The Guardian view on a Tory resignation: a minister goes over government failure

The hallmarks of this government have been its cavalier disregard for integrity, accountability and honesty. But there are exceptions; Lord Agnew’s resignation shows ministers can do the right thing. The counter-fraud minister decided to leave over the alarming scale of pilfering taking place under the government’s coronavirus support scheme, and colleagues’ apparent unwillingness to do anything about it. His departure should be a wake-up call.

Since May 2020, around £50bn had been lent out to firms under the government-backed Covid loan scheme. The National Audit Office last December warned it had “limited verification, and no credit checks on borrowers, which made it vulnerable to fraud and losses”. The government also chose not to disclose the companies in receipt of Bounce Back loans, leaving ministers open to accusations that there was something to hide. Lord Agnew agreed, saying “desperately inadequate” efforts were made to stop government cash being stolen. The Tory peer thought that Covid loan fraud ran as high as 26%, which suggests the state handed over £10bn to thieves. The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, denied “ignoring” fraudulently claimed Covid support funds, saying he would recover looted monies. Lord Agnew thinks doing so would give Mr Sunak a “sporting chance of cutting income tax before a likely May 2024 election”. This is true under the Treasury’s fiscal rules. Labour says recouping such losses would mean hardly any need for a national insurance hike.

On offer from the government were advances of up to £50,000, or a maximum of 25% of annual turnover, to support businesses during the pandemic. More than 1.5m loans were made. Yet there are only about 1.4m UK private sector businesses with employees. That more than 100% of UK businesses could have taken advantage of self-certified loans that were granted in 24 hours and for which the state was wholly liable should have rung alarm bells. Lord Agnew said schoolboy errors were made; more than 1,000 companies received state loans that were not even trading when Covid struck. Counter-fraud measures weren’t put in place. Simple acts could have helped. David Clarke, the former chair of the Fraud Advisory Panel, proposed to MPs last year that a centralised bank data repository could have identified long-dormant company accounts that received government cash. Companies House fails to undertake basic checks on its corporate register. Inexplicably, ministers have shelved long-promised plans to overhaul it.

The former minister blames the banks for the losses. Lenders had no reason to implement checks as there was a 100% state guarantee for non-payment. Honest businesses needed the money to pay the rent. This cash helped landlords pay their mortgages – which in turn kept banks flush with cash. Bankers also make money by creating and selling mortgage derivatives, a financial investment instrument that depends on the underlying value of property loans. If they went bad, then potentially billions of pounds in the Square Mile might be affected. No wonder many finance houses are reporting record profits. The suspicion is that losing £10bn to fraud might have been seen as an acceptable price to pay to keep the UK’s jewel in the crown – the City – safe from harm. But if that is the case, then it is just another example of how finance has become an end in itself, unhinged from the economy and from the people and businesses it ought to serve.

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