UK Treasury Pledges to 'Pursue Anyone' Involved in Theft of £5 Billion in COVID Support Money
Last week, UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised that the government would "do everything” it can to recover COVID support funds stolen by fraudsters.
UK Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke has warned that the country's tax service will go after those who swindled an estimated £5 billion ($6.7 billion) in COVID support money from the state.
"We will now pursue anybody who has taken this money fraudulently. And I would urge anyone who's taken that money and didn't really need it to make contact with HMRC [Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs]. Anyone who thinks that they can escape the long arm of the HMRC is making a great mistake", Clarke told Britain's LBC Radio on Monday.
He spoke after the Treasury came under fire on Sunday amid reports that it had rebuffed attempts by the National Crime Agency (NCA) to open a major investigation into COVID handouts fraud.
An unnamed source told The Telegraph that the Treasury said to the NCA: "Butt out of this".
The Daily Mail quoted unnamed sources as saying that the NCA, sometimes referred to as "Britain's FBI", offered to deploy specialist investigators but that Treasury rebuffed the offer, purportedly in order to prevent "embarrassment" over hefty losses.
Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves said that Chancellor Rishi Sunak's "embarrassment or ambition" should not hamper efforts to recover billions of pounds of "public money lost to criminals".
"Ignoring advice about fraud is bad enough, but for the chancellor to turn down support from the National Crime Agency is extraordinary", Reeves said.
A Treasury spokesperson denied the claims, arguing that they "already work with the NCA on Bounce Back Loan Scheme fraud, who take on the most serious cases".
"Fraud is totally unacceptable, and we're taking action on multiple fronts to crack down on anyone who has sought to exploit our schemes and bring them to justice", the spokesperson stressed.
The remarks came after Treasury Minister Lord Theodore Agnew resigned over the government's "woeful" efforts to stop the abuse of pandemic support schemes.
Announcing his resignation in the House of Lords last Monday, Agnew accused the Treasury of having "little interest in the consequences of fraud to our society" and of making "schoolboy errors" over the awarding of COVID support loans.
The Liberal Democrats have, meanwhile, said that the government had "allowed fraudsters to steal billions of taxpayers' money", urging Chancellor Rishi Sunak to explain how he would get the money back.
Sunak earlier tweeted that people were "absolutely right to be" concerned about fraudulently stolen COVID funds, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson
stressed that the government does not "support fraudsters or those who steal from the public purse".