Chancellor Rishi Sunak is set to announce a £100m ($139m) major fraud taskforce at next week’s Budget to crack down on criminals exploiting UK government support schemes.
The Taxpayer Protection Taskforce will be staffed by more than 1,250 HMRC operatives. They will be responsible for detecting and investigating those who have fraudulently claimed taxpayer’s money through schemes such as furlough and the Self Employment Income Support Scheme (SEISS).
The finance minister will unveil the UK-wide taskforce as part of a package of measures to tackle fraud and abuse that will also include raising awareness of enforcement action in order to deter criminal activity.
HMRC currently has a system in place to counteract fraud, in which it works through payment data, PAYE records, other information, and reports from the public to identify potential wrongdoing.
HMRC have opened around 10,000 inquiries into suspected fraudulent activity and have in some instances begun criminal investigations.
However, Sunak has previously come under scrutiny for leaving the furlough and business loans schemes open to exploitation. Criminals are believed to have stolen billions of pounds by posing as legitimate businesses.
Experts have estimated that up to half of the £45bn lent under the Bounce Back Loans scheme may be lost to defaults and fraud.
“Our coronavirus support schemes have helped millions of honest, hard-working people – but a small minority have seen this pandemic as an opportunity to defraud the taxpayer,” Sunak said.
“This will not be tolerated – which is why the new taskforce will crack down on this criminal activity.”
During the crisis, fraudulent activity has included businesses furloughing for more people than they employ, and claiming furlough for employees who have continued to work. Other examples include making substantial Eat Out to Help Out claims despite furloughing all workers.
Arrests secured by HMRC so far include the arrest of a West Midlands man on suspicion of £495,000 furlough fraud.
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The plans will be revealed on 3 March, when Sunak will deliver his second budget.
He is expected to extend the current COVID-19 support schemes until summer and to unveil a £126m investment to bolster training programmes across England as part of the government's Plan for Jobs. The move will see 40,000 new traineeships created.
A new "flexi-job" apprenticeship programme will also be launched, which will allow apprentices to work with more than one employer across a sector. This will see individuals linked with an agency as opposed to a single employer.
The government has also said that from July, employers will be able to bid for money from a £7m fund to create new agencies. The first “flexi-job” apprenticeships are expected to commence in January 2022.
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