Council recovers most fraudulently claimed COVID-19 business payments

Nearly half a million pounds of public money handed to fraudulent businesses in Wirral has been recovered.

A report presented to Wirral Council’s audit and risk management committee showed that £657,216 was given out in Covid support grants to businesses who claimed they were struggling during the pandemic but later turned out to be fraudulent or wrong claims.

More than £104m was given out to businesses over two years in total but due to checks placed by the council ahead of the money being given out, only 0.6% of this was given to fraudulent or incorrect claimants. These checks included looking at financial records before giving out the money.

Of the £657,216 given out due to fraud or error, Wirral Council has now recovered £488,208 and £97,545 has been referred to the Department for Business and Trade as it related to wider fraudulent activity. The remaining £71,000 is in the process of being recovered.

This money was found as a result of investigations after the pandemic that looked into whether any of the money given out to businesses shouldn’t have been.

According to the council’s chief internal auditor Mark Niblock, the government agreed councils would have to investigate “whether or not the payments that were made have resulted in any kind of actual fraud being committed against the council.”

According to an investigation carried out by Wirral Council, it showed “there were no significant issues or problems identified” but a couple of lessons to be learned. A report put before the committee said the council’s eligibility testing “was effective in preventing and detecting potential frauds.”

Mr Niblock told the committee, “The findings from the work recognise the comprehensive control systems the council did put in place at the front end. This certainly did prevent and allow us to detect a lot of potential fraud being committed against the council.”

He added, “By and large those controls served us well. When I talk to my peer colleagues around the regions, we are certainly in a much better place than many of them are who didn’t have the wherewithal to implement up front controls and just got payments out the door and they are now suffering as a result of that. It’s a good news story.”

Wirral Council is also in the process of recovering nearly £30,000 in fraud linked to housing benefits as well as council tax support and discounts. This is following investigations into allegations of fraudulent activity reported to the council.

Image: Birkenhead Town Hall, where Wirral Council meetings now take place

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