Fraudsters target fund set up to help Sunderland businesses through lockdown
Fraudulent and incomplete claims could be delaying vital payments to Sunderland businesses, according to one city boss.
More than £33million has been handed out to Wearside firms so far under a government scheme to keep them afloat during the COVID-19 crisis.
But while staff at Sunderland City Council are working flat out to approve grants, Graeme Miller, the leader of the council, warned they face barriers to completing the process.
“The problem for us was we got quite a lot of errors in the paperwork – we cannot process them if they’re wrong,” said Coun Miller.
“We’ve also had people trying to defraud the system.
“We’ve got to look at everything very carefully, this is public money and the team looking at this are working their socks off.”
In response to the coronavirus outbreak the government ploughed £12.3billion into its Small Business Grants Scheme.
This saw Sunderland allocated almost £53million, with about 4,300 companies identified as potentially eligible for payouts.
Within two days of receiving the government cash the city council had made at least 250 payments, totalling £3.34million.
As of Friday, April 24, the value of approved 2,947 grants amounted to £33.1million.
Coun Robert Oliver, leader of the city’s opposition Conservative group, said: “This is a hugely challenging time for businesses, especially for the firms that are at the heart of our local community in Sunderland where there are many family-owned and small-to-medium businesses that will need support to survive the lockdown.
“It’s reassuring to know that the support announced by the Government has reached businesses in Sunderland and is helping to protect people’s livelihoods.
“However, we would urge the council to expedite the process to help other businesses in Sunderland who desperately need this support”.
Coun Miller, who has led the council’s ruling Labour Party group since 2018, praised ministers for their initial steps to combat the economic damage caused by the virus.
But he also warned they had been too slow to react to the changing situation since then, particularly in relation to the impact on charities, sole traders, the self-employed and other small businesses.
He added: “The amount of money this is adding up to is eye-watering, but if we want an economy that will work for us after the virus then the government has to do this.
“I think the government did a decent job at the start, but they’ve not been quick enough to fix the loopholes.”
A host of other government initiatives have also been launched to help firms and workers through the crisis, including the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme.
But industry leaders have warned some companies may need more assistance to access the available provision.
Jonathan Walker, assistant director of policy, North East England Chamber of Commerce, said: “We haven’t heard of any of our members having problems with these application forms but companies are under a huge amount of pressure at present, so may need support to get all of the right information needed.
“We know it is extremely urgent companies get the funding they need to get through this current Covid19 crisis.”