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‘Britain’s Long History of Corruption and Cover-Ups and the Dire Consequences for Those the Government Chooses to Ignore’

If a likely new Labour government wants to truly mark a difference from the Conservatives, it needs to fix the systemic failings, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking during a BBC Question Time Leaders' Special. Photo: PA Images / Alamy
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking during a BBC Question Time Leaders’ Special. Photo: PA/Alamy

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One of Rishi Sunak’s frequent talking points during this general election campaign is his boast about how, as Chancellor, he supported struggling families and businesses through the worst years of the Coronavirus pandemic.

For many British taxpayers, the Government’s furlough and other support schemes were an absolute lifeline. Though many still suffered grievous losses and mental stress as a result of the crisis, and some still suffer from the lingering symptoms of Long COVID, for most people, hopefully, the worst effects are now in the rear-view mirror.

For one unlucky group, however, the impact has been severe and persistent, to this day. These are members of the approximately 3.8 million British taxpayers who failed to qualify for parity of COVID financial support under the main schemes set up by the then Chancellor to support employers and workers during the pandemic.

These included people who had recently changed jobs, were newly self-employed, who had only recently started a new business, who earned less than 50% of their income from self-employment, or were on maternity/paternity or adoption leave.

It also included zero-hour contract workers, and limited company directors who were paid in dividends, or through an annual, as opposed to monthly, PAYE.

A COVID testing centre in the UK in October 2020. Photo: Paul Maguire/Alamy

According to the Campaign Group ExcludedUK, which has been lobbying the Government for years to rectify the disparity in treatment meted out to its members, the impact on them has been devastating.

Many of the ‘excluded’ were forced to take out bounce back loans, or incur credit card debt, to stay afloat, which they are still struggling to pay back. Many sold their houses, cars, or family heirlooms; relocated to live in caravans, tents or even in their cars; and became reliant on food banks.

More than 37 of those affected died by suicide. Hundreds more attempted to kill themselves, including a nine-year-old boy, who tried to take his life twice, but was denied support by the cash-strapped local NHS child mental health agency, on the grounds that his mother waited more than a week to refer him. Moreover, it said he would only be eligible if he had tried to kill himself at least three times.

In December 2020, Conservative MP Michael Fabricant dismissed such suicides as nothing to do with the lack of financial support, but related to pre-existing mental health conditions.

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ExcludedUK emerged out of an earlier campaign group, Forgotten Ltd, which was formed in April 2020 by four limited company directors, who came together when it became apparent that the Government’s furlough scheme excluded people like them. They later realised that many other categories of workers were also excluded, such as those cited above, adding up to approximately 10% of the British working population, or 3.8 million people – more than the population of Wales – and decided to form a bigger organisation to represent everyone who was affected.

Initially, the campaign group trusted that its exclusion was an unintended oversight, which the Treasury would seek to rectify once the scale of the problem became clear. A cross-party All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) of more than 260 MPs, called Gaps in Support, even came together in May 2020 to back the group’s cause.

But, it gradually became apparent that the Treasury would not change its approach.

In March 2021, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jessie Norman, wrote to members of the APPG and ExcludedUK to explain that the Government had already provided an “unprecedented package of measures to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods” and extended various schemes to support more individuals, but the criteria would not be amended to include those who had relatively low-income from self-employment or no trading profits. It also wanted to guard against fraud and abuse.

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The aim of guarding against fraud is somewhat rich, when more than £4.5 billion of taxpayer money was lost through error and fraud during the pandemic. In 2020, pay-outs under the furlough scheme included £1.5 billion to employers who would not have cut their workforce even without the grant, and £3.5 billion to people whose self-employment income did not actually reduce during the crisis.

With little hope of making progress, and with the economy slowly reopening as the pandemic receded, the APPG fizzled out towards the end of 2022. However, for the members of ExcludedUK, the effects of their exclusion continue, with people still going bankrupt and businesses folding, to this day.

The head of ExcludedUK, Jennifer Griffiths, recently told me that four more people had tried to take their lives in the last two weeks due to the fact that they were struggling to repay bounce back loans they had taken out to keep their businesses going during the pandemic.

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Griffiths described her members as becoming increasingly disheartened, as all their attempts to secure redress have failed, and the main political parties now seem more focused on the future of the economy after the election.

Many MPs who once supported them in the APPG no longer respond to their calls. Labour Leader Keir Starmer, who once publicly called for their needs to be addressed, no longer speaks about the issue – and even refused to call Rishi Sunak out on his claims about backing everyone during COVID, when it came up in the recent leaders’ debate.

Griffiths suspects that, because it could cost up to £10 billion to compensate all those excluded, the main political parties would prefer to ignore the issue, even though, as the financial expert Martin Lewis explained to a Treasury committee hearing in December 2020, “not providing support… is a short-sighted mistake that will cost us more in the long run”.

What struck me, as I listened to Griffiths explain her members’ plight, was how reminiscent this was of the recent Post Office and contaminated blood scandals – where ordinary members of the public repeatedly had their concerns dismissed, and many lives were lost.

In the Post Office case, sub-postmasters and mistresses were accused of being liars and fraudsters. In the infected blood case, Inquiry chair Sir Brian Langstaff said there had been elements of “downright deception” including the destruction of documents, and half-truths told, so people did not know about the risk of their treatment, the availability of alternatives, or whether they were infected.

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Half-truths also infected the campaign to leave the EU. Neither main political party – Conservative or Labour – has been willing to talk honestly about Brexit ever since. Brexit barely features in the current election campaign. Nor is either party fully honest about the numerous challenges around the complex issue of immigration.

In fact, dishonesty, incompetence and disregard for voters seem increasingly to suffuse much public life.

In 2018, it was revealed that the Government’s ‘hostile environment’ policy on immigration resulted in members of the Windrush Generation being wrongly detained, deported, or threatened with deportation. An inquiry published in March 2020 concluded that the affair was both “foreseeable and avoidable” and criticised a “culture of disbelief and carelessness” in the Home Office.

Boris Johnson’s first instinct with regards to Partygate, and scandals concerning his party’s MPs, such as Owen Paterson or Chris Pincher, was to deny and cover-up. His Government intentionally delayed publication of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s ‘Russia Report’, which exposed Russian interference in British politics; and during COVID, awarded dodgy PPE contracts to cronies.

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The list of such scandals is endless.

According to anti-corruption organisation, Transparency International UK, Britain has a “corruption problem… as a hub for dirty money from around the world, red flags over the corrupting influence of money in politics, and big business bribery scandals”, with “the abuse of power for private gain reaching the highest levels of the UK society”.

Cases like the treatment of the ‘excluded’, or the Post Office, Windrush, and the contaminated blood scandals, are not isolated cases of error or omission. They are symptoms of an increasingly dysfunctional government, which is struggling to deliver adequate public services, and properly meet the needs of ordinary British people.

These problems can’t all be laid at the feet of ministers or politicians, though they have complacently allowed the rot to spread. The problems go deep into our governing institutions, including government departments no longer fit for purpose, corroded standards of public life, questions over the management and competence of the civil service, inadequate oversight by regulatory authorities of public bodies or utilities, such as train services and water companies, and over-stretched and under-resourced local authorities.

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If the likely Labour government after 4 July wants to truly mark a difference from the Conservatives, then it needs to aspire not just to running things a bit better (a very low bar to set), but actually fixing the systemic failings, including the culture of cover-up, which allows such scandals to metastise in the first place.

A good place for it to start would be by acknowledging the scale of the institutional problems, rather than sweeping them under the carpet, or blaming everything on the outgoing government.



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