Companies have been accused of encouraging furlough fraud after data found two thirds of workers carried on with their jobs during the pandemic.
According to a new report six million workers continued to work during April and May while their employers were claiming furlough money from the Government.
The furlough scheme was announced by the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, on March 20 in a £30billion scheme which saw the Government pay 80 percent of salaries for furloughed staff up to a maximum of £2,500 a month.
The study, by Oxford, Cambridge and Zurich universities, conducted surveys of 9,000 people and found that the ban on working while furloughed was “routinely ignored”, with 63 percent of furloughed employees having broken the rules.
It also found that furloughed staff worked an average of 15 hours a week and that a fifth of furloughed employees were instructed to carry on working by their employer.
The highest percentage of those who continued to work were people with jobs in computing, while in the information and communication sectors, more than a third of furloughed employees worked from home, according to the Mail on Sunday.
“The prohibition of working whilst furloughed was routinely ignored, especially by men who can do a large percentage of their work tasks from home,” the report said.
HM Revenue & Customs is currently said to be investigating 8,000 tip-offs to its fraud hotline, having already rejected 30,000 claims it suspected as dubious.
Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee, called on HMRC “to urgently get a grip on these issues around fraud of the furlough scheme”.
“Employees are being put in incredibly vulnerable positions and employers need to face tough sanctions for this. We know people are trying it on and it’s right they should be tackled," she said.
It comes after this newspaper revealed that a row has broken out over whether tax rises are needed to plug the huge gaps in the public finances as UK debt rose above £2 trillion for the first time.
Boris Johnson is resisting tax rises to restore public finances as it is claimed the Treasury is piling pressure on Mr Sunak to claw back some of the billions spent propping up the economy and funding manifesto pledges as he prepares for the Autumn statement.
Meanwhile figures out last week showed the UK heading for a £350 billion deficit from the pandemic rescue package, Mr Sunak warned that the Government faced “difficult decisions”.
A spokesman for HMRC said it was "committed to protecting the support schemes against abuse from organised criminal attacks, inflated claims and other non-compliance" and added that it would be "taking tough action on fraud".
“We are now starting to investigate claims in depth, paying particular attention to Job Retention Scheme claims that are out of step with the payroll data that we hold and drawing on the 8,000 calls that have come into our fraud hotline from members of the public," he added.
"We have legal powers to recover any money that has been overclaimed and we have already made an arrest in relation to suspected criminal activity.”