Only a “handful” of applications for business grants to help manage the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in Harrow were fraudulent, the council said.

Justin Phillips, corporate anti-fraud manager at Harrow Council, told a government, audit, risk management, and standards committee yesterday (Tuesday, April 27) that the number of dodgy bids was “minimal”.

He said more detail would be available as part of an end-of-year report covering this issue but confirmed, “anecdotally”, the impact was surprisingly low.

“For the amount of money that was involved in the distribution of those grants, the cases that came to our attention were minimal,” he said.

“[The banks involved] were flabbergasted, given the amount of money that went through the accounts in relation to Covid grants that local authorities were responsible for administering, that the level of fraud was absolutely minimal.”

Mr Phillips added he took this as a “pat on the back” for the members of staff involved in managing what could have been a difficult scenario.

The council had been criticised for its role in managing the grants last year, with some councillors frequently pointing out that it was among the slowest in terms of paying out.

For example, on 27 April 2020, government statistics showed just 18.3 per cent of businesses in Harrow had received their support – this contrasted with 94.7 per cent of cases processed by Ealing Council by that date and 87.7 per cent in Westminster.

At the time, Cllr Adam Swersky (Lab, West Harrow), who is responsible for finance at Harrow Council, explained it had to carry out a series of checks to avoid fraud and ensure the correct people are paid.

He added Harrow has a higher percentage of microbusinesses and small to medium-sized firms than other boroughs and, since many do not have to pay business rates, the council did not have immediate access to payment details.