‘Eye-watering’ fraud levels in Covid loans missed by Government

Fraud and errors related to loans from the Government’s COVID-19 business support schemes will cost taxpayers “at least £4.9bn”, a parliamentary budget oversight group has said.

Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money will be “lost to fraud and error as a result of the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy’s approach” to its COVID-19 business support schemes, said the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) in a new report.

The PAC warned that the true extent of loss will only be gradually revealed “as assessments catch up with payments made”.

The committee says that it is concerned that identifying fraud and error so late will hinder both recovery efforts and the deterrent effect in future crises.

BEIS officials did seek ministerial directions on these schemes “highlighting some of the risks posed by fraud” but “did not sufficiently identify or reflect the potential risks from organised economic crime”, said the report.

The number of new companies registered in 2020-21 rose by more than 20% compared to any of the previous five years – the PAC says 170,000 new companies at the start of a national lockdown “would certainly appear to be a warning sign warranting closer scrutiny”.

BEIS also distributed £21.8bn of grant funding through local authorities but “lacks information on recipients” of this funding – it has only estimated the level of fraud and error in under half these grants, but already expects over £1bn of that to be lost.

Dame Meg Hillier, chair of the PAC, said: “BEIS says it saw this risk coming but it’s really not clear where Government was looking when it set up its initial Covid response. It offered an open goal to fraudsters and embezzlers and they have cashed in, adding billions and billions to taxpayer woes.

“These lessons should have been learned from the banking crisis a decade ago, and could have been prepared in the Government’s pandemic exercises.  These mistakes must be written out of future crisis responses, now, and Government would do well to apply the learnings to the mounting, interrelated crises it now faces in climate change, energy supply and the cost-of-living.”