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20 Mar 2007 : Column 240WH—continued

The hon. Gentleman also raised some important points about so-called no-platform policies, which have been pursued from time to time by student unions. It is true
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that a blanket no-platform policy is not consistent with the principles in the 1986 Act, which support freedom of speech on campus within the law, and it is right and important that we uphold those principles. Nevertheless, reasons relating to security or supporting equality might mean that a university, on a case-by-case basis, could act to ensure that a platform is not offered to certain groups or individuals through the use of its premises of resources. We have to be clear, however, that those judgments must be made in the context of the overall legal framework and the circumstances of the event and that they must be taken on a case-by-case basis. For example, we could not condone a university hosting a proscribed organisation.

The key point, however—I hope that this will reassure the hon. Gentleman—is that it is for the university authority, through the office of the vice-chancellor and the governance arrangements, to make that decision, not student unions. Universities should consider the nature of speeches or groups and the risk of an offence being committed under the Terrorism Act 2000 or other legal provisions, and make decisions on such matters.

Dr. Harris: The Minister has referred to equality, but I am not sure what he means. Is he saying that a university could ban in advance someone from coming to speak for fear that they might say something that does not respect equality, even though it is not unlawful and does not risk breaching the law with regard to terrorism? Is he saying that universities have the right—in individual cases where they are confident—to ban in advance lawful speech, because it is offensive in some way?

Bill Rammell: No; that is emphatically not what I am saying. I am saying that there is a clear legal framework within which a university must operate to ensure that
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speakers do not advocate breaches of the law. They must make judgments—rightly so—about the security of a speech or event taking account of local circumstances. However, as a general principle, if someone is advocating a view that is legal and that they have the right to advocate, in my view the university authority should do everything that it possibly can to secure the ability of that view to be put forward. It is difficult to strike a balance between freedom of expression and protecting people against hatred or incitement to violence. Many of the pressing debates on higher education involve those arguments about freedom of speech and the freedom to offend.

The hon. Gentleman has referred to academic boycotts. The Government have consistently made their view clear: we are against the principle of academic boycotts and have stated directly, for example, that we are firmly against any academic boycotts of Israel or Israeli academics. The complex issues surrounding Israel and the Palestinians must be subject to open discussion and debate, and it does not benefit anyone to target academics.

We need a reasonable approach to academic freedom within the context of a civilised pluralist society. A balance must to be struck between an individual’s right to freedom of expression, the rights of others and the protection of our civil society. However, I agree that we need to be constantly vigilant in ensuring that academic freedom is protected. A free exchange of ideas is the bedrock of academic engagement and has consistently proved beneficial to moving our society forwards. Those are important issues, and I rightly congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. It is important that we continue to uphold the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom within the context of the overall legal framework.

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HMRC Offices (Chesterfield)

1 pm

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): I am pleased to have secured the debate, which is my first in Westminster Hall, and am especially pleased that the Paymaster General is taking part. Given that tomorrow is a big day with the Budget, I am extremely grateful to her for being here.

The closure of the Chesterfield offices is part of a much wider national consultation to rationalise the use of offices and people following the merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. My concerns about that process fall into two broad categories, the first of which is the consultation process and particularly the way in which it has been managed. Secondly, I am concerned about the proposed closure of the Chesterfield offices and how that will affect many of my constituents.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I recently met two representatives from the workforce change team at the national offices of Revenue and Customs. It was made very clear to us that the consultation was about achieving efficiency savings by reducing the number of both offices and staff. It was also pointed out to us that neither of our constituencies have Revenue and Customs offices. That may be true, but many of the people who work in the Chesterfield offices live in Bolsover, North-East Derbyshire and Amber Valley. All the Members of Parliament who represent constituents who work for Revenue and Customs should have an equal say in the consultation, and their concerns should carry the same weight as those of hon. Members who have HMRC offices in their constituencies. However, I want to put it on record that the workforce change team and the national office have been extremely helpful since that meeting. Any information that we asked for, we have received, and I am grateful to the workforce change team for that.

The starting point of the rationalisation was to draw a circle of 25 km around each of the urban centres, which are based mainly in the big cities. The proposal is to close all the smaller offices within those circles and to move most of their staff to the urban centres. In our case, that means closing the two Chesterfield offices at Dents Chambers and Markham House and moving the staff who work there to Sheffield. As all that has been mainly a paper exercise, issues such as transport links, the complexion of the local labour market and the individual circumstances of the people who work in those offices have not been adequately taken into account.

In theory, and as the crow flies, Sheffield and Chesterfield are not a million miles apart, but to get from one to the other, one has to cross the county boundary between Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. That has huge implications, especially in relation to transport links. We have had a detailed look at what impact the move would have on people who live in North-East Derbyshire, Bolsover and Amber Valley, all of which are very rural parts of the country. The way in which bus, train and tram services connect will make it extremely difficult for people to use public transport to travel to Sheffield. The journey time from rural villages into Chesterfield added to the journey time into Sheffield would make it almost impossible for people to work there, even with flexi-hours. The additional
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journey time would often make the working day extremely long for people who currently work in Chesterfield.

All that is before one takes into account the large number of women and part-time workers who work at the Chesterfield offices. Government policy is, quite rightly, to place great emphasis on enabling mothers to return to work, but the proposals would have exactly the opposite effect in Chesterfield. They would force mothers who are in the labour market out of work. I know from first-hand experience, as does my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, how difficult it is to arrange one’s working life around children’s nursery and school commitments. They have to be dropped off and picked up at very defined times, and we all know that schools do not work on a flexitime regime. Many of the parents who work in the Chesterfield offices, and those who have caring responsibilities, simply could not adjust their working day and already tight timetables. They would have to give up work, and not only would their skills and experiences be lost, but more people would drop out of the labour market.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend concerned that we will end up having no Revenue and Customs offices at all in Derbyshire under the proposals? Is she also concerned for her constituents who work in the Alfreton office? Of the staff at the Alfreton office, 47 per cent. work part-time, 86 per cent. are women and 84 per cent. have caring responsibilities. The consultation document stated that no jobs would be lost as a direct result of the proposal, because it is assumed that staff can relocate. Will my hon. Friend urge the Paymaster General to reconsider the proposals for offices that have a particularly high proportion of women, part-time workers and staff with caring responsibilities, who will lose their jobs regardless of their experience and how long they have worked there?

Natascha Engel: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Those are the key elements of our concerns. In rural constituencies such as ours, mothers who work part-time and those with caring responsibilities are particularly concerned. The same applies to areas such as Amber Valley and Alfreton, where the difficulty of redeploying women, parents and people with caring responsibilities is an additional problem. I hope that all that will be taken fully into account when decisions are made about which offices to close and which to keep open.

I have focused heavily on the move from Chesterfield to Sheffield because that is where the people who work at the Chesterfield office will be moved. Of course, many of my constituents work in the Alfreton offices and would be expected to move to Nottingham, which would be a massive additional journey for them.

I want to discuss the local labour market in Chesterfield. In spite of recent, high-profile company closures and serious job losses there, it is still a thriving manufacturing and service-based town, but civil service jobs are not so easy to come by there. As my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) pointed out, it will be very difficult to find alternative employment for people who will effectively be forced out of their jobs. We hope to see an explosion in the number of jobs in and around Chesterfield in the next 10 years with the expansion of
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the Markham Vale employment growth zone, which is commonly known as Skinner’s junction because it falls mainly in the Bolsover area. There will be a huge amount of new businesses and we expect there to be between 5,000 and 6,000 new jobs in the next decade. All those businesses will have Revenue and Customs requirements, so it makes no sense to me that at a time of growing local need, we are talking about closing offices and reducing the number of people who work in them.

Tax office workers and VAT-men and women may not be the most popular workers in the world, but we must not forget that they also work on tax credits, which are the single best way to boost the incomes of families in work. Tax credits are a key, flagship policy of the Labour Government, but I know from my constituency casework that there are still problems with their administration. Those problems often come down to the huge number of people applying for tax credits. Reducing the number of people who administer tax credits cannot be helpful or the best way to improve that key service.

I come to the consultation process itself. This is a very uncertain time for people who work in all Revenue and Customs offices up and down the country. Everyone appreciates that changes will take place, but the way in which the consultation has been conducted has not helped the process. The Paymaster General knows that I held a dedicated surgery on this issue, because such a high number of my constituents were coming to my surgery about the proposed closures. That surgery was extremely well attended despite being held late on a Friday evening when the snow outside was knee-deep.

One of the main areas of concern at the surgery was the consultation process itself. The way in which it worked was that proposals on the Sheffield urban centre had been published, plans to close both of the Chesterfield offices and move things to Sheffield had been outlined, and anyone wanting to take part in the consultation was able to e-mail a dedicated mailbox. There was no way of knowing whether an e-mail had arrived and, if it had, what account was being taken of it. In addition, people were not able to ask questions.

The consultation process could have been used to help to reassure people, to work with them on alternative arrangements and to keep them informed. However, it only made people more anxious about their livelihoods. As a result, I pulled together a lot of hard-copy material and personally delivered it to the consultation’s head office. Yesterday, I received an acknowledgement of receipt.

I am here to propose a compromise. Although I would love both Chesterfield offices—Dents Chambers and Markham House—to stay open, it would be great if Markham House at least were to stay open and if staff were redeployed to that office; Jobcentre Plus is based there, in the centre of Chesterfield, so it is easy to access.

I urge the Paymaster General and the chairman of HMRC to consider the points that I have made when they come to make their final decision and to ensure that at least one of the offices remains open in Chesterfield. The Paymaster General will have the awful task of making the final decision on which offices will remain open and which ones will close. I hope that I have made a strong enough case to ensure that at least one of the Chesterfield offices will remain open.

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1.11 pm

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) on securing her first Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber), who has made an intervention, also follows these issues closely.

Regrettably, a lot of myths exist about what goes on in tax offices in Chesterfield and elsewhere, and I should like to deal with those. One big myth is that the work of everyone in them is relevant to the local area and/or that they have local contacts and are a resource, which is rarely the case. I am pleased to have the opportunity to explain exactly what the Government are undertaking.

I have a sense of déj vu: as a Minister, I am being criticised for having decided to consult fully, but had I not consulted and simply taken decisions, I would also have been criticised, which demonstrates the difficulty of what needs to be done in this case.

The first point that I should like to emphasise is that the senior management team in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have not announced a decision to close the Chesterfield offices—there has been no such announcement. What has been announced is a proposal to rationalise work and office space in the Sheffield urban centre, of which Chesterfield is a part. Consultation on that proposal has been completed in the past few days. I am grateful to those who have contributed to the process, including my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire, who has made submissions.

Neither the Government nor the management of HMRC approached the issue on the basis of arbitrarily drawing a 25 km radius around an urban centre and then saying that all the small offices within it are up for closure. The point about 25 km is that it is, and has always been, in the contracts of all civil servants working for the department in respect of what is considered to be a reasonable distance to travel to work.

I should emphasise a point that needs repeating: a decision has not been made on the future of HMRC’s Chesterfield offices or on the future of any of its other offices in the east midlands, Yorkshire or Humberside. I will see all the recommendations before they are announced. All the information that has been provided, alongside the remarks made by my hon. Friend today, will be considered before any announcements are made. The consultation process will be published, which will include who said what and why, and the department’s view.

I understand the concerns of local people working in the Chesterfield office and elsewhere and the concerns of wider stakeholders, particularly in relation to the following: the extra travel time involved; the availability of transport links from people’s homes; the environmental consequence of more journeys by road; and the impact on the local community if the jobs are relocated. As my hon. Friend has rightly identified, all those circumstances need to be taken into account, and I can tell her that they will be along with the care responsibilities and the likely impact on the local labour market.

For those reasons, and others, I asked the senior management team at HMRC to undertake the process of consultation in each office and to assess the impact of proposals on customers, staff, local communities and diversity. Throughout the process, the senior management
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at HMRC are committed to being open with staff, to explaining the options available to individuals and to exploring how their expectations can be matched with the need to make HMRC’s operations more efficient.

I should make it clear that this is not an easy decision. Such decisions can be taken only once all the facts are known. We are talking about not only the management view on the most efficient way of running the business, but what the local communities, the staff and the local stakeholders are saying. We must also consider why this needs to be done. Members of Parliament cannot implore the Government to ensure that departments are using resources efficiently in order to eliminate unnecessary expenditure so that it can be transferred to health, education or other front-line services, but then say, “Do it somewhere else.”

The fact is that the department has more accommodation than it needs. The position varies across the regions, but, generally, it has 40 per cent. more office accommodation than the staff need, which represents a substantial drain. Through the consultation, I am honestly trying to get the department to say, “This is the number of staff that will work in an urban centre. This is the number of staff that the department will employ in 2008. We can distribute those staff according to business needs in a particular way.” I shall come on to discuss how the department runs itself. What we want to do in each area is to consult people, taking on board precisely the points that my hon. Friend rightly makes about assessing which concerns are legitimate in deciding where staff are located.

We must also recognise that significant changes have taken place in the way in which taxpayers choose to communicate with the department. Such communication is increasingly done by telephone or by the internet, and e-filing is becoming more and more common. The amount of letter processing and manual processing is inevitably decreasing, so it is right to consider how operations can be run efficiently. Some work is best done in concentrated areas and larger units where the processes can be more streamlined; in other areas, smaller units or a more mobile work force is seen as the best solution. The final outcome must balance staff, the local area, efficiency and the best service for taxpayers, which is what I am trying to do.

HMRC’s efficiency savings are ahead of the projections, and the department has already been reduced by 9,000 posts through a combination of natural wastage and voluntary early retirement. I am trying to balance all the issues that my hon. Friend has rightly raised, but I want to be clear about an extremely important point that she has referred to. I must emphasise that when there is face-to-face contact with taxpayers through inquiry centres, those centres will stay. They are protected, so public inquiry facilities will stay, regardless of other considerations. I shall give an example, which is not the case in Chesterfield,
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of a recent inquiry centre in a building on which the lease came to an end and from which the landlord required us to leave. The department then found another location in the same town to replace the service like for like. There is absolutely no question of taxpayers losing the access that they now have to contact with the department.

The decisions are difficult, and the work that my hon. Friend has undertaken, and the assiduous way in which she put the case and gave the pros and cons of the debate, is an example to other MPs of how actively she has pursued it. She is offering a solution, but I cannot comment on whether that solution is necessary. I certainly cannot reply to her today, because I am sure that she would expect me properly to reflect on all the points that have been made in all the contributions to the consultation.

I feel a little torn. My hon. Friend has made a powerful case, but it may not need to be made. We shall see, but I want to make it absolutely clear that I have not made a decision.

Natascha Engel: I was merely trying to highlight some of the concerns about smaller, rural offices. As a representative of a rural constituency, I feel that the issues for people who live in rural areas and work in smaller towns are often overlooked, because those who live in the big cities shout louder.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): The hon. Lady has managed very well in her speech.

Dawn Primarolo: My hon. Friend has shouted very loudly, and I compliment her on her presentation today. Her point is important.

We want the outcome to be the best possible network for the department’s offices, which does not mean that a decision has already been taken to concentrate all the work in the larger urban areas. For all my hon. Friend’s points, the matter depends on opportunities in the local labour market. I am not saying that this is the case in Chesterfield, but if a rural office is small and the local labour market is not very buoyant, the proportionate effect of the department not having that smaller office is greater. Those are difficult issues, which I am trying to weigh up.

I congratulate my hon. Friend not only on securing this debate so close to the Budget—I am not about to give any highlights—but on the fantastic amount of work that she has done on behalf of her constituents, and the tenacious way in which she continues to pursue the matter. I do not want to discourage her from continuing to pursue it, because it is important, and I hope to reflect on all the points that she has rightly raised.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): I hope that the Paymaster General has a more relaxing afternoon. I am sure that she does not have a lot on!

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