RISHI Sunak has been forced to deny ‘writing off’ billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money lost to fraudsters under Covid-19 support schemes.
The Chancellor acknowledged that “criminals have sought to exploit our support programs”, but added: “We will do everything we can to recover this money and prosecute those who have profited from the pandemic”.
Treasury Minister Lord Agnew of Oulton left the government at the shipping box for the ‘schoolboy’ treatment of fraudulent Covid business loans.
Parliament has heard the Treasury plans to write off around £4.3billion of Covid loans, with the money going to ‘fraudsters’. The Treasury has since disputed that figure.
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Sunak, writing on Twitter, said: “Many people are concerned about fraud in our Covid support measures and they are absolutely right to be.
“No, I don’t ignore it, and I certainly don’t forget it.”
He described the investments to fix the problem before adding: “The vast majority of people have done the right thing, but we are still dealing with incorrect claims.
“Last year we stopped or recovered nearly £2.2bn of potential bounceback loan fraud and £743m of overclaimed furlough grants.”
Sunak then defended the need to urgently provide money to businesses during the pandemic.
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson had appeared to indicate he disagreed with the cancellation of £4.3billion of support scheme fraud.
Labour’s Kate Osamor asked: “Has the Prime Minister agreed to the Chancellor reversing £4.3billion worth of fraud? That’s £154 for every household in the country that went straight into the pockets of fraudsters .”
The Prime Minister replied: “No, of course not. We do not support fraudsters or those who steal public funds.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman then insisted that Johnson was saying he did not condone fraud, rather than disagreeing with the Chancellor.
“I thought he was asked more if he was happy with the fraud, that’s what I took from it,” the spokesperson said.
A pressing question was then asked in the Commons over delays in legislation promised to tackle economic crime.
Former Tory minister John Penrose said: “Based on what Lord Agnew has said, if this were to be true, may I please urge (the minister) to consider that it will be about as popular than a cup of cold with anyone out there who cares about fighting corruption, or fighting for transparency.
“The well of excuses after three or four years of promising this bill, or its related elements, has now dried up, and is absolutely essential to the credibility of this country and this government, especially at a time where we have a crisis in Ukraine and all sorts of Russian oligarchs waiting to transfer money to that country if they can, and there are questions … about fundamental integrity issues about Westminster here today today.
Business Secretary Paul Scully said the government remained ‘intact in our approach to tackling economic crime’ as well as ‘business chamber reform’ as he answered an urgent question from the Tory Kevin Hollinrake.
However, he did not confirm whether the government would drop plans for a new law to tackle economic crime.
Scully said: “I’m sure he understands that I’m not going to speculate on the content of a future Queen’s Speech. This is where the Government will set its legislative agenda for the next session of Parliament.
“However, I can confirm that the government is committed to tackling economic crime.”