EMPLOYERS who have committed “furlough fraud” could be found out and punished at any time over the next five years, a personnel expert has warned.

There have been thousands of complaints about businesses asking staff to work while furloughed – or even being put on furlough without their knowledge.

Tom Doherty, managing director of the HR Department in the New Forest and east Dorset, said: “Draft legislation being laid down in July is going to give a 30-day amnesty for business owners or employers to ‘fess up’ to HMRC if they’ve incorrectly claimed from the coronavirus job retention scheme. That’s not just about the furlough scheme but the scheme for the self-employed as well.

He said there were probably some “genuine msitakes” but that people who have deliberately misused the scheme faced being found out.

One firm of solicitors found 34 per cent of employees said they had been asked by their bosses to work while on furlough.

HMRC had received 1,868 reports of fraudulent use of the coronavirus job retention scheme by the end of May. The whistleblowing charity Protect said 36 per cent of its coronavirus-related calls involved furlough fraud.

Some staff have been asked to work while on furlough, while some have continued working without knowing their employer has put them on the furlough scheme. There have also been claims of employers claiming furlough money for “ghost” staff, who have been sacked or were only recruited so their bosses could claim the government aid.

Around 9.1million jobs were furloughed as of mid-June and the scheme is expected to have cost the government £80billlion by the time it finishes in October.

Mr Doherty added: “HMRC have been clear that they will be undertaking audits over the next five years. Employers, if they’ve done that will face stiff penalties.

“There may be more cases out there than we know. Someone who genuinely believes their employer is undertaking fraud will probably have whistleblowers’ protection.”

He said the rules were clear that staff on furlough could not do any activity that “generates revenue or provides a service”.

Although staff are allowed to train while on furlough, Mr Doherty warned employers against bringing staff back to make preparations for reopening under the guise of training.

From July, employers will be allowed to bring staff back to work part-time without taking them out of the furlough scheme altogether.