The wheels of justice turn slowly, according to Wordsworth, though with time they get there in the end – sometimes.
So is it that after more than 18 months of a pandemic, and one initiative after another the Flemish government has come to an interim reckoning: of the €2.4 billion already laid on the table in the form of support for businesses hit by the pandemic measures, some was claimed unlawfully, and has to be repaid.
Given the sums handed out, the total so far reckoned to be overpaid is small – €78 million has already been reclaimed.
The support measures, introduced as they were in an improvised fashion in view of the circumstances, were generous, and relied mainly on a posteriori verification. First grant the aid, then check if it was justified.
Any other approach would have tied up affected businesses for months while procedures were followed to the letter. In the meantime – cast your mind back to the spring of 2020 – all non-essential shops, all bars, all restaurants, all hair and beauty salons, all offices that had to organise teleworking – would have been rudderless and oarless.
But things have changed since then, and an accounting has to be made. So it is that the Flemish government, which alone has paid out that €2.4 billion, is now at the stage of demanding the return of €78 million in money that was paid out improperly.
One of the targets is the service cheque sector. Two out of three companies who operate on service cheques were found wanting, for example by requesting extra funding for safety equipment for home-help personnel that either never materialised, or that personnel were expected to provide for themselves.
Even worse was the sector of shell companies – companies that exist in name only, as a legal creation with a registered address, but no activity recognisable as an active business to the layman.
On the announcement of restrictions on businesses, such as teleworking, such companies made applications for assistance from the government, regardless of the fact that the company has two directors on paper, and not a single employee at any single location.
Of the €78 so far required to be paid back, €38.5 million is already paid back.
And the €78 million is a drop in the ocean compared to the €2.4 billion paid out, but only 2.5% of all requests have already passed under the government microscope.
Until now, only those cases which on the face of things seemed most likely to be susceptible to fraud were even looked at. As time goes on, the net will extend.