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Coronavirus Grant Schemes: Fraud

Volume 707: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he will make a statement on fraud in the coronavirus grant schemes.

Since March 2020, the Government have delivered a comprehensive multibillion-pound package to support individuals and businesses during the pandemic. As the House would expect, the Government have taken the issue of potential fraud relating to covid grant schemes extremely seriously.

Robust measures were put in place to control error and fraud in the key covid support schemes from their inception. For instance, to minimise the risk of fraud and error and unverified claims, the coronavirus job retention scheme and self-employment income support scheme were designed in a way to prevent ineligible claims being made up front, and made grants for employees and businesses using existing data held on Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ systems. That included cut-off dates around scheme eligibility and the need for customers to be registered for pay-as-you-earn online or self-assessment. In 2020-21, HMRC recovered £536 million of over-claimed grants.

To further bolster anti-fraud measures, at the spring Budget last year, the Government invested more than £100 million in a taxpayer protection taskforce of more than 1,200 HMRC staff to combat covid-related fraud. This taskforce is expected to recover between £800 million and £1 billion from fraudulent or incorrect payments during 2021-22 and 2022-23.

The Government’s bounce back loan scheme supported more than £46 billion of finance to 1.5 million businesses. We are continuing to actively work with the British Business Bank, lenders and fraud authorities to tackle fraud and to recover loans obtained fraudulently. The value of prevented fraud was £2.2 billion, and we continue to recover further funds through our counter-fraud work. In addition, as part of the spring Budget last year, we announced plans to significantly strengthen enforcement activity against fraudulent bounce back loans. That included introducing processes with the Insolvency Service to prevent the fraudulent dissolution of companies being used as a means to escape liabilities, granting the Insolvency Service new powers and investing further in the National Investigation Service.

Importantly, throughout the pandemic we have been transparent about the estimated level of fraud and error in the covid schemes, and HMRC’s annual report and accounts, which were laid before the House in November last year, included the latest information on error and fraud in the HMRC-administered covid-19 schemes. Figures on estimated losses and the bounce back loans, including those due to fraud, were published in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s annual reports and accounts.

Given the unprecedented efforts that the Government have made to protect jobs and livelihoods during this pandemic, it would have been impossible to prevent all related fraud. However, we have taken reasonable steps, and will continue to do so, to deflect and combat that fraud, and we will continue to be vigilant.

I am grateful to the Minister. Last week, the Government confirmed that they expect to write off around £4.3 billion of the funds allocated to coronavirus help schemes. There was no press release, no Instagram video, no statement to this House and no sight of the vanishing Chancellor at all; it was just buried away on the Government website. The Government website states, and the Minister repeated the claim, that from the beginning:

“Robust measures were put in place to control error and fraud in the key coronavirus support schemes.”

If robust measures to prevent fraud were in place, why did they fail to this shocking degree?

In November, the head of HMRC estimated that around half the money lost could be recovered. Why has that estimate now been downgraded to only a quarter of the funds? Why are the Government giving up so easily and not doing more to track down the money, rather than allowing it to remain in the hands of the fraudsters and criminals who have stolen it from taxpayers?

Mr Deputy Speaker, £4.3 billion is a huge sum of money. It is enough to take hundreds of pounds off energy bills this year for every household in the country. It is about the same annual amount as the Chancellor took off people on universal credit in the Budget in November. It is roughly the same as half the annual policing bill for the whole country. This write-off of £4.3 billion comes as households face a cost-of-living triple whammy of rocketing energy bills, the Chancellor’s tax increases and a decline in real wages. Coming on top of the billions wasted on crony contracts and the amounts lost in loan schemes, these levels of waste destroy any claim that the Conservative party had of being careful stewards of the public finances. Will the Minister launch an investigation into how this happened and do more to recover this money from the fraudsters who stole it in the first place?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments, which I am very happy to address. First, we are not writing anything off. The figures quoted are what we expect that taxpayer protection taskforce to recover in the next two years in which it will exist. HMRC has longer to address fraud in the schemes, which it will do in the context of wider compliance activity. HMRC did not produce the figure of £4.3 billion. I understand that it was an inference made by journalists who subtracted £1.5 billion from the estimate of the amount to be recovered by the taxpayer protection taskforce from the £5.8 billion estimated as error and fraud in 2020-21. That was published and Jim Harra and others from HMRC publicised all this before Christmas—in November. HMRC simply used the same numbers in a “mythbuster” article to be published later this week.

Those are the facts. There is nothing new here today, but I would like to address some of the underlying concerns. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that fraud is unacceptable. We think that, which is why—as I said in my opening remarks—in March last year, the Chancellor dedicated £100 million to employ 1,265 people from HMRC to undertake these fraud checks and to bear down on the fraud. We have had 13,000 one-to-one inquiries and sent 75,000 letters to those thought to have incorrectly claimed.

I point out to the right hon. Gentleman, however, that many of these schemes were stood up, refined and adapted very quickly. In order to meet the needs of individuals, the self-employed and businesses up and down the country, £81.2 billion of payments were made across the three main schemes. Although I recognise that there has been an element of fraud, the Government have never been complacent about that. Grants for employees and businesses used data on HMRC systems. The design of the scheme was informed by expert advice from HMRC, which has extensive knowledge and understanding of where errors and fraud risks lay. We have implemented post-payment compliance to identify and recover overpayment, and we have invoked automated controls into digital claim processes, which have prevented 100,000 ineligible, mistaken claims.

The Government are not complacent at all about error and fraud. We will continue to bear down on it, and I urge Members of the House and members of the public to continue to contact HMRC, as they have done, as we seek to maximise the recovery of moneys lost.

I say to the Opposition that it is the easiest job in the world to stand on the sidelines and criticise, but what would they have done? Would they have waited and left businesses in peril? Would they have done that in search of the perfect? Some £407 billion has gone to businesses, the vast majority of which went to the right places. Of course there will be lessons to learn, but if the same situation happens again, will my hon. Friend prioritise the needs of business, rather than making the perfect the enemy of the good?

I thank my hon. Friend for the clear point behind his question. We were straining every sinew in the Treasury to get money out as quickly as possible. On 14 April 2020, a Labour party press release stated:

“It is clear that additional action needs to be taken to increase the take-up of the different measures. We have called for urgent action…as take-up is worryingly low.”

That is why we intervened to change the design of the bounce back loan scheme and to make it 100% backed to get the money out quickly—£46 billion to 1.5 million businesses. I am sure that lessons can be learnt from what we have done—absolutely they can—but the principle of getting that money out and designing schemes with HMRC’s excellent input during that period was imperative for the Government.

It seems, again, that when the going gets tough, the Chancellor goes missing.

HMRC said in its statement that fraud in the covid support schemes is in line with its original planning assumptions, but expecting this eye-watering level of fraud seems almost worse than it happening by accident. We see it also in the bounce back loan schemes. How much of the fraud relates to UK company structures and the related issues at Companies House, which make the UK such a magnet for money laundering?

As well as the Treasury being out of pocket, constituents of mine employed by companies deliberately employing dubious corporate structures did not even receive the furlough payments to which they were fully entitled. What consequences will there be for those companies, and for those people who never received the money that they were due, due to fraud and error? For the many people around these islands who received no support whatsoever—those who were excluded from support schemes—this fraud and error is all the more galling. Will the Minister apologise to them and put that right? Finally, when HMRC is chasing down an estimated 170,000 families who claimed child benefit in error, why is it letting fraudsters and criminals waltz off with £4.3 billion of public money, all of this in the midst of a cost of living crisis? That money should be in the pockets of our constituents, not of criminals.

I listened very carefully, as I always do, to the hon. Lady. I totally agree that we must not accept any fraud and error as inevitable, and we will continue to bear down on that. From the start we designed the schemes to involve “know your customer” and anti-money laundering checks on application. Measures were put in place by the British Business Bank to detect multiple applications—indeed, there was co-operation among UK Finance members on that. Subsequently, we have developed further interventions involving the National Investigative Service, the Insolvency Service and Companies House data to prevent rogue company directors from escaping liability. We will continue to bear down on the fraud that may have occurred. But initial data on the repayment of bounce back loans shows that in only 2% have borrowers defaulted, and only 7% are behind repayments in any form. There is no complacency in the Government’s approach, and we will continue to look at ways to maximise what we can reclaim where there have been errors and fraud.

It is right that we look carefully at how council tax payers’ money is spent, but let me refer to the current covid grant scheme, particularly for Cornwall. We in Cornwall need reassurance that Cornwall Council has absolute discretion in how to ensure that current leisure grants, for example, go to the businesses that most need them. At the moment, the council is saying that it has to pay the money to whoever applies, irrespective of how well their business is doing. My understanding from the Government is that, if a business is impacted by omicron, staff shortages, or reduced consumer demand, that is when the grant is paid. Could the Minister confirm to me, and to Cornwall Council, that it is for the council to ensure that the money goes where it is most needed, and that is what the Government intend?

I can certainly confirm that the intention behind the range of interventions was to find the most appropriate delivery mechanism for the different support payments, and obviously we have worked with local authorities to give them that discretion. Every authority will need to be held to account for how it has decided to deliver the grants. My hon. Friend has made a clear case for where those priorities need to lie, and we are clear about the intention behind the grants, but it will be for local authorities throughout the country to make their decisions in the right way.

Seventy-one million pounds of taxpayers’ money was fraudulently claimed through the eat out to help out scheme. How many arrests have been made, and are the criminals now enjoying prison food?

I am sorry, but I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an exact answer. What I can say to him is that, according to HMRC, the expectation of fraud as part of that particular intervention in the summer of 2020 was about 8.5%, and the figures submitted by Jim Harra, the head of HMRC, in last year’s report were in line with the expectations set out at the start of this journey.

Our much-loved Kettering gymnastics club provides sporting facilities for about 1,000 local young people every week. It is a not-for-profit club, registered with HMRC under the community amateur sports club scheme, and it operates as a club and not as a business. It has previously received covid grant funding from the council, but the later schemes issued in December 2021 seem to refer just to businesses, rather than to clubs. Can the Minister clarify the Government’s guidance to local authorities about whether clubs are eligible for the new funding?

I recognise that the gymnastics club in Kettering, along with so many other clubs of that type around the country, provides an enormously valuable point of contact for young people. I should be happy to examine my hon. Friend’s point in detail and write to him with clarification, rather than dealing with it from the Dispatch Box. The principle of giving discretion to local authorities in order to meet the needs in particular communities has guided the Government throughout this process, and we have used this grant channel a number of times for that reason, but I will look as sympathetically as I can at the question that he has raised.

The Minister referred to default as though it were the equivalent of fraud. The Public Accounts Committee has examined in great detail the issue of fraud in this area. As I am sure he knows, there are grants and bounce back loans taken fraudulently that people will be repaying, but the criterion on which they obtained them was itself fraudulent.

The Minister seems to be accepting this level of fraud. Will he make a clear statement that fraud at all levels will be investigated? We gained the impression from HMRC and others who appeared before us as witnesses that they would take the low-hanging fruit and let a lot of fraud continue without being tracked down.

I know that the hon. Lady’s Select Committee is conducting an in-depth inquiry. I believe that the second permanent secretary and others appeared before the Committee last week, and I look forward to its report.

I can absolutely clarify that we do see the distinction between a credit loss and fraud. What we are talking about here is: what are the most effective mechanisms, and over what timeframe, to get that money back? Also, we have received moneys back from, for example, the furlough scheme: moneys and grants that were made in error. So it is a complicated picture. I am certainly not suggesting from this Dispatch Box that the Government are writing anything off, or do not grasp the distinction between a credit loss and fraud. This needs to be tackled, but it needs to be tackled in a time and money-efficient way. Obviously the law of diminishing returns begins to apply after a certain point, and we will again by led by HMRC and its excellent advice as we pursue the matter.

The Government are saying that fraudsters will still be relentlessly pursued. If, heaven forbid, the Minister ever had to implement such a scheme in the future, would he regard it as a satisfactory result to know that 99% of these huge sums of money went to the intended recipients?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. He helpfully highlights that many of these grants and schemes were very effective in getting money to the right people in a timely way. I spoke earlier to an official from HMRC, who said, “We managed to get some of the money out in six days. If we had spent more time designing in more verification, we could have made it watertight. That would have taken several months and many businesses would have gone to the wall.” That was the dilemma we faced. I am not saying we got everything right, but it was certainly done in all good conscience to try to get the balance right.

The announcement that no action will be taken to recover the nearly £4 billion fraudulently claimed from the covid support schemes stands in stark contrast to the Government’s treatment of some of the poorest people in my constituency who had their benefits cut off, and who were even chased through the courts, for making the simplest of mistakes when claiming benefits.

Will the Minister concede there is a double standard when it comes to holding the rich and powerful to account, whether for breaching lockdown restrictions or even for downright fraud? Will he also commit to providing redress to my constituents who have suffered so enormously as a result of this Government’s heavy-handed approach to accidentally misclaimed benefits?

I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. The estimate of the amount of fraud is broadly in line with what we see in other Departments, including the Department for Work and Pensions. There is no complacency here. There is a desire to iterate our response by using insights into behaviour to examine all avenues to reclaim this fraud, and we will continue to take that approach fairly across all the schemes.

It is interesting to hear the Minister confirm what I have often believed—that it was pressure from my colleagues on the shadow Treasury Bench that forced the Government to extend their proposed action to support businesses. I am glad he has confirmed that, but, on the specifics of this case, does it not say everything about this Chancellor that he is willing to write off £4.3 billion but does not have the courage to come to this place to respond to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden)?

I have been in the Treasury for more than four years under three Chancellors. I have supported them all to the best of my ability, and I will continue to do so. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that the Chancellor has been absolutely committed from the start to design the best possible scheme to provide the money to support businesses and individuals up and down this country. Since then, the £100 million investment in extra HMRC personnel has been designed to maximise the recovery of fraud. The work on duplicate application checks, the changes in director information and the HMRC turnover check—all these insights were designed to minimise the loss to the taxpayer. That governs the Chancellor’s approach, and it governs the approach of all Ministers and officials in the Treasury.

What does it say about the integrity of this Tory Government that they are willing to write off billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money while, at the same time, cutting the income of millions of people on universal credit during a cost of living crisis?

This Government made a range of interventions to support people in different forms and in different ways. We were clear from the very start that we would not be able to help everyone. One of the issues we had to reconcile was verification of people’s identity and status, and this measure to prevent fraud arguably stopped some people accessing the benefits of some of these schemes. I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question.

The Minister will be aware that in 2020-21, Companies House showed the greatest ever number of incorporations. Did the Government not sniff something going on? If they did, why did they not act? If they are honest, do we not face taxpayers everywhere having to pick up the £4.3 billion bill for their failing?

No, I do not accept that, I am afraid. At every stage the Government took the best advice that we could on the flows of data that were available from HMRC and Companies House, which conditioned the design of the schemes. Subsequently, insights and input from Companies House, HMRC and the Insolvency Service have governed how we seek to tackle and recover moneys from fraud.

The Minister shows a degree of nervous embarrassment but very little by way of contrition. Companies in my constituency face closure because they are struggling. What would that £4.3 billion have done for those that did not qualify for any assistance from this Government?

I am of course very concerned about businesses that are struggling and have been in difficulty, but I am pleased that the economy has recovered far quicker than many anticipated it would this time two years ago, and I am pleased that unemployment is at about 4.1%, rather than the 12% that was anticipated at the start of this crisis. There is no complacency from this Government, and there is an absolute determination to support businesses in getting back on their feet and trading. That is why we put in place so many interventions, which were designed in different ways to maximise the support to businesses and individuals across this country.

The Government say time and again that support during the pandemic for the people who fell through the gap between the job retention scheme and the self-employed scheme would be too difficult to administer because of the risk of fraud. We now know that, simultaneously, companies that were defrauding taxpayers were being supported. We are left to conclude that the decision not to help those 3 million people was simply political. Those small businesses, sole traders and entrepreneurs should be the driving force of the UK’s economic recovery in the months and years ahead. What impact has this lack of support had on those sectors, and what will the Government do to support them going forward?

The hon. Lady points to the fact that none of these schemes was perfect. She recognises implicitly that checks against data to verify people’s identity were necessary to ensure that they were suitable recipients of taxpayers’ funds. Unfortunately that meant that some were not able to secure the support that they sought. Where we can, we have moved forward and iterated these schemes, focusing and targeting them on the sectors of the economy that were most hit at different stages in this crisis, but I concede that unfortunately we were not able to help everyone, as we would have liked.

The Minister said that the Government were straining every sinew to get money out quickly, and nobody disagrees with that, but there must be retrospective due process to ensure that there was proper compliance. Defrauding the public purse can never be acceptable. One emergency loan for £4.7 million went to a firm founded just two days before it received the funds. How many other companies had only just been formed?

Unfortunately, I am sure that there are examples of people who conducted fraud; that is self-evident. I urge the hon. Gentleman to give as much information as he can to HMRC, so that these matters can be chased up. There was always a balancing act between speed of delivery and risk of fraud, and Government and Ministers’ decisions were made in the light of the best advice. It was not a perfect situation. However, we were urged to get that money out—not just by Labour but by the CBI, the Federation of Small Businesses and numerous other organisations—and we responded. I think that was generally acknowledged, and it certainly was by the shadow Chancellor at the time.

This is outrageous. This is an attempt to shift the blame to everybody but the Government. Of course MPs across the House were pressing the Government for speed of action—for everyone, not just for a select few—but we were also raising issues of fraud. I wrote to the Chancellor within weeks of the scheme’s being introduced about the information coming in about fraud. I tabled parliamentary questions on 3 July. I simply asked what measures were in place. What response did I get?

“I cannot go into specific detail about measures either in place or in development. For the same reason, it is not possible to release the number of fraudulent applications or associated investigations.”

I asked the same questions about the number of companies going bust and so on but still receiving grants.

I ask the Minister: what other organisation loses billions, yet no one is held to account, no one resigns and there is not even a word of apology—not a single sentence of regret? That money could have been used effectively to lift people out of poverty and to support jobs, yet through the incompetence of this Government, it has gone missing.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I do not accept the premise behind it, but I do accept that we moved £81.2 billion of support through various schemes out to businesses and individuals up and down the country, and that there was an element of fraud, which we will continue to bear down on aggressively.

The Minister may be aware that my Vauxhall constituency is home to world-renowned arts and cultural centres and small independent theatres, many of which are supported by young, up-and-coming independent actors, freelancers and artists who received no support whatsoever. Seeing the Government wipe away this £4.3 billion debt is another slap in the face for people who have struggled for the past 22 months without any support, even though they are taxpayers. I pay tribute to the many business improvement districts across Vauxhall—the South Bank BID, Vauxhall One, Brixton BID and This is Clapham—which support small and independent businesses up and down my constituency that struggled and often did not qualify for any grants because of the rateable values associated with inner-London constituencies. Does he understand that many people feel anger when they see the Government write off this £4.3 billion?

As a former arts Minister who visited many of those organisations in the hon. Lady’s constituency in years past, I recognise the enormous contribution that creative industries make there and across the country. Of course, the grants we gave through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the recovery fund, and the support through local authorities got to many of those organisations. I stand here today not with a sense that nothing could have been done better, but recognising that there was a balancing act between speed of delivery of support to businesses, and complexity, with the delays that would inevitably have ensued. I am contrite about our not getting everything right, but I am also clear about the real dilemma that we faced at the time.

I think everyone in this House recognises that Government stepped in and helped; I know my constituents recognise that, and we want to put that on record. HMRC stated in November that its taskforce was expected to recover some £1 billion in fraudulent or incorrect claims over the past two years and referred to some 23,000 investigations that had been opened. Only 25% of the money will of course be returned, so can the Minister clarify how that came to be, and what lessons have been learned for any future financial claims?

As ever, I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I set out in my previous answers the dilemmas with respect to speed of delivery. However, HMRC has done a fantastic job in designing the schemes and standing them up quickly under enormous pressure. We will continue to work closely with HMRC and take its advice as we make decisions on how to tackle enduring fraud risk. More broadly, lessons can be learned about the design of future schemes.

Thank you, Minister, for responding to the urgent question. We will have a brief pause to allow those who are leaving to leave.