil court proceedings against him. The company managed to survive and is still trading."

Chris Clarke, defending, said Howard accepted he had committed a serious breach of trust at the firm which had employed him for 13 years.

"He and his wife had a son who was born prematurely which caused a considerable strain on his wife who had a breakdown," said Mr Clarke.

"He tried to pull the family together but his wife resorted to drink. Her drinking spiralled. They ended up in debt and he decided the only way out was to commit these offences. The premature baby died after 18 months.

"He acted alone and no one else was aware of what he was doing. He accepts entirely and fully the way the fraud was perpetuated on his employer.

"None of the money taken was used for a lavish lifestyle. It was used for normal living expenses for his wife and five children. He said he was gobsmacked to discover that the money he took was such a large amount. The only asset he has is the matrimonial home. He is deeply ashamed of what he has done and wants to do all he can to repay them."

Judge Anthony Cleary told Howard he would have sentenced him to four years' imprisonment if he had not pleaded guilty.

"From testimonials I have seen you were trusted and respected in the community which makes your offending all the more painful. Your criminality was calculated and systematic and a flagrant disregard for the welfare of you employer."