The government has received nearly 800 reports of suspected fraud of its job retention scheme, launched less than a month ago.
The tax authority, HMRC, which is responsible for overseeing the furlough scheme under which the government pays 80% of the wages of those who cannot work because of the coronavirus lockdown, said it was assessing the fraud reports and anyone with further information could make a report online.
The government hotline for reporting fraud is currently not operating, because the vast majority of HMRC staff are working from home and it is not possible to divert such calls to their mobile phones.
HMRC said it was “committed to ensuring the tax systems we operate are used fairly and efficiently, and where necessary will take action to ensure compliance with the relevant rules, regulations and legislation that govern the UK taxation systems. We value all the information provided to us by members of the public aimed at helping us achieve that goal”.
A spokesperson added: “We’d ask anyone concerned that their employer might be abusing the scheme to please contact us. It could be that you’re not being paid what you’re entitled to, they might be asking you to work while you’re on furlough, or they may have claimed for times when you were working.”
The spokesperson said that HMRC would assess each report and would help put right “a genuine mistake”. They added that reports of fraud were only one way that claims were checked and payments may be withheld or would have to be repaid if they were based on dishonest or inaccurate information.
“We won’t hesitate to take criminal action against the most serious cases,” the spokesperson said.
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Dishonestly making a false representation to HMRC with the intention of obtaining a payment under the furlough scheme is an offence of fraud. Any company director found guilty of abusing the system could face up to 10 years imprisonment and unlimited fines. Those who assist in the fraud could face similar punishment.
The Guardian has received reports from at least 10 members of the public who say they have been asked to work while on furlough.
A finance worker told the Guardian she had been given the impression that if she didn’t work she would be fired. “Knowing that my company is fraudulently making us work while taking money from the government is really impacting my mental health. If I don’t work I lose my job and cannot pay my bills. If I report the company now, and the government stops paying my company, I might be the reason people don’t get paid,” she said.
Another worker in the retail industry said his employer continued to request he carried out tasks while on furlough. But, he said: “I’ve stayed firm and not completed the tasks for fear of not being eligible for the furlough scheme.”
A woman employed in the arts sector said she felt blackmailed into working, despite knowing it was against the law. “I could lose my job by not working. Colleagues could be complicit in fraud for continuing to work as they’ve been scared into doing,” she said.
One woman, in digital marketing, said she’d been asked to work as normal, despite being on furlough. She said staff were told “we’d lose business otherwise and there was a loophole where this was OK, as it could be classed as training”.
She added: “There seems to be hardly any checking on the process for furloughing staff.”
The government announced on Tuesday that it is extending the scheme until October. It said 7.5 million people were now having 80% of their wages covered by the furlough policy.
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