The Flemish government has sent out bills to companies who claimed Covid-19 aid improperly, for a total clawback of €63.5 million. Already, €36 million has been paid back.
When the coronavirus crisis first appeared early last year, the regional governments and the federal introduced a series of measures to shield businesses from the worst effects of the government’s own measures: the effect of the closures of non-essential retail, of the horeca sector of restaurants and bars, the effect of teleworking, cuts in travel spending.
Among the measures applied in Flanders was a sum of €3,000 for companies who could show a fall in takings of 60% of the period in question. On top of that, companies with a physical presence – a shop or a salon, say – were eligible for a further €4,000.
Even market stallholders, while street markets were limited to 50 stalls, were entitled to €160 for each day they were prevented from trading.
The aid was given out more or less on demand, as the urgency of the situation was considered of primary concern. Post facto, the Flemish Agency for Innovation and Enterprise (VLAIO) was given the job of checking up on applications for aid. For this, they employed a tool the details of which have not been released, for obvious reasons.
The result was that 12,131 cases were reviewed, and 6,449 gave rise to a demand for repayment.
In 137 of those cases, there is a suspicion of deliberate fraud or use of false documents (for example to exaggerate a claim of loss of earnings), Flemish finance minister Hilde Crevits (CD&V) told the Flemish parliament this week.
Those dossiers have been passed to the Central Service for Fighting Corruption (OCRC), a division of the federal police.
Meanwhile, Crevits is piloting a new measure through parliament which would make anyone guilty of subsidy fraud liable to be banned from applying for any other support measures for five years – over and above any criminal penalties.
The new measure has been agreed by the Flemish government, and is currently in front of the Council of State for an opinion. Crevits hopes to bring the proposal to parliament next month.