Tax inspectors probe 240 furlough fraud cases in Norfolk and Suffolk
- Credit: PA
Tax inspectors are investigating 240 cases of furlough fraud across Norfolk and Suffolk, we can reveal.
The furlough scheme - otherwise known as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) - has cost the UK taxpayer £57.7bn between March 2020 and March 2021 and been credited with avoiding mass redundancies.
But allegations of employers exploiting the public purse by making false claims or asking employees to work despite being furloughed have been rife.
In response to a Freedom of Information request from this newspaper, HMRC said it had received 27,227 fraud reports nationally about the CJRS as of April 14.
It said there were 240 ongoing investigations in Norfolk and Suffolk, with 21 having a "positive outcome". This means fraud or an error was found and a repayment figure agreed with the business.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak revealed in March he was investing £100m into an 1250-strong taskforce to investigate wrongdoing in the furlough scheme.
There have been several arrests of people suspected of cheating the public revenue, such as a pair from Bradford thought to have conned the taxpayer out of £3.4m, but HMRC confirmed no arrests have been made in Norfolk or Suffolk.
Matt Lane, a 43-year-old engineer living in Great Yarmouth, reported a former employer to HMRC for what he believes was furlough fraud.
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He claims he was forced to work while on furlough between April and June - eventually quitting his job because he no longer felt "morally able" to "cheat the taxman".
In a text seen by this newspaper, his employer said to his staff last year: "With regards to the furlough system, I looked this morning and it's still not operational. But if I still think that people are not going to support the company and the needs of places we serve then I'm not going to waste my time and lock the doors."
Mr Lane said the months he was on full furlough and working were "incredibly stressful".
"I knew it was wrong and tried to object, but it was made out to us by the boss that if we didn't keep working there wouldn't be any jobs left for us to go back to", he said.
"I was going into places where I was told there'd been outbreaks of 'the bug'. It was madness."
His employer, however, denied anyone worked for him while they were on full furlough, but admitted he did ask them to.
He said: "At the beginning I was confused about what the system meant and when it became operational, but that was quickly clarified.
"At the end of the day, even if they were asked, none of our former employees can prove they were ever actually made to physically work while on full furlough."
What is furlough and when does it end?
Furlough covers up to 80pc of an employee's salary for the hours they can't work, up to a maximum of £2,500 per month.
Its aim was to allow companies to continue employing their workers during lockdown.
But this meant an employee could not undertake work for or on behalf of the employer's organisation while on furlough.
Since last summer, employers have been able to bring back workers part-time and furlough them for the rest. This involves employers paying employees' wages for the hours they work as normal.
But MPs warned in October that rushed-through coronavirus aid may have led to "unacceptable room for fraud against taxpayers".
An estimate by HMRC last year suggested that up to 10pc of the money delivered by the scheme may have been paid out in fraud or error, which would equate to £5.77bn by March 2021.
So far, HMRC has opened more than 10,000 CJRS fraud cases where claimants are required to provide supporting evidence.
Where people had engaged in deliberate fraudulent behaviour, it said steps would be taken to recover public money.
-Have you been affected by furlough fraud? Email our reporter Sarah Burgess at firstname.lastname@example.org