Government should have listened to MPs and supported three million members of Excluded UK - Greg Wright

THE revelation that “eye-watering” amounts of taxpayer money have been lost to fraud and error from Covid business support schemes will have a particularly bitter ring for members of Excluded UK.

During the pandemic, millions of law-abiding people saw their incomes collapse because of restrictions imposed by the Government. But they obeyed the rules, stayed at home and did everything they could to protect the NHS during the worst public health crisis in a century.

In return for making these terrible sacrifices, they believed the Government would stop them from falling into poverty and despair. Although the Government intervention saved millions of jobs, an estimated 2.93m people, across several groups, had little or no support from the state during the pandemic. Repeated calls for action to support these excluded individuals did not lead to a decisive Government intervention.

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Members of Excluded UK will have been furious to learn that money that could have been used to feed and clothe honest workers and business owners has simply been squandered.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Gaps in Support published a number of recommendations to extend the Government’s support packages.

Dame Meg Hillier, who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, said that several billion pounds had been added to taxpayers’ troubles due to the Government-sponsored loan schemes.

The British Business Bank, which reports to the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (Beis), was tasked with overseeing the loans, which funnelled tens of billions to companies during lockdown.

“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,” Dame Meg said.

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“It offered an open goal to fraudsters and embezzlers and they have cashed in, adding billions and billions to taxpayer woes.”

Over the lifetime of three loan schemes, Beis guaranteed £79.3 billion in Covid-19 loans to businesses. At current estimates, around £4.9 billion of this is expected to be lost due to fraud and error.

The committee called on Beis to set out how it is doing “everything in its power” to reduce the fraud and error hit that the taxpayer is likely to take from these schemes.

Last year, a number of constructive proposals were submitted on behalf of the excluded groups, after MPs received troubling evidence of the pain they were facing.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Gaps in Support published a number of recommendations to extend the Government’s support packages. In particular, the group called for various policy adjustments to the Self Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS) and the Coronavirus Jobs Retention Scheme (CJRS), to support the newly self-employed, PAYE freelancers, Ltd company directors, new parents and pregnant women. The APPG also called on the Treasury to provide support for the newly employed and those denied furlough.

Last year, I was contacted by a member of Excluded UK, who before Covid, was a co-director with his wife of his own company. They had accrued tens of thousands of pounds of debt, because they had failed to gain meaningful support from the Government. They had also strictly observed every lockdown rule.

He said: “We are the enterprising small businesses the Tories claim to support, but we’ve had next to nothing.”

Another member of Excluded UK said: “I can no longer sell my possessions as I have nothing left, but still my Government mocks me as being a fraud.”

The Government said it had done all it could to support jobs through its £350bn support package, and the UK’s self-employed and furlough schemes had ranked among the most generous in the world.

It has also committed to crack down on Covid support scheme fraud because it “will not tolerate those who seek to defraud consumers and taxpayers”.

If the Government had listened to MPs and campaigning groups, a solution might have been found to a crisis that caused unnecessary anguish for up to three million people. It pays to heed advice from informed sources with constructive proposals.