In the pandemic £27bn worth of fraud was committed – why aren’t we angrier?

The small business bounce-back loan scheme could end up costing enough to pay for the universal credit uplift four times over. Yet there has been no outcry

Last modified on Wed 13 Oct 2021 16.34 EDT

We have never been far from fury since the start of the pandemic. There’s all the anger at the government’s handling of it and, conversely, anger at those being angry about the government’s handling of it. People got annoyed enough about their neighbours taking a second daily walk to call the police on them.

Even when the good news started coming, far from the rage abating, it rose. The process of unlocking the lockdowns got us more fired up than the locking down in the first place. OK, it has been a tricky time, we are all under pressure and tempers flare. But why is it – at a time when actual fights break out over such things as wearing or not wearing masks – that we are not all hopping mad about the billions of pounds worth of fraud perpetrated on taxpayers?

The sums are astonishing. In June, provoking no great outcry that I can recall, the public accounts committee wrote: “The Department for Business … estimates the bounce-back loan scheme could cost the taxpayer £27bn in fraud or credit losses, with the 100% taxpayer guarantee leaving the department ‘reliant on banks that it admits lack incentives given it is not their money on the line’.” The scheme, you may remember, helped small and medium-sized businesses borrow between £2,000 and £50,000.

No, it is not the banks’ money on the line, or the government’s; it is ours. Perhaps the very size of the sums is part of the reason we don’t engage with them. One bloke on a bus without a mask is infuriating, but billions of pounds stolen from us is just a statistic. There has been a great deal of perfectly understandable anger about the government’s withdrawal of the universal credit uplift. Less understandable is the absence of anger about the effective theft of a sum – and this is just from the loan scheme – that could have covered the cost of retaining the uplift four times over.

The committee said that the government “‘significantly increased’ taxpayer exposure to fraud and error with its twin decisions to drop basic fraud and error checks in paying out Covid-19 loans, and to support people and businesses that it had no prior relationship with”. I am not sure how much blame we can attach to the government on this. The money was needed in a hurry, so it was handed out without the usual checks.

One of the mantras at the time was “to trust and protect”. On the “trust” bit of that, it seems to me an awful lot of us were found wanting. Hundreds of thousands of people have been, to put it bluntly, taking the piss. Most of them would have been taxpayers themselves, which might be another reason why we are decidedly relaxed about it. After all, taxpayers robbing the government has got a bit of Robin Hood about it; all’s fair in love and taxation. Frame it as taxpayers robbing taxpayers and it is less Robin Hood, more Dumb and Dumber.

Personally, I am not in the habit of calling the police on my neighbours for anything, unless I suspect violence is involved. But I would have been more likely to make a call about this kind of stuff than someone going out for a walk with a couple of mates or even having them round for dinner.

Given the often deserved stick the government gets, I am baffled as to why it doesn’t occasionally turn around and say something along the lines of: “Look, folks, if so many of you hadn’t robbed the system blind, we might have been able to keep the uplift going for many years yet.” I have even come to wonder whether they have taken the view that, ill-gotten or not, the money was going into the economy, and that is no bad thing.

I am trying not to judge anyone too harshly here, but sometime down the line we are all going to be asked what we did during the pandemic. At that point, those who claimed furlough for staff they didn’t employ, or worked for cash while they were furloughed, or took out loans never to be paid back to buy nice things for which the money was never intended, may or may not choose to boast about it.

Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist

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