BUSINESSES may have defrauded the taxpayer to the tune of almost £800,000 by falsely claiming Covid-19 support grants.
And Tameside Council says making sure claims were genuine was the reason behind any perceived lag in paying out.
It is also ready to pursue claims to the value of almost £250,000 through the courts once it finds out the Government’s prosecution policy.
The figures were revealed in an annual report by the authority’s risk and management services department, which looks at all forms of false benefit claims.
It found a total of 98 fraud investigations in the borough, of which 78 related to Covid-19 business support grants.
The combined value is £884,043 – £784,405 surrounding grants – and only £137,769 was cleared.
Another £301,000 was stopped before being paid out while another £115,636 is being looked at.
As things stand, £230,000 is being recovered by invoice but that may turn into prosecutions once Downing Street decides in a policy.
Head of risk management and audit services Wendy Poole believes getting word from Boris Johnson’s administration will enable councils across the country to tackle the problem, which is even linked to organised crime.
She told a meeting of Tameside Council’s audit panel: “It’s an outstanding number of frauds. The highest number we’ve ever had.
“The majority refer to the business support grant – 54 of the 78 were about business grants and 24 the discretionary grant we’ve given.
“There are still a number of cases the team is looking at to determine if the application is payable or whether it’s been paid and there is a fraud involved.
“Some authorities in Greater Manchester dealt with this quite differently. We have insisted on making sure we were involved in making sure proper procedures were in place.
“I know that did cause some frustration and some changes were made to some of them but from the number of frauds we found and they way people were committing them, I think we were right in adopting them.
“We owed it to legitimate business to make sure the money went the correct and rightful applicants and not some of those that are actually part of organised crime.
“There are major fraud rings working across the UK, there was a significant risk of fraud, which I think we were correct in addressing.
“But in terms of prosecutions, we’re still awaiting the guidance from central Government. At present, all we can actually do is send invoices asking people to repay money but we’re still chasing the Government for the prosecutions policy.
“It isn’t actually the council’s money. It’s the Government’s we were given to administer on their behalf.”
A report adds: “Investigations are conducted by two members of the internal audit team under the direction of a principal auditor and the head of risk management and audit services to ensure consistency of approach.
“All cases were investigated using the approved standard protocol and procedure, which complies with best practice.
“A control report is produced in the majority of cases for management to ensure that corrective action is taken where possible to ensure that the control environment is improved therefore minimising the risk of similar irregularities occurring in the future.”
And leader of Tameside Council, Cllr Brenda Warrington, who was there as an observer, believes the caution taken in paying out was correct.
She said: “I was aware in the early days of us having to deal with these grants and some of the comments and frustrations that were being expressed, for example, ‘Tameside aren’t paying out as quickly as another authority.’
“It’s easy in hindsight but I agreed with it at the time, the fact we were taking our time to do our best to ensure the applications that were being made were correct and not fraudulent was the right way to do it.
“In a way, it put a stop on some of organised criminal activities we know were going on elsewhere, even thought it meant a slight hold up for some businesses.”