Britain’s main opposition Labour Party says that if it wins power, it will appoint a “COVID corruption commissioner” to try and recoup some of the billions lost to fraud and waste during the pandemic.
Labour economy spokeswoman Rachel Reeves is due to outline the plan in a speech Monday at the party’s annual conference. She says the commissioner will bring together tax officials, fraud investigators and law enforcement officers will track down an estimated $8.8 billion in lost public money spent on grants and contracts related to COVID-19.
Like many countries, the U.K. was forced to sidestep usual rules as it rushed to procure essential supplies and prop up people’s livelihoods during the coronavirus pandemic.
Reeves told the BBC the Conservative government was “embarrassed” by the scale of the losses and “doing nothing to get that money back.”
A multi-year public inquiry is examining Britain’s handling of the pandemic, which left more than 200,000 people in the country dead.
Reeves’ announcement comes during a four-day conference in Liverpool, where Labour is trying to cement its front-runner status in opinion polls before an election due in 2024.
The party is running 15 or more points ahead of the governing Conservatives in multiple opinion polls, as Britain endures a sluggish economy and a cost-of-living crisis driven by the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and economic disruption following the U.K.’s exit from the European Union.
Labour is trying to show it can provide an alternative to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservatives, who have been in power since 2010. But the opposition party is wary of promising big public spending increases that would require tax hikes.
Instead, the party says it will get the economy growing faster to fund public services. It’s pledging to build 1.5 million homes to ease Britain’s chronic housing crisis, reform an “antiquated” planning system it says is holding back infrastructure improvements, and repair the creaking, overburdened state-funded National Health Service.
Leader Keir Starmer has steered the social democratic party back toward the political middle-ground after the divisive tenure of predecessor Jeremy Corbyn, a staunch socialist who advocated nationalization of key industries and infrastructure. Corbyn resigned after Labour suffered its worst election defeat in almost a century in 2019.
In a sign of Labour’s improving fortunes, the party says more than 200 executives are taking part in a business forum at the conference on Monday. For years, businesses were wary of the party, which has its roots in the trade union movement, and tended to favor the Conservatives. But recent economic and political upheavals have made many think again.