(Bloomberg) -- The UK has paid £1.41 billion ($1.8 billion) to lenders that issued small business loans during the Covid-19 pandemic that are now suspected of being fraudulent.
That’s a jump from the £640 million total refunded by the end of 2022, as banks that participated in the state-guaranteed emergency support programs three years ago work through a total of £77 billion in loans.
The government said Tuesday that most businesses have repaid or are paying on schedule, though banks have now received £8.5 billion for loans that have defaulted. Lawmakers have criticized the government for quickly rolling out support without regard for the cost to taxpayers.
Most of the problems are with loans issued to small firms under the Bounce Back Loan Scheme. Across the program, banks have flagged 3.75% of loans by value as suspected fraud, according to the government.
Barclays Plc, the largest lender in the program, said over 6% of its loans were now considered possible fraud, up from 2.3% earlier in the year. Starling Bank, which lent £1.6 billion under BBLS, has also flagged 6%, or about £97 million, of its drawn loans as potential fraud.
“We continue to proactively tackle BBLS fraud, going above and beyond the requirements of the government lending schemes,” a Barclays spokesperson said in a statement. “This has included a pilot to investigate the use of, and proactively recover BBLS funds through our work with liquidators and a litigation funder.”
The lender last year asked UK courts to shutter nearly 100 businesses as it sought to recover Covid-19 debts.
“Starling takes a strong and proactive stance on BBLS to protect taxpayers’ money, as well as to support our customers to help them repay their loans,” the bank said in a statement. “Our lending saved thousands of companies. It largely supported eligible micro businesses with single directors, many of which were relatively young businesses.”
The Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme, aimed at larger companies, is showing much lower levels of suspected fraud. Just £50 million of the £25.8 billion program has been flagged.
(Updates to add comment from Barclays from sixth paragraph.)
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