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Name all firms receiving furlough cash, say MPs

The Public Accounts Committee called on the Treasury to set out new transparency guidance for government support in the next six months.


The committee repeated its earlier warning that fraud and error in government Covid schemes may have cost taxpayers billions of pounds.


But the government said it had acted "at speed" to help workers and firms.


Fraudsters could have benefited from the government's decision to drop basic checks in paying out Covid loans and furlough support, the committee said.



The committee said it was impossible to tell how much money had been wasted, because data issued so far had "insufficient detail to allow for public scrutiny".


For example, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) will not have a statistically valid estimate of how much fraud and error there was in the furlough scheme until December this year, 22 months after it began.


But the Department for Business has said the Bounce Back Loan Scheme could cost the taxpayer £27bn in fraud or credit losses, estimating that between 35% and 60% of loans might not be repaid.


Publishing a comprehensive list of companies claiming support would give transparency and an opportunity for whistle-blowers to report fraud, the committee said.



Analysis

By Ramzan Karmali, business reporter


The various financial support packages introduced in response to the pandemic by Rishi Sunak received praise from many quarters. The International Monetary Fund even said they were "one of the best examples of co-ordinated action" that they'd seen globally.


This report recognises the quickness of that response, but puts a spotlight on some of the frailties of it too. It highlights the speed of the rollout of the schemes as one of the main reasons for losses in the tens of billions of pounds. But without hasty action, the Chancellor would argue, millions of businesses and individuals would currently be in dire straits.


The billions spent on various support schemes during the pandemic were deemed necessary, but the big upcoming test for the Treasury and other government departments now will be how effectively they are able to track down those who have defrauded the taxpayer and how much of the lost billions can be recouped.





Officials will use different methods to estimate how much fraud and error there was in the Self-Employed Income Support and Eat Out To Help Out schemes, which between them paid out more than £25bn.


HMRC says those estimates will be published in its annual report this autumn.


In a normal year, the government loses approximately £51.8bn to fraud and error in public spending, according to the Cabinet Office. Fraud is estimated to account for 40% of all crime committed across the UK.


"When so many were suffering as a result of Covid, the government needs to tackle the fraudsters robustly," said Dame Meg Hillier, who chairs the committee.


Another of its members, Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney, said: "The government should really pay closer attention to who they give our cash to, or they face making our economic recovery even harder."


A government spokesperson said: "Our priority was to act at speed to protect workers and businesses, including through loans, grants, furlough and the Self-Employment Income Support scheme."


The government added that the schemes were "designed to minimise fraud from the outset".


It said it had "rejected or blocked thousands of fraudulent claims" and would "take action against perpetrators, including through criminal prosecution".

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