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Post Office

6.9 pm

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to present a petition entitled “Protect Our Post Offices”, which has been signed by large numbers of my constituents in Banbury, Bicester and surrounding villages, who are concerned about the future of the post offices. The petition

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To lie upon the Table.

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Secondary Education (Isle of Sheppey)

6.12 pm

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): It is some relief to me to present my petition this evening, as I am 24 hours late. I thank the Speaker’s Office for being so generous last evening. The petition is about the state of secondary education on the Isle of Sheppey. I wish that I could say that it has been run smartly and professionally, but it has been an absolute rag-bag and a shame. It has distressed and upset all the people on the island, and I have collected hundreds of signatures about the situation that has resulted. The petition of the citizens of the Isle of Sheppey

To lie upon the Table.

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HMRC Offices (Keighley)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

6.13 pm

Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): The time is long gone when the prospect of consultation offered the chance to share and exchange views constructively on a level playing field, in the hope that a balanced conclusion could be reached that would take account of the concerns and needs of the interested parties. More recently, consultation has evolved into an exercise to seek to explain, and prepare the ground to implement, a decision that has already been taken. In fact, of late, consultation has frequently—but not always—come to mean rationalisation. It is not surprising, therefore, that many people are becoming disconnected from the political system, if they feel that when asked for their views, those views play second fiddle to a fait accompli that is usually handed down from on high. There can be no better example than the consultation or rationalisation surrounding Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs local offices.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) has already raised her concerns in the House regarding the plight of HMRC offices in Chesterfield. In reply to those concerns, my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General pointed out that

I also take on board my right hon. Friend’s argument that

Although I take all that on board and would never wish to be part of a political nimby brigade, the Government need to be aware of the impact that centralised decisions will have in constituencies such as mine, Keighley, and North-East Derbyshire. What may be good for London is not necessarily suitable for many northern towns and cities. Indeed, I am often left with the impression that some bright, young London-based civil servant is given the task of geographically rationalising a particular problem, with little appreciation of the realities of the situation outside the capital, let alone a detailed knowledge of the area under review.

HMRC’s presence in Keighley, as in other towns around Bradford, is under threat.

Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): I am concerned that we hear a lot of talk about re-engaging with local communities, but then actions such as my hon. Friend describes are taken, which are the reverse of that. I am sure my hon. Friend agrees that it is an unnecessary move that is not in the best interest of Halifax and Keighley or of the staff who work in those offices.

Mrs. Cryer: May I say how pleasant it is to have my hon. Friend back with us this evening? Of course I agree with her comments.

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The proposed centralisation of services away from the centre of a town like Keighley or Halifax to a city, Bradford, some 12 miles away has a number of effects. First, any exodus of services threatens to undermine the identity of the town. Secondly, a diminution of services damages the pull factor of that town to attract new, wealth-creating business to the area. Thirdly, that in turn can damage the future regeneration and development prospects of the town, thus moving it ever closer to becoming a suburb or a dormitory of Leeds or Bradford. I absolutely hate that concept.

Fourthly, on a personal level, the centralisation of services inconveniences many people, especially those whom the office is designed to serve. Although I accept that new technology means that the public can make contact via a number of routes, the need for face to face contact will always be of paramount importance. Fifthly, of the 35 employees in the Keighley office, 78 per cent. are female, 49 per cent. are part-time and 14 per cent. are disabled. One of the great achievements of the Government has been their ability to encourage women, often single women with children, to work.

A process of centralised rationalisation would serve to undermine the core and motivation of that work force. For women who are already juggling the conflicting roles of work and being a mother, increased—in some cases significantly increased—journey times to work would serve only to make the prospect of work no longer attractive or even viable. What the Exchequer gains on the one hand in the short term is lost on the other through lost revenue and increased reliance on benefits.

Sixthly, in a semi-rural constituency such as Keighley, further centralisation to Bradford could mean significantly difficult journeys for both staff and customers. The inconvenience would be compounded by the environmental damage as commuting rush-hour traffic was exacerbated, and the already creaking road infrastructure of my constituency would be pushed beyond its limits. Peak-time commuter trains are already packed to overcapacity on the Airedale and Wharfedale lines.

The fact that those on lowest incomes become the casualties of rationalisation is perhaps the most worrying feature of the proposed exercise. Short-term decisions, purely based on a crude economies of scale argument, to cut a slice from the bottom appear to be a case of sticking-plaster politics. In Keighley—I do not believe that my constituency is very different from many other northern towns and cities—I am increasingly concerned by a lack of strategic planning and thinking. The waste of public money, on a much grander scale than the proposed savings of HMRC, appears to go unchallenged. Without a doubt, much of the responsibility for this lies with the politically, intellectually and financially bankrupt Conservative council in Bradford city hall. However, there is an increasing tendency for public offices and services to work only within their own silos, with little reference to each other or the community beyond.

Keighley has, since the still unpopular removal of its non-county borough council status and its swallowing up by Bradford metropolitan district council in 1974 due to Tory reorganisation in 1972, also witnessed the departure of its magistrates court, West Yorkshire police from the town centre and processing elements of the Department for Work and Pensions, and as a result
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there are vacant publicly owned properties. Changes in the provision of legal aid could see my constituency become a legal aid desert. That argument goes on and I hope that those changes are halted for my constituency.

Rather than tinkering with the edges of efficiency—the easy hit of rationalising the jobs of those on the lowest income—a more creative, thoughtful and strategic approach across the whole of Government and council departments would be far more productive. Decisions being made in isolation to meet the short-term needs of any particular public organisation will have long-term repercussions for the make-up and future of towns such as Keighley. If there is excess capacity in HMRC, or in any Government Department, how can it be employed better in that area to serve the town? Can there be horizontal rationalisation rather than a simple vertical rationalisation approach.

I wholeheartedly support the Government’s attempts to ensure that services are provided effectively, but unless we shift our horizons from a pure isolationist and silo-driven analysis to a broader and more strategic view that takes into consideration the repercussions of decisions at the micro-level, we may well be prejudicing the very efficiency that we seek while at the same time alienating the people who most require our assistance.

I trust that this contribution to the debate on Government office closures will encourage a more imaginative solution, thus retaining the skills and experience of an exceptionally loyal work force.

6.22 pm

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) on securing the debate. I am also very glad to see my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Riordan) back in her place and with us again in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley has made her views and concerns clear, not just in tonight’s debate, but consistently throughout the process. She has been involved in and concerned about this issue from the very start of the process, before last Christmas. She has written to my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General several times. She has taken advantage of the offer of briefing sessions that HMRC has organised for Members of Parliament who are concerned about potential changes and the review process in their area, and our debate this evening is the latest in a series of opportunities that she has rightly taken to express the concerns of her constituents and of staff who have approached her about this process.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley about two things. First, the senior management at HMRC and the board have not announced a decision to close the Keighley office. They have announced and set out proposals for change that could affect Keighley but are part of a much wider look at the provision and future of services provided by HMRC in Keighley and some of the areas around Keighley, including Shipley, Leeds and Bradford. It is in that broader review that the final decision about posts and the operations at the Keighley office will be taken.

The second thing that I want to say to both my hon. Friends, who are concerned about the situation in Halifax and in Keighley, is that this is a serious consultation. My hon. Friend the Member for Keighley
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was right to say that when people are invited to offer views as part of a consultation, they expect, and have the right to expect, those views to be taken seriously. Consultation is clearly different from decision making, and sometimes the decisions taken will not accord with the views offered during the consultation. In such circumstances, people who have contributed their views have a right to an explanation as well as an outline of any decisions taken. That is part and parcel of the important process of information, consultation and decision making. In the end, somebody has to take decisions, which are often, as may be the case with this review, difficult decisions that have to balance several competing interests and will not necessarily be welcomed by all those who have an interest in the process.

I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley that this is a serious and genuine consultation. As she knows, we are conducting the reviews at different stages in several regions around the country. The one that led the way, which we have completed, was in central London. As a result of the consultation process that we conducted, and as an integral part of the decision-making process, the original proposals were significantly changed. My hon. Friend has put a great deal of effort into the consultation and review process. I assure her that when my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General and I come to examine this and take the final decisions, the views that she has registered will be taken into account.

We have tried, in the spirit that my hon. Friend suggests is essential in such public policy and public service decision making, to set up a systematic process of review, consultation, point of decision, information about and publication of that decision, and then any implementation of the consequences that arise. At the outset, back in November, before we embarked on these reviews anywhere in the country, HMRC ensured that all staff potentially affected, and all members of this House with constituencies potentially affected, were given the information about the systematic process that we set up. I will return to that in relation to the particular concerns about Keighley.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for recognising the essential challenge that we face with HMRC: as a result, largely, of the recent merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise, HMRC has more office accommodation than it needs, and far more than it will need in future. That is a problem. Taxpayers rightly expect any Government Department, and any Minister responsible for any Government Department, to use taxpayers’ money to support such services as efficiently as possible. Although the situation varies from region to region, HMRC reckons that it probably has about 40 per cent. more office space than it needs for the future. We have to undergo a process that allows us to address that more effectively.

It is inevitable that we have to consider questions about the nature and location of the functions in order to deliver the best service and to provide the service with the best value for money that we can explain to the taxpayer, because in the longer term the way in which taxpayers, businesses and individuals deal with HMRC is changing. Increasingly, taxpayers file their tax returns or claim credits to which they are entitled online. They also increasingly deal with HMRC by telephone. In those circumstances, our method of delivering the service and its implications will change.
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Any long-term decisions that we try to make as part of the review process about our location and office accommodation must take those factors into account.

It is important to try to bear in mind the fact that the board’s principal focus of attention and concern is reducing its use of office accommodation, concentrating on back-office functions, not the public inquiry facilities for which, as my hon. Friend said, face-to-face contact is paramount. One commitment was given at the outset: public inquiry centres will be maintained. Whatever decisions are made about other operations, functions and posts that may be co-located with those public inquiry centres, the inquiry centres will remain as they are now. If, for example, a lease cannot be renewed, the board of HMRC senior managers will ensure that the function is located in a facility that is as close as possible to the current inquiry centre. That will be the case in Keighley, should it be decided to move other functions from the Keighley office.

As I explained, we have not announced a decision to close the office in Keighley. In January, HMRC senior managers announced proposals, in which reorganising some of the functions currently undertaken in Keighley formed part of a bigger set of changes in the west Yorkshire area. The current consultation is being conducted on those proposals.

I mentioned the commitment to maintain all public inquiry centres. Other commitments include not moving staff compulsorily from an office before the completion of that office’s review. Staff will not be required to move to an office beyond reasonable daily travelling distance. We will consider that carefully. Until September 2007, we have a no compulsory redundancies agreement with the trade unions. All those factors are important.

The proposals that were published in January for a different way in which to use the offices in west Yorkshire mean that consultation has been invited and conducted with staff, the HMRC trade unions, Members of Parliament and other interested groups. That consultation ran till mid March. A summary of the responses was published for staff on 23 April. I hope that my hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax got a copy.

It is clear from the summary that the concerns of staff in Keighley were similar to those that my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley expressed. The majority focused on the difficulties that staff felt that they would face as a result of travelling to another, more distant office. Following further work that is being conducted to check the feasibility of proposals and options, I expect—if the Paymaster General is back in place, she will expect it—to receive the recommendations that flow from the review, including the results of the consultation, for ministerial consideration and decision shortly. Let me say again that final decisions have not been made on the future of the Keighley office. All the information provided will be taken into account either by myself or by my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, and the particular comments raised by my hon. Friend this evening will be taken very seriously indeed.

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