Banks will be forced to disclose the names of small businesses that took UK government-backed emergency pandemic loans if anti-corruption campaigners persuade a judge next week that disclosure is in the public interest.
Spotlight on Corruption will ask a tribunal on Monday to order the British Business Bank to comply with a freedom of information request it lodged two years ago to publish the names of all companies that accessed the bounce back loan scheme (BBLS).
During the pandemic, small businesses borrowed £47bn from banks under the scheme, which was 100 per cent state-guaranteed. Official estimates suggest the UK taxpayer faces losses of almost £5bn from fraudsters who exploited minimal checks around the programme.
Spotlight lodged an FoI request in 2020 with the British Business Bank, which oversees the scheme, to name all the companies that received BBLS loans. But the request was rejected by the bank, citing a personal data protection exemption, a decision that was upheld by the Information Commissioner’s Office, the regulator.
This week, the British Business Bank warned the lenders involved in the scheme it could be forced to publish the names of borrowers. In an email seen by the Financial Times, it said should Spotlight win the appeal then it would be “ordered to disclose the details of all or some of those borrowers who received a facility under . . . BBLS”.
George Havenhand, senior legal researcher at Spotlight on Corruption, said: “Next week’s hearing will shine a light on government decision-making that will cost taxpayers billions of pounds and has been a bonanza for fraudsters.
“Transparency about who receives taxpayer-backed loans is central to preventing fraud — if these names had been published back in 2020 . . . these huge losses could have been avoided.”
The British Business Bank already publishes names of companies that borrowed from other Covid-19 schemes, such as coronavirus business interruption loans. But some bankers are concerned that in case of BBLS, individuals will be exposed, as many of the companies that used them were sole traders with accounts in their name.
One banker said: “It’s a clear conflict between freedom of information and banking confidentiality rules.”
Another said: “The key issue is it’s about personal data. A lot of bounce back loans are sole traders, and they didn’t sign a prior agreement that said their data could be released.”
The British Business Bank said the information included “a substantial amount of personal data” where “businesses trade under the names of their proprietors”.
It added: “Free publication of a database of close to 1.7mn loans, and the full details of the businesses who have received them, runs the risk of presenting an opportunity to fraudsters, who may utilise the information to their advantage, for example to commit identity theft or to carry out various social engineering frauds.”
The appeal hearing is scheduled to last three days.