Richard Walton: The Government must act to prevent Coronavirus fraud

12 Jul

Richard Walton is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange and a former Head of Counter-Terrorism Command of the Metropolitan Police.

In normal times, the NHS loses £1.27 billion a year to fraud, which is the equivalent of fulfilling the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledge of employing an additional 50,000 nurses. New research by Policy Exchange in a paper entitled Daylight Robbery – Uncovering the true cost of public sector fraud in the age of COVID-19 has found that fraud and error during the Coronavirus crisis will cost the Government an eye-watering sum about three and half times that – in the region of £4.6 billion.

Fraud is only exacerbated in a crisis, such as the pandemic we are facing now. It has been well documented that disasters are a magnet for fraud, as crisis management involves an outpouring of government aid, typically accompanied by low levels of due diligence to allow funds to reach recipients quickly.

In a foreword to the report, David Blunkett warns that criminals will use the Covid-19 crisis to “dip below the radar in order to be able to take advantage of unusual and unforeseen circumstances, and bank on attention and resources being focused elsewhere”.

Detecting and preventing fraud is a key element of sound public finances, and should therefore be a priority for this Government. It is not reasonable to expect the public to hand over a share of their income month after month if it’s not responsibly managed. Considering the pressure that will emerge after the Coronavirus crisis to keep costs down, reducing fraud will be one of the most equitable and achievable options available and will help the Government to achieve other objectives, such as levelling up the UK economy.

Unlike Covid-19, there is a dangerous perception that fraud does not have much impact on victims. There is a particular tendency to see public sector fraud – fraud committed against the government – as a crime that doesn’t affect ordinary people.

This is wrong. It affects the future of children when income tax is diverted from their education and is funnelled towards organised crime networks. It affects the most vulnerable in our society when they have to wait longer to receive benefits, because the Department of Work and Pensions is busy filtering through the almost one in five Universal Credit applications that are fraudulent.  It can even result in substandard treatments from an NHS doctor who lied about his qualifications on his CV. The Government believes that fraud and error cost the taxpayer anywhere between £2.8 billion and £22.6 billion in 2017-18 alone. This level of fraud is damaging to the fabric of society and cannot be allowed to continue.

While the Chancellor’s rapid action to save the economy has been a welcome necessity, the generosity and speed with which support schemes were introduced has left them open to exploitation by fraudsters. Furthermore, the increased use of third parties and digital channels have raised the opportunities for fraudsters to infiltrate the system.

For example, the speed with which Bounce Back Loans are approved (82 per cent of loans approved compared to 50 per cent for the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme), and the potential to make multiple applications poses a particular fraud risk, which is compounded by the poor quality of Companies House data.

When face-to-face assessments for Universal Credit (UC) were suspended in July 2018, there was an almost 15,000 jump in the number of monthly referrals of suspected advances fraud over the course of the following year, costing up to £150 million. We can therefore expect the decision to suspend face-to-face assessments again due to Covid-19 to have a similar effect.

The Government has implemented a range of measures to try and tackle this, with the Cabinet Office forming a Covid-19 Counter Fraud Response Team and the NHS Counter Fraud Authority, the Home Office and the National Cyber Security Centre offering advice.

Nevertheless, over the course of the Coronavirus crisis, HMRC has already received 1,800 reports of furlough fraud and the NHS has been subject to numerous PPE scams. Last week, the HMRC Fraud investigation team arrested an individual in the Solihull area as part of an investigation into a suspected £495,000 fraud of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

The issue of tackling fraud is compounded by the difficulty of detecting it, and the complex nature of recording and reporting it. According to the Crime Survey for England and Wales, almost two thirds of fraud goes unreported, and the Government believes that it is currently detecting less than two per cent of public sector fraud. The services available to report fraud are linked to a complex web of organisations, which must be streamlined to become more effective. Even when fraud is eventually detected, it is underreported as unwittingly complicit employees fear the stigma around fraud, while government departments are wary of the negative media attention it attracts.

Fighting fraud effectively is expensive, but it is imperative that the Government continues to invest in this field, regardless of other fiscal pressures. It will be essential that the Government conducts thorough post event assurance in the wake of this crisis, a process that should be overseen by a new ‘Covid-19 Economic Crime Hub’, run by the National Economic Crime Centre, with a Minister for Economic Crime appointed and accountable for the outcomes.

According to Sajid Javid, who also backed the report, “now is a good time to join up counter fraud measures to keep it to an absolute minimum”. Technology will play a critical role in enabling investigators to operate at a sufficient scale and the Government must make use of the latest innovations in anti-fraud technologies, while ensuring the Covid-19 Economic Crime Hub has access to cross-government data.

Looking beyond the pandemic, it will be vital that the Government learns the lessons from this crisis, which has exposed weaknesses in the UK’s digital infrastructure. In particular, the limitations of public sector identity assurance systems has enabled fraud at a larger scale than necessary.

The Government should therefore accelerate the creation of digital identity solutions, such as the Departmet of Work and Pensions Confirm My Identity scheme. Furthermore, the use of AI and Document Review Technologies, which are the most promising counter-fraud measures available, should be encouraged. In one Serious Fraud Office case, these saved 80 per cent of the costs and time required for an investigation, which settled for £671 million.

However, these programmes rely on high-quality data to operate effectively and their success will also be dependent on improved public and private sector data-sharing practices. The constantly evolving nature of fraud will require continuous investment and commitment from the Government to fighting it.

Chris Greany, a former UK National Police Coordinator for Counter Fraud & Economic Crime described to Policy Exchange the scale of the challenge of public sector fraud as needing a joined up effort with “real bite”  to “recoup lost funds, prevent further crime and deter others from this unlawful and immoral behaviour”. The Government will need to act quickly to prevent fraud scandals emerging from the embers of the Coronavirus crisis.

Alan Mak: Reform capital allowances and R&D tax credits to fire up investment and create jobs

1 Jul

Alan Mak is MP for Havant and Founder of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Improving Britain’s productivity is key to both our economic recovery after Coronavirus and enhancing our global competitiveness post-Brexit. The best lever for firing up Britain’s productivity is incentivising more investment in the latest IT and software, new plant and advanced machinery – all proven catalysts of growth and efficiency. Failure to direct billions of pounds into these fundamental building blocks of our economy will hold back our recovery.

The State cannot be expected to do all the heavy lifting, especially given the Government’s substantial spending commitments to help the country through the lockdown and beyond. Instead, it must be businesses that take the lead, especially SMEs who have traditionally made up the “long tail” of unproductive companies.

Rather than a safety-first approach of hoarding cash, postponing investment and hunkering down, businesses must be incentivised to invest more in the coming months. This must be an economic recovery powered by bold investment decisions that create jobs, upgrade technology and boost productivity.

The dampening effect on capital expenditure (capex) and investment caused by Coronavirus is already large and destructive. One investment bank estimates that £23 billion has been slashed from this year’s capex budgets already, whilst the Bank of England predicts a 26 per cent drop in business investment for 2020. In 2009, as the financial crisis erupted, the fall was 16 per cent by comparison. Some of the country’s biggest employers such as BP and HSBC have already started cutting investment.

In practice this means IT systems and software – now at the heart of every business – being used for longer. Machines normally replaced every decade will have their life extended. Trucks and vans will be allowed to age. Outdated buildings that offer no room for new employees will be kept on. Research and development (R&D) could stall.

Reductions in investment not only have negative consequences for our country’s GDP, jobs and productivity, it also damages our capacity for R&D and our reputation as a nation that innovates for the future – key to our leadership of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Reforming and adapting two existing incentive schemes – the Annual Investment Allowance and the R&D Tax Credit – would have a major impact in reversing this decline in business investment and productivity.

Introduce a new Annual Investment Allowance ceiling for green or digital investments

Capital allowances enable a business to deduct the cost of qualifying items from their profits, lowering their corporation tax bill. This incentivises investment in key productive goods from machines to laptops.

The Annual Investment Allowance (AIA) is the annual cap on such deductions and its level has varied dramatically in recent years from £25,000 in 2012 to £500,000 in 2015. Until December 2018, the AIA was £200,000 but it was raised to its current £1M level from January 2019. The £1 million level is due to expire this December.

To encourage a green recovery and investments that focus on digitisation, the AIA could be allowed to fall back to the previous £200,000 ceiling, except for certain types of capital expenditure that achieve environmental or digital goals which would still benefit from the £1 million special ceiling. Replacing a diesel-powered machine on the factory floor with one powered by electricity, or digitising a production line by adding new software powered by artificial intelligence (AI), could be examples of investment that would be rewarded by the new special AIA ceiling.

Alongside the introduction of a special £1 million ceiling, the scope of what can be claimed through capital allowances should also be expanded to take account of the growing digital dimensions of every business. For example, digital tools purchased on a subscription basis (such as monthly website hosting costs) should benefit from relief not just one-off investments in physical goods (such as buying a new machine).

Increase R&D tax relief rates for SMEs and widen the scope of the reliefs

R&D tax reliefs support companies that work on innovative projects in science and technology, and enables the cost of qualifying projects to be reclaimed from HMRC. They’re especially effective for digital start-ups, who get a tax break and much needed cashflow back for critical work.

From April this year the relief rate is 13 per cent, but the lion’s share of R&D tax relief is claimed by large, research-intensive businesses. SMEs can currently claim up to 14.5 per cent in certain circumstances, but incremental increases such as this do not have a dramatic effect on investment appetite.

Often the most cutting-edge innovation, especially in the digital sphere, is carried out by small teams and growing start-ups – not just multinationals. To encourage more micro businesses and SMEs to pursue more R&D, new and much higher rates of relief should be introduced. For example, a rate of 25 per cent for SMEs with fewer than 150 employees, and 35 per cent for SMEs with fewer than 50 employees.

What qualifies for relief must also be broadened to include more of the digital tools that software developers use, including software testing tools and data analytics software. In addition, cloud storage fees, user experience development work and the cost of buying data sets needed to train algorithms for AI-driven start-ups should also be tax deductible.

Britain is currently 19th out of the 37 industrialised nations in the OECD when it comes to R&D investment, spending 1.7 per cent of GDP against the OECD average of 2.4 per cent. To match world leaders including Germany and Japan, who invest over three per cent, we must urgently update and expand our R&D tax relief regime.

This is the second in a three-part series on how to boost our economy after Coronavirus.