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125,000 UK employers have handed back £700m in furlough grants

A pedestrian walks past the headquarters of Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in central London February 13, 2015. British lawmakers plan to call up the bosses of HSBC and the tax authority, HMRC, to quiz them over allegations some clients of HSBC's Swiss private bank evaded tax.     REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth (BRITAIN - Tags: BUSINESS POLITICS CRIME LAW)
HMRC revealed how many companies had repaid furlough cash. Photo: REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth. (Stefan Wermuth / reuters)

UK employers have repaid more than £700m ($975.9m) in furlough grants, in a move welcomed by the UK government.

More than 125,000 organisations have now handed back some or all of their coronavirus job retention scheme (CJRS) subsidies, according to data obtained by Yahoo Finance UK through a freedom of information request.

Almost one in 10 employers has now repaid at least some of the subsidies received, and organisations have returned more than £200m in the past three months alone, the HMRC data shows.

Companies including housebuilders Barratt, Taylor Wimpey and Redrow, retailers Games Workshop and Ikea, outsourcing giant Serco and the Spectator magazine are among those to have announced they would pay back support.

Repayments include corrections for past errors as well as voluntary decisions to return funds to taxpayers however, with no breakdown of the two available from HMRC. The repayments also make up just 1.3% of the £53.8bn claimed by employers under the scheme since the pandemic began.

It comes as chancellor Rishi Sunak announced the furlough scheme would be extended to September ahead of his 2021 Budget speech later on Wednesday.

The furlough scheme was introduced as the pandemic and lockdown hammered the economy last year, in a bid to prevent mass business closures and unemployment. The government offered employers subsidies covering 80% of wages for employees who otherwise risked redundancy, though employers will have to contribute more from July onwards.

READ MORE: Budget 21: Rishi Sunak's 'balancing act' as furlough set for extension

The scheme has provided a lifeline throughout the crisis, supporting more than 11 million jobs in total and 4.7 million roles still furloughed at the end of January. It has been repeatedly extended.

Many employers will welcome more support, and there is little government pressure to ever repay the cash. But the latest data reveals how many employers have still decided to repay previous furlough grants, signalling they either no longer need state help or want taxpayers to have it back.

WATCH: More women furloughed than men as 4.7m workers receive support

HMRC provided figures on how much had been repaid, including both organisations returning them voluntarily and others accounting for previously claiming too much.

Officials confirmed more than 13,000 employers had transferred £446.6m directly into HMRC's coffers as of 18 February. Almost 112,000 organisations repaid cash indirectly by lowering their subsequent furlough claims, with HMRC recouping another £262.3m through such adjustments.

A total of 1.3 million organisations had made claims under the scheme as of 15 February, indicating 9.6% have returned at least some funds, assuming employers did not use both repayment methods.

"HMRC welcomes those employers who have returned CJRS grants to HMRC because they no longer need the grant, or have realised they’ve made errors and followed the guidance on putting things right,” said an HMRC spokesperson.

The spokesperson added that the government had introduced "one of the most generous and comprehensive packages of support in the world" to help protect jobs, businesses.

READ MORE: Business groups call for more help for firms and workers excluded from government help

HMRC has also had to investigate fraudulent claims, with more than 8,000 allegations of fraud made in the first few months of the scheme's launch alone.

Some organisations have handed back other government support. Tesco was quickly joined by several other leading supermarkets last December in announcing it would hand back savings made under a business rate holiday.

Supermarkets' gains were controversial as the temporary tax cut was primarily intended to support struggling retailers forced to close during lockdown, while grocers remained open. Meanwhile Primark is among the employers to have ruled out claiming cash under a planned government jobs retention bonus.

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