Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence



Memorandum by the Public and Commercial Services Union

INTRODUCTION

  PCS, the Public and Commercial Services Union, welcomes the opportunity to provide a submission to the Treasury sub-committee inquiry into the work of the Valuation Office Agency (VOA). PCS is a modern and progressive Trade Union, representing some 250,000 members across the civil service and related areas of commerce. Of these, nearly 3,000 work in the administrative, technical and managerial grades within the VOA. As the union that represents nearly 75 per cent of the staff who work for the VOA, the PCS is uniquely qualified to comment on the past performance and future of the agency.

KEY POINTS OF THE SUBMISSION

    —  Ability of our members;

    —  the PCS role as "Partners";

  Changes since 1995 and the PCS view on:

    —  efficiency savings;

    —  staffing imbalances;

    —  staff usage;

    —  the real costs of productivity.

  Current work practices and the PCS view on:

    —  use of IT.

    —  the impact of "centralised processing";

    —  the need for investment.

  Encouraging new challenges:

    —  modernising government;

    —  maintaining the council tax base;

    —  fairer water charging;

    —  a progressive council tax.

  Conclusion

PCS IN THE AGENCY

  1. PCS members in VOA have proved themselves capable of adapting very quickly to the demands of a fast changing business environment, and have demonstrated by way of the outcome of the "Private Sector Experiment", that they are more than a match for their counterparts in the outside arena.

  2. It is also our belief that PCS members should have a key role in delivering "Better and joined up Government". Our members are part of a highly skilled and well trained work force, which stands ready to take on any new challenges which Government may ask the agency to carry out, such as: reform of the council tax system, a fairer method for determining water charging, or other new areas of work to which the agency has hitherto been denied the opportunity to compete.

  3. PCS also plays a positive pro-active role in all aspects of the agency's business operational, and strategic planning activities, and we fully support the agency's current attempt to achieve "Investors in People status." We have also recently agreed improved machinery for consultation with agency management, based on the concept of "partnership and progress". It is our aim, wherever possible, to work in partnership with VOA management to deliver an effective and efficient service to the public.

CHANGES SINCE THE 1995 REVIEW

  4. Since the last five yearly review, the VOA has undergone massive operational and organisational changes and witnessed a radical change to its culture. While the PCS recognises the need for a modern organisation to continually seek greater efficiency, we believe that the unrealistic and rigorous target of 30 per cent savings over a five year period has been achieved at too high a price.

  5. This is reflected in the ongoing debate between the agency board and PCS over the staffing profiles in the agency. This largely centres around the current imbalance between senior qualified grades and technical and administrative staff. PCS believes that a more cost effective service could be provided to the agency's clients and to taxpayers if a more realistic view was taken about how the work of the agency is undertaken and the added value that could be achieved with the correct ratio between qualified caseworkers, technicians, managers and support staff.

  6. The PCS hopes that the current joint review of pay, performance management and grading, will help to resolve this long standing problem which in previous years has not been helped by the use of large numbers of "fixed term" staff. It is also hoped that the review will provide an opportunity to consider a radical review of competency based job descriptions and grading profiles. This can bring immense benefits to our clients and taxpayers as well as the members that we represent.

  7. Turning to the organisational changes that have taken place since 1995, these have resulted in a dramatic decline in the use of permanent staff as can be seen from the comparative table below. This has created immense pressure on the VOA and those working within it, as they have coped with the increasing demands of taxpayers and the operational impact of management "de-layering".

YearVOA Staff in post
1991-925,681
1994-956,096
1998-993,932

  8. Although these figures need to be qualified in terms of the resources needed in 1991-92 for the preparation for the introduction of Council Tax, and those deployed upon the 1995 Revaluation, the massive reduction since then has caused severe pressure on the agency to produce what Government, the agency's clients and the taxpayer at large have demanded of it.

  9. It is to the great credit of agency staff that they have delivered increasingly higher productivity outputs despite these pressures. For despite the negotiated settlement on the introduction of the new Group Structure, the swingeing reductions in the number of network offices has resulted in an increase in expenditure on travel and subsistence costs. It has also reduced the opportunity for "face to face contact" with the public, who are often loathe and indeed unable, to travel to an office to seek the resolution of an appeal or a general enquiry.

  10. PCS hopes that these effects can partly be offset by major improvements in customer service, the continual quest for "chartermark awards" and the introduction of a new telephone network. But it is our belief that so much more could have been achieved if a longer term view had been taken by previous incumbents of the top posts within the agency management board.

  11. The agency has invested heavily in new information technology. PCS applauds the efforts of our specialist members in assisting the VOA to achieve government recognition of the system which underpins the new Group structure.

  12. However, the introduction of Group structure has had a major effect on how the agency undertakes its work practices. The move to centralised processing of appeals against the 1995 Rating list was perhaps among the most controversial of these. And it is this, along with the reduction in the use of proven managers in each of the Agency's network locations, which has caused a good deal of anxiety and disappointment amongst our membership.

  13. The impact of this has yet to be fully evaluated, but PCS believes that the centralisation of processing and registration procedures has not yet produced the promised rewards of improved career development for support grade staff, many of whom are expected to remain with the agency for some time and provide the bedrock for the future.

  14. We therefore believe that more now needs to be done to build upon the successes of the agency by way of "seedcorn" recruitment and training programmes of the basic recruitment grades. Such initiatives, which will require relatively low investment, will pay for themselves many time over in terms of their contribution towards a better trained and well motivated work force.

  15. PCS welcomes the challenges that are likely to flow from the "modernising government" white paper. Our members in the VOA have been frustrated at the way in which "next steps" broke the Civil Service down into silos, which is contrary to the principles of "joined up government." They are frustrated by the missed opportunities to provide a joined up service.

ENCOURAGING NEW CHALLENGES

  16. For instance there is talk of spending upwards of £5 billion to provide water meters, yet the council tax provides a progressive and satisfactory alternative. The staff of the VOA would relish the opportunity to help provide that alternative by ensuring that the council tax base is properly maintained. A union sponsored review of this is enclosed.

  17. Additionally, a forthcoming piece of research by PCS and the New Policy Institute concludes that a relatively low cost, re-banding and re-multiplying exercise, could make council tax substantially more progressive.

  18. We encourage these developments and very much see them as opportunities, not threats. We want to meet them in partnership with management and Government.

  19. Meanwhile, PCS is confident that the efforts of its members within the VOA will help contribute to the important and immediate task of producing a robust and high quality product in the form of Revaluation 2000. That we expect them to do, says much for the determination of our members to see the agency thrive.

CONCLUSION

  20. We hope that the Treasury sub committee will find the foregoing to be of assistance to their work. We have tried to focus this brief submission directly on the areas being covered by the inquiry, but are willing to supplement this orally if the committee should so desire.

  21. PCS believe that the valuation Office Agency is a respected and influential organisation in the property field, which has consistently surpassed the required standards of impartiality, integrity and fairness. it is our joint aim alongside that of the agency Board, for the VOA to be the Public sector's preferred choice for the provision of valuation advice, and for the organisation to continue to provide value for money in the services it provides to the state.

March 1999


 
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