Employees are blowing the whistle on their companies after being forced to falsely claim they are furloughed so their bosses can make tens of thousands at the expense of taxpayers.
The two main whistleblowing organisations in the UK say they have been “inundated” with calls from workers who have been bullied into continuing to work while their firms claim 80 per cent of their salaries from the HMRC by classifying them as furloughed.
Protect, the main UK whistleblowing charity, said 36 per cent of its coronavirus-related calls involved furlough fraud with the number rising each week – a trend partly spurred by the HMRC’s decision to close its hotline after moving staff to work from home to stay safe during the pandemic.
WhistleblowersUK said the fraud appeared “rife” with its helpline receiving dozens of calls, including some from staff threatened with the sack if they did not continue working after being furloughed by their bosses.
Baroness Kramer, co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group for whistleblowing, said: “At a time like this when we as taxpayers are stepping forward to give people a lifeline, this abuse seems even more outrageous than it might under normal circumstances. Taxpayers are feeling the pain.”
Despite the closure of the hotline, HMRC said it had received 795 written or online complaints about furlough fraud up until May 14. The charities say this is an underestimate as many whistleblowers prefer to raise concerns in person on the phone rather than writing in online.
They have identified three scams.
One is where a firm furloughs staff but gets them to continue to work or volunteer unpaid.
A second involves furloughing staff but not telling them and they only find out when they are paid.
A third is where a firm claims furlough cash for a “ghost” employee who may be someone they dismissed or “recruited” so they could claim the money.
Alfred, a software developer for a medium sized firm, told the Telegraph he was summoned by his bosses and told he would be furloughed but that he should continue to work from home. If he refused, they told him he would be fired.
He discussed it with his wife and decided to call their bluff, saying he would not participate in a fraud and would take them to an employment tribunal if they fired him. He taped all his conversations including one in which they named other employees who were party to the scam.
They ostensibly backed down and he continues to work but is waiting anxiously for his pay cheque to see if they have lied to him and whether he will need to make good his tribunal threat. “I have suffered insomnia, anxiety and stress but my family have stood by me all the way,” he said.
Craig, who works for a small company, was furloughed but asked to return as a “volunteer” – which is also illegal. When he and some colleagues challenged the firm, his managers claimed they had taken legal advice.
Timothy, who works in the finance department of a small company, only discovered he and five other members of staff had been furloughed when working on the company accounts.
When he raised his concerns, his line manager removed him from the scheme but retained the others, saying the HMRC would not have the resources to prosecute all those companies that breached the rules.
Liz Gardiner, Chief Executive of Protect, urged HMRC to restore its hotline because of the risks of missing scams without it and then to investigate: “Our experience is that this is a new emerging problem that needs to be tackled.”
Georgina Halford-Hall, chief executive of WhistleblowersUK, said it was forcing law-abiding people to break the law or face the sack: “You can see the absolute terror that good people are experiencing.”