Politics

Minister quits over Covid fraud ‘failure’ - here’s how that money could be spent

Lord Agnew quit as the minister for counter fraud on Monday over government’s “desperately inadequate” attempts to tackle fraud.

Lord Agnew fraud

Lord Agnew sensationally said "thank you and goodbye" as he quit his role as minister for counter fraud on Monday. Image: Parliament

Lord Theodore Agnew stunned peers on Monday when he quit as the minister for counter fraud over the government’sschoolboy errors” and “desperately inadequate” response to tackling Covid fraud.

The peer dramatically rounded off his speech in the House of Lords with “thank you and goodbye” after slamming departments for failing to prevent an estimated £29bn of fraud across government.

Lord Agnew took particular aim at bounce-back loans which were put in place to support businesses through the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic. The Treasury has written off £4.3bn in fraudulent claims. Lord Agnew claimed that 1,000 loans were paid out to firms that weren’t even trading and that in total the government had spent £47bn on the scheme.

He told the Lords he was quitting to show that tightening up counter-fraud measures could reduce the £29bn lost through fraud to boost the taxpayer by slashing income tax.

“It matters for all the obvious reasons, but there is a penny of income tax waiting to be claimed here if we just woke up,” said Lord Agnew. “Total fraud loss across government is estimated at £29 billion a year. Of course, not all can be stopped, but a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance freezes the government machine.

“Action taken today will give this government a sporting chance of cutting income tax before a likely May 2024 election. If my removal helps that to happen, it will have been worth it.”

In response to Lord Agnew’s speech, a Downing Street spokesperson said: “We’ve always been clear fraud is unacceptable and are taking action against those abusing the system.”

But if leaders are able to take action on fraud and return £29bn back to the public coffers, it could give a welcome boost to spending in other areas. Here are a few suggestions.

The money could pay for an extra 820,000 NHS nurses

The pandemic has pushed NHS staff to the limit with 27,000 calling it quits as part of ‘The Great Resignation‘ following draining long shifts, burnout and traumatic spells helping patients battle Covid.

With the virus still putting the health service under pressure, there is an urgent need to fill those roles.

An extra £29bn would certainly help. With an NHS nurse earning on average of £35,340 per year – according to the Royal College of Nursing, taking into account earnings from working unsocial hours, extra shifts or on-call payments – that would pay for an extra 820,599 extra nurses.

The money could pay for around 12 billion free school meals

The money spent on feeding children who need free school meals to stave off hunger has been a hot topic throughout the pandemic, mostly thanks to the efforts of Marcus Rashford.

The Manchester United and England striker has forced a number of government U-turns on paying for kids to have access to food during school holidays and forced ministers to commit funds to make sure no child goes hungry.

Rashford would certainly welcome £29bn extra to help in his mission.

Westminster pays a flat rate of £2.30 for every child per free school meal in England and around 1.7m kids receive the food – a cost of around £700m per year. If the £29bn recovered from fraud was to be put towards free school dinners, it would pay for 12.6bn meals in England.

The money could pay for more than half the UK’s energy bills

The cost of living crisis is starting to bite and is set to get worse in April when rising energy prices turn up the heat on low-income households already facing soaring prices and bills from all sides.

The new energy price cap is set to be announced next month and will come into force in April but rising energy prices are an inevitability given the rising demand for gas that is pushing up prices globally.

Investment bank Investec has estimated the energy price cap will have to be lifted to £1,995-a-year per household from April. 

With 27.8 million households in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics’ most recent count, the maximum that the whole of the UK could be paying for their energy would be around £55.4bn a year.

Recovering £29bn in fraud could pay for just over half – 52 per cent – of UK households’ total energy bill if the price cap does reach forecasted levels in April.

The money could pay for annual homelessness funding 45 times over

Rishi Sunak announced that £640m per year of Westminster government money would go towards tackling homelessness and rough sleeping for the next three years, working out at around a £2bn investment up until 2024.

The Conservatives committed to ending rough sleeping across England by 2024 as a manifesto commitment made ahead of the 2019 General Election. Although a review into how rough sleeping was handled during the Covid-19 pandemic – the Kerslake Commission – found that an extra £82m a year would be needed to hit the Tories’ target.

An additional £29bn would certainly help in that mission – that is 45 times the annual amount of money spent on tackling homelessness every year.

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The money could pay for 116 British ambassadorial yachts

Since it was announced last year, the royal yacht that is set to sail the seas to boost British trade has become a go-to example of splurging taxpayers’ cash.

And just think how many of the £250m yachts you could buy with £29bn! It’s 116.

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